Obama's Record-High Deportations Draw Hispanic Scorn

The record-setting deportation of illegal immigrants under President Obama has drawn scorn from Hispanic Americans, despite recent administration efforts to temper the policy, according to a new Pew Hispanic Center study.

Fifty-nine percent of Latinos said they disapprove of the president's approach to removing illegal immigrants, more than double the number who said they approved in Pew's nationwide survey.

Among Latino registered voters, the sentiment was nearly as strong, with 52 percent disapproving of the Obama administration's handling of deportations.

Since 2009, the annual average number of deportations has approached 400,000, 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.

Meanwhile, the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States has hit a decade low because of the down economy and stepped-up enforcement efforts.

The dynamic has drawn protests from immigrant rights advocates and some Obama supporters, particularly Hispanics, who make up 80 percent of the nation's illegal immigrant population and 97 percent of deportees last year.  Hispanics are also a key constituency for Obama's re-election campaign.

The Pew study found ample confusion among Latinos about the administration's policy both in terms of the increase in deportations since Obama took office and the recent implementation of greater prosecutorial discretion in non-criminal cases.

Forty-one percent of Latinos say they're aware of the heightened deportations, 36 percent thought the numbers have been comparable to those under Bush, and 10 percent said they thought deportations had declined.

Pew did not explicitly measure attitudes toward Obama's more "humane" approach to deportations announced in August, but experts say the relatively high disapproval of administration policy suggests that change is still not widely known.

Under the new approach, the Department of Homeland Security will review all 300,000 pending deportation cases and grant reprieves on a case-by-case basis to individuals who do not have criminal convictions. Only about 15,000 cases have been reviewed so far, officials say.

Meanwhile, the administration has instructed Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers to help filter out nonpriority deportation cases from flooding the already-congested immigration court system. Removal orders involving veterans, parents of U.S. citizen children, students and the elderly are increasingly being dropped.

Administration officials say the revised approach should alleviate concerns within the Hispanic community about Obama's deportation policy and caution it will take time to implement. They also say leniency can only go so far under existing law.

"President Obama has been forceful about the need to fix the broken immigration system comprehensively so that it meets America's economic and security needs, but he cannot change the laws by himself," White House spokesman Luis Miranda said.

"This Administration has made dramatic improvements by developing clear immigration enforcement priorities for the first time ever that include focusing on those with criminal records, a smarter approach from a law enforcement perspective that also better reflects our nation's values."

But whether Hispanic Americans will see and understand Obama's policy changes - and approve - remains to be seen, Pew Hispanic Center associate director Mark Hugo Lopez said.

"We will continue to publish reports about how many unauthorized immigrants are in this country and likely will be asking in our next survey about the issue of immigration generally," he said.

"We didn't get into the prosecutorial discretion issue in this poll, we just asked more generally about how the Obama administration is handling deportations, and 59 percent of Latinos said they disapprove."