In 2008, Mr. Obama won the majority of Hispanic support. But with the increase in felony prosecutions, he now appears to be appeasing America's "law and order" impulses. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who as a GOP presidential candidate has defended in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, has come across as a critic of "heartless" laws and policies aimed at Hispanic immigrants.
"When people think about border enforcement and immigration, they don't always think about people," says Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law, as well as a noted immigration law expert. "That's why President [George W.] Bush and Governor Perry had a better understanding of immigration, because they saw that there were people and families involved ... and that it's inhumane and unfair to treat people as if they're not human."
Still, the Obama administration has not launched an indiscriminate crackdown. In a controversial decision this summer, ICE Director John Morton urged agents and US attorneys to end prosecutions against nonfelony immigration scofflaws, including students who may have come to the country as infants and older Hispanics who have been in the US for many years. ICE is balancing that approach with stepped-up prosecutions for repeat border jumpers and convicted felons.
"Smart and effective immigration enforcement relies on setting priorities for removal and executing on those priorities," Mr. Morton said in an Oct. 17 statement, adding that the administration's new discretionary policy is working. "These year-end totals indicate that we are making progress, with more convicted criminals, recent border crossers, egregious immigration law violators, and immigration fugitives being removed from the country than ever before."
Supporters of ICE crackdowns and tougher laws say the costs of illegal immigrants outweigh the benefits, especially given the group's perceived ties to border crime and drug trafficking.
The trend of locking up Mexicans and taking other measures against them is part of a bigger societal warning: Get legal or get out. Indeed, scaring illegal immigrants away or putting them in jail is "the intended consequence of Alabama's legislation," US Rep. Mo Brooks (R) of Alabama said recently.
Yet the larger Hispanic community has felt the impact. Some immigrants, both legal and illegal, have gone from protesting in the streets five years ago to living in fear in places like Alabama.
"When you look at all these problems – poverty, unemployment, number of immigrants going to prison or being deported – through the lens of each individual, you get one story," says Patricia Foxen, associate director of research at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization based in Washington. "But when you add it all together, it's absolutely huge."
Collinsville, a small town on the ridge of Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama, offers a close-up view. Hispanics, and especially their children, have become part of this community's fabric, working in poultry plants and in tomato and sweet-potato fields. Half the stores in the one-block downtown are Hispanic-owned. But after the Alabama immigration law expanded police powers, many have left and others are holed up in their homes. Even those here legally feel unwelcome.