The fence along the Southwest border in Arizona.

The fence along the Southwest border in Arizona. Donna Burton/CBP file photo

Obama Sends Mixed Message With Immigration Raids

Everyone is left with a different impression of what the president is trying to do.

Fed­er­al agents took 121 un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants in­to cus­tody in a series of raids this week­end in Geor­gia, Texas, and North Car­o­lina, send­ing a com­plic­ated mes­sage to those on both sides of the is­sue—and re­veal­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s del­ic­ate dance on im­mig­ra­tion.

The raids, ac­cord­ing to Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment Sec­ret­ary Jeh John­son, tar­geted fam­il­ies who had come to the U.S. in the past year and a half. “Our bor­ders are not open to il­leg­al mi­gra­tion,” John­son said in a state­ment Monday. And he prom­ised that they would con­tin­ue “as ap­pro­pri­ate.”

The ac­tion is de­cis­ive, yet small-scale—of the 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants in the coun­try, .001 per­cent were taken in­to cus­tody. And it was re­l­at­ively quiet: Word first leaked in a Wash­ing­ton Post re­port in late Decem­ber—just be­fore Christ­mas—that they were be­ing planned, and they largely went un­der the radar. The size and tim­ing of the raids yiel­ded little con­sensus on what mes­sage Pres­id­ent Obama hopes to send with his ac­tions.

Pro-im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates take the tim­ing to mean that Obama is dodging pub­li­city, per­haps try­ing to min­im­ize the in­ev­it­able back­lash from fel­low Demo­crats and oth­er act­iv­ists. (Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial front-run­ner Hil­lary Clin­ton, for ex­ample, has “real con­cerns” about the raids, her cam­paign said.)

Anti-il­leg­al-im­mig­ra­tion groups, on the oth­er hand, con­tend the pres­id­ent wants to prove his mettle on en­for­cing im­mig­ra­tion law, but aren’t con­vinced that there’s any real sub­stance to the ac­tions. And some are simply con­fused as to what he’s do­ing en­tirely.

Obama has long spoken to the vir­tues of im­mig­ra­tion. In a strident de­fense of im­mig­rants last month, he im­pli­citly re­buked xeno­phobic rhet­or­ic from Don­ald Trump, ur­ging Amer­ic­ans not to re­peat the coun­try’s his­tory of pre­ju­dice.

“The pres­id­ent has re­mained pretty con­sist­ent that our spir­it as a na­tion, that we’ve al­ways been a na­tion of im­mig­rants, and that to be Amer­ic­an is to em­brace all of the dreams and the pas­sion that im­mig­rants bring,” says Ry­an Eller, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of pro-im­mig­rant group Define Amer­ic­an.

That’s why the DHS raids—which Eller called “shock­ing, im­mor­al, and short­sighted”—have been so mys­ti­fy­ing to him.

“If you wait to an­nounce something pub­licly, or at least it doesn’t get un­covered un­til Christ­mas Eve, then it’s prob­ably something that you’re not try­ing to talk a lot about in pub­lic,” Eller says. “It’s really baff­ling to me, to be hon­est.”

Mean­while, those who ad­voc­ate for tough­er im­mig­ra­tion policy see the ex­act op­pos­ite: Rather than something the ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to hide, it’s en­tirely for show. Ira Mehl­man, a spokes­man for the Fed­er­a­tion for Amer­ic­an Im­mig­ra­tion Re­form, says the raids are aimed at try­ing “to con­vince the Amer­ic­an pub­lic that they’re do­ing something that they’re not really do­ing.”

Mehl­man calls it a “ka­buki dance” between pro- and anti-im­mig­ra­tion act­iv­ists. “I think it was an­nounced in or­der to gen­er­ate some kind of re­sponse from the ad­voc­ates for the il­leg­al ali­ens to provide the pres­id­ent with cov­er for do­ing the ab­so­lute min­im­um when it comes to en­force­ment.”

Yet an­oth­er the­ory, from Define Amer­ic­an’s Eller, is that the raids could give Obama a found­a­tion to up­hold his con­tro­ver­sial ex­ec­ut­ive or­der grant­ing am­nesty to 5 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants should it go be­fore the Su­preme Court. DHS’s de­port­a­tion pri­or­it­ies, as laid out in a Novem­ber 2014 memo, in­clude those who came to the U.S. after Jan. 1, 2014, and the raids are, in part, tar­get­ing those in­di­vidu­als. Eller spec­u­lates that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is “play­ing polit­ics” to prove that it’s en­for­cing those pri­or­it­ies—and there­fore have a bet­ter shot at up­hold­ing the rest of his or­der.

The White House hasn’t giv­en much clar­ity on its mes­sage. Press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est told re­port­ers Monday that al­though the ad­min­is­tra­tion is “quite ser­i­ous when it comes to en­for­cing our im­mig­ra­tion laws,” the de­port­a­tion pri­or­it­ies are fo­cused on “felons, not fam­il­ies,” along with those who re­cently crossed the bor­der. While the lat­ter have been the tar­get of the raids, so too have fam­il­ies.

That di­ver­gence has left even some al­lies of the pres­id­ent con­fused as to what mes­sage he’s try­ing to send. An­gela Kel­ley, an im­mig­ra­tion ex­pert at the lib­er­al Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, says it’s con­found­ing. Con­trary to the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, raids aren’t a tac­tic that Obama has much em­ployed.

“It’s a head-scratch­er,” Kel­ley says. “All of the sud­den, the no­tion that this ad­min­is­tra­tion is knock­ing on doors early in the morn­ing and rous­ing wo­men and kids out of beds is not the dir­ec­tion that we had seen it go­ing for so many years.”