President Obama's attempt to "soften" U.S. immigration enforcement - in what has been widely viewed as an election-year appeal to Hispanic voters - has so far produced mixed results on both practical and political fronts, according to a new Syracuse University report and anecdotal accounts from immigrant advocates.
In the last three months of 2011, following an administration decision to curtail deportations of illegal immigrants without criminal records and review all existing cases, the number of new deportations has dropped significantly.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiated just 39,331 deportation cases in October, November and December combined, compared with 58,639 in the three months before. That's a 33 percent decline, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. The White House announced the policy change in August.
"Filings are typically lower at this time of year, but even adjusting for this seasonal drop-off and for late reporting, there appear to have been over 10,000 fewer deportation filings than would have been expected last quarter," TRAC says, attributing the decline in part to the administration's policy shift.
At the same time, researchers found "little evidence" that immigrants with criminal records are making up a higher overall proportion of those deported.
"People have heard about these policy changes but largely haven't seen any difference," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a progressive immigrant advocacy group.
Under the Obama administration, deportations have reached record levels, averaging 400,000 per year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That's double the annual average during President George W. Bush's first term and 30 percent higher than the average when he left office.
Obama, who has not fulfilled a promise to enact a plan to address the status of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, now says he's doing everything he can independent of Congress to achieve a more humane and fair system.
"What we've been able to do is, administratively, we've said - let's reemphasize our focus when it comes to enforcement on criminals and at the borders, and let's not be focusing our attention on hard-working families who are just trying to make ends meet," Obama said in an interview with Univision this week. " We've administratively proposed to reform the 'three and 10' program so that families aren't separated when they're applying to stay here in this country."
(In January, officials changed green card application rules to allow illegal immigrant spouses and children of U.S. citizens to avoid lengthy three-to-10 year waits outside of the country before receiving a visa.)
"So we're trying to do a lot to soften the effects of immigration," he said.
The case Obama is making may ultimately help him with Hispanic voters in November, Sharry said, but it so far hasn't entirely lessened activists' disappointment with the president.
"Latino immigrant voters know that the Alabama and Arizona laws didn't come about from Democrats. They're aware the Obama administration is fighting those laws. They know that Republicans blocked the DREAM Act. They know that Mitt Romney is talking about massive self-deportation," Sharry said.
"And they're angry and disappointed that the Obama administration promised a legislative breakthrough, didn't deliver it, but has delivered on record deportations."