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Jessica Colotl is a gainfully employed college graduate, a fresh-faced young woman working as a legal assistant at an Atlanta law firm. She’s also a symbol of a sharp dispute between President Obama and a group of his now-wavering allies — Latino voters who detest his deportation policy.

Colotl, whose parents brought her to the United States illegally when she was 11 years old, was threatened with deportation in 2010. Then a student at an Atlanta area college, she was arrested for driving without a license after an on-campus traffic stop and sent to an Alabama detention center for the undocumented. Her deportation was halted only after supporters, including the president of the university she attended, intervened.

Her case shows how wrongheaded Obama’s deportation policy can be. While the president insists that his administration has focused on repatriating dangerous criminals, its net often sweeps up ordinary folks guilty of only minor infractions. (Many Americans seem confused about the seriousness of illegal border-crossing. For first-time offenders, it’s a misdemeanor, not a felony.) Obama’s policy is a travesty, not just harmful to the hardworking immigrants caught in its web but also detrimental to the country.

“There is no doubt that we have never seen the levels of deportations we’re seeing today, and we’ve never seen the type of people being deported,” said Atlanta immigration attorney Charles Kuck, Colotl’s employer. “It’s destroying families. … At the same time, they’re doing a terrible job of deporting people who should be deported.”

While the president has worked hard to get a reluctant Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, many immigration advocates say they’d rather see Obama relax his draconian deportation policies. Under his administration, two million people have already been deported, well above the pace set by his predecessor, President Bush, who took eight full years to deport two million.

Furthermore, about two-thirds of those who have been expelled had only minor infractions, such as traffic tickets, or had no criminal record at all, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Only about 20 percent were convicted of serious crimes, the Times said.

To be fair to Obama, deportations began to rise sharply during the final years of the Bush administration, after his effort to cajole his party into passing comprehensive immigration reform — with a path to citizenship for undocumented workers — failed miserably. Instead, Congress increased funds for border security, and that had the desired effect: More people were deported.

But Obama campaigned against that approach, winning the overwhelming support of Latino voters. Once in office, though, he did little to tamp down the deportation machinery; instead, he expanded Bush’s dragnet. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made 400,000 annual deportations an explicit goal, and it saw few distinctions in the infractions or crimes that would lead to expulsion.

Obama’s tough deportation policy may well be the result of his political miscalculations as he attempted to draw GOP support for comprehensive immigration legislation. Republicans in Congress often use rhetoric that suggests “border security” must come before any effort to legalize undocumented workers already here. Obama probably thought a show of tough border enforcement would bring them to the table.

He was wrong. The Republican base is deeply hostile to attempts to give unauthorized workers any documents that would allow them to live and work in this country for extended periods of time. It wouldn’t matter if Obama were magically able to hermetically seal off the United States from Mexico. The GOP Congress wouldn’t budge.

By now, the president surely knows that. He must have realized that his policy is both impolitic and inhumane. ICE has already moderated its policies a bit. Still, Obama needs to go further and use his authority to limit deportations to dangerous criminals.

Colotl, meanwhile, plans to attend law school and perhaps, one day, become an immigration attorney. She has benefited from several legal and administrative actions that deferred deportation, but her status is uncertain. Nevertheless, she told me that she still believes in the American Dream.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

Photo: ndlon via Flickr

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