In Amnesty or Crackdown, Obama Can't Win on Immigration

Chicago officials announced last week a proposal to bar local authorities from giving up to federal agents illegal immigrants without serious criminal records. It is the latest defiance of the Obama administration; but this time, the challenge comes from several Democratic allies, and it exposes a divisive immigration debate that embroils both sides of the fence.

As the face behind Chicago's proposed ordinance, Mayor Rahm Emanuel represents a double-edged sword. During his tenure as Obama's White House chief of staff, critics blasted Emanuel, who called immigration reform the "third rail" of politics. Now, as the city's mayor, it seems he has taken a stance, and it's not one that's complementary to his former boss.

The issue at hand is Secure Communities, a federal program that requires state and local authorities to share fingerprint information of booked individuals with federal immigration officials. The program, which began under the George W. Bush administration, has been expanded to nearly 97 percent of all jurisdictions since Obama took office.

Most jurisdictions that have objected to the program say that it financially taxes their already strained resources, unfairly targets immigrants, and would lead to racial and ethnic profiling. Several cities have passed legislation preventing local authorities from questioning residents about immigration status or limiting who the city can send to federal authorities.

In doing so, local governments are flying in opposition to Obama, who has been criticized by detractors for targeting tough anti-immigration policies but opting to ignore directives by state and local governments refusing to comply with Secure Communities.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton intends, however, to change that, and he has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to take action against Cook County, Ill., which passed an ordinance last September that stopped local authorities from detaining illegal immigrants for federal authorities. Cook County encompasses Chicago and several surrounding suburbs.

Other places, including the District of Columbia, New York, and California, have attempted to pass legislation that allowed them to opt out of the program or at least limit their cooperation with federal authorities.

The latest move by federal authorities puts Obama in an even tougher spot, who is seen by critics as either promoting unfair treatment of immigrants or providing too much amnesty to them.

This is, after all, the same administration that has been behind the legal battle over Arizona's tough immigration policies and the executive order halting the deportation of illegal immigration youths.

Granted, caveats create complexities in each issue. But individual states have found ways to push back.

The Justice Department sued Arizona in 2010 on the grounds that the state's policies infringed on federal immigration enforcement jurisdiction. The Supreme Court largely agreed in its opinion issued in June, with the exception that the state was indeed allowed to detain residents and check with federal authorities on their legal status. This doesn't, however, end the immigration fight, because states such as Georgia and Alabama have introduced similar bills that also are challenged by the government.

Obama's executive order, on the other hand, applies to young illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and have no criminal records, among other requirements. It gives them a two-year deferral--which they must continuously renew--and makes them eligible to apply for work visas. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has since threatened to file a lawsuit against the administration.

In 2009, Morton hailed Secure Communities as a program that would become the "future of immigration enforcement," making it easier to identify and remove the most-dangerous criminals.

With so much pushback, however, it remains to be seen whether Obama will be able to find the magical formula for the immigration reform that he promised for his first term.