By Mike Lillis - 03/17/12 05:46 PM EDT
A leading House Democrat on immigration issues is hammering the Obama administration this week over its efforts to deport an undocumented family man in South Carolina.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) says the administration's expulsion proceedings against Gabino Sanchez — a married father of two who's been living and working in the U.S. for 13 years — defy the president's stated policy of targeting illegal immigrants who have felonious pasts or otherwise pose a community threat.
Gutierrez says those violations don't justify the push by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to separate Sanchez from his wife and kids, both of whom are U.S. citizens. The Illinois Democrat is hoping to highlight Sanchez's story as a test case for molding Obama's immigration rules nationwide.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that the policy the president articulated and the policy being carried out in courtrooms, detention centers and immigrant neighborhoods are two different things," Gutierrez said this week after attending a court hearing on Sanchez's case in Charlotte, N.C. "Simply put, Gabino Sanchez is not a criminal so the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should move on to the next case by closing this one."
The debate arrives as both parties are scrambling to woo Latino voters ahead of November's high-stakes elections. Roughly 9.7 million Latinos voted in the 2008 elections, and about 12.2 million are expected to turn out this year—a jump of almost 25 percent.
Obama’s campaign sees Latino voters as a key demographic for the president. He won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and Democrats hope Obama could retain or even grow that percentage if his Republican opponent is Mitt Romney.
Guttierrez and other supporters of legislation that would give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, however, haven’t been happy with the Obama administration’s policies.
Obama has supported comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which would give a path to citizenship for children brought into the U.S. as illegal immigrations.
But neither has passed under his administration, and Obama has been criticized for not making a stronger effort to move comprehensive immigration reform. Meanwhile, he's alienated many Latinos by deporting illegals at record-high numbers.
In a move to appeal to those critics, the DHS in August adopted new rules allowing many non-violent illegal immigrants to remain in the country and apply for work permits. Instead of blanket deportations, agency officials are reviewing individuals on a case-by-case basis, pursuing violent criminals and other threatening cases while closing the books on those deemed unthreatening.
Gutierrez says Sanchez fits the latter category, noting that his traffic infractions include no serious offenses – like speeding, running red lights or driving intoxicated — and suggesting the South Carolina authorities have targeted Sanchez because he's Hispanic.
"The federal government should not be complicit in breaking up the Sanchez family or removing a father from his children simply because he is unlucky enough to live in rural South Carolina where racial profiling is the norm," Gutierrez said.
The Obama administration is defending its decision to pursue the Sanchez case, saying its "common sense policies" ensure the enhancement of "public safety, border security and the integrity of the immigration system."
"As part of this approach, ICE has adopted clear priorities that call for the agency's enforcement resources to be focused on the identification and removal of those that have broken criminal laws, recently crossed our border, repeatedly violated immigration law or are fugitives from immigration court," ICE said in a statement.
Sanchez is scheduled to appear in court again on May 15. Gutierrez, for his part, says he'll be there.