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Navarrette: Obama’s mixed-up immigration mess

What a mishmash the Obama administration has made of its position on immigration reform.

The president recently promised the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that he’d tackle immigration reform this year and argued that legalizing the undocumented improves the economic power of all workers.

But more recently, Vice President Joe Biden told a group of Central American leaders that the economic crisis makes this a bad time to push the subject.

“It’s difficult to tell a constituency – while unemployment is rising, they’re losing their jobs and their homes – that what we should do is in fact legalize (illegal immigrants) and stop all deportation,” he said.

Obama and Biden should get their stories straight. Then again, there is similar confusion at the Department of Homeland Security, the agency charged with protecting the nation’s borders.

On the one hand, Homeland Security officials recently told The Washington Post that Secretary Janet Napolitano has put the brakes on a series of planned immigration raids pending a department review of the policy.

The officials said that in the event the raids resume, Napolitano has asked agents to be more careful in selecting targets and more conscious of the timing of these sweeps.

One senior official said the temporary freeze signaled what will be a formal change in policy: ICE agents will be encouraged to crack down on employers and businesses instead of simply arresting low-level workers.

It is likely that this is all coming from the fallout over the administration’s first worksite raid in Bellingham, Wash., several weeks ago. Activists called the action inconsistent with Obama’s condemnation of such operations during the campaign. But, in truth, it was compatible with what Obama has said at other times about upholding the law.

Grass-roots immigrant activists may not be satisfied with this moratorium on raids. They tell me that they assume more raids are coming. In fact, they’re already planning a new round of immigrant-rights marches for May 1 to protest the Obama administration’s immigration policies.

Yet some in Congress fear that Napolitano’s temporary freeze could become permanent and the raids will be discontinued. They defend these sweeps as an essential tool for preserving jobs for Americans in the midst of a recession.

Talk about being out of touch. Members of Congress are kidding themselves if they think that most Americans – recession or no recession – are going to be fighting immigrants over the chance to scrape the bottom of the barrel by doing jobs that are dirty, dangerous or demeaning.

Meanwhile, Mexican officials in the country’s border states are alarmed that, as a result of the raids and other enforcement measures, many of their people have already been deported from the United States.

Recently, Mexican officials at the local and state levels have begun complaining to their American counterparts that they don’t have the infrastructure or jobs to accommodate the immigrants who are returning.

How pathetic. Mexico is never going to be a player on the world stage as long as it treats its own people as a threat to the nation’s economy instead of what they are: an economic engine.

Congress needs to give Napolitano time to work out a strategy on the raids. Scrutinizing employers is an important step in the right direction. This is one of the things that anger the immigration activists: Workers are scapegoats while their bosses get away scot-free. Everyone needs to be held accountable.

For now, there’s tremendous confusion about what is going to happen, and whether workplace raids will emerge as an important part of the Obama immigration policy.

I think they will be in the mix. Otherwise, why would Napolitano go to the trouble of developing a new policy if she didn’t plan to implement it? And, if the raids do start up again, you can bet that it won’t just be employers who are targeted. Illegal workers will once again be hauled off by the busload.

I’m fine with that. But civil libertarians and immigration activists won’t be. Neither will many in the Latino community, which threw two-thirds of its support to Obama in 2008.

It won’t soften the blow that employers also are being held accountable. People still will be deported, and families still will be torn apart. That’s what really has the activists up in arms.

And if it all happens again under the Obama administration, the president’s honeymoon with Latinos will be over.

I’m also fine with that.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

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