Obama's PR Offensive on Immigration

Armed with evidence that federal authorities are deporting more illegal immigrants than ever under its watch, the Obama administration is stepping up its messaging on the immigration issue. John Morton, director of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, has made a slew of public appearances of late as he tries to hammer home the idea that the administration is getting tough, namely by sending more immigrants packing. The most recent stump was in Arizona.

The numbers appear to support that narrative: ICE says it deported 380,000 people during the year that ended June 30, about one-third of whom are convicted criminals. Both of those numbers are the highest on record, Morton has said.

Morton also makes the case that his agency is doing its best with limited resources. ICE has focused especially on deporting criminal offenders, expanding a program that helps local law enforcement check the immigration status of accused criminals in jurisdictions in 27 states, including all the counties along the Mexican border. The strategy is "tough but rational" enforcement, Morton says.

That message puts those who would criticize the administration's strategy in the awkward position of suggesting that deporting droves of criminal offenders is a bad thing. But that's just what crusaders against illegal immigration are claiming - accusing ICE of picking and choosing when it will enforce federal immigration law.

The logic goes like this: deporting criminals who haven't come to the U.S. legally is the right thing to do, but focusing too much on criminals might give other undocumented immigrants more courage to stay, as long as they feel they can avoid being arrested. Targeting employers with audits of their work force – another priority for Obama's ICE – is great, but once an employer gets caught, what's stopping his employees from getting another job down the street? "It becomes a game of musical chairs," Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "The administration has made it clear that they're simply not going to do other sorts of enforcement." Morton says his agency has limited resources and has to set such priorities.

Of course, the administration's strategy is not to convert anti-illegal immigration crusaders, but to build a reputation with moderate voters on immigration enforcement in the face of criticism about the Justice Department's challenge of Arizona's new immigration law. At its core, that statute was an attempt to buttress lax federal enforcement. The surging popularity of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the law, coupled with a wave of campaign ads invoking the issue, suggests that immigration, perennially a secondary matter in general elections, may be a core issue for more voters than usual this year. With Morton's public relations tour, the administration offers Congressional Democrats fodder to change the debate.