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Column: Dancing a two-step on immigration

SAN DIEGO -- The Obama administration has spun so many yarns about its deportation policy that it can't keep them straight.

In August 2011, White House officials announced that the Department of Homeland Security would no longer spend "limited resources" actively seeking to apprehend and deport illegal immigrants who don't have criminal records. Under current U.S. code, entering the United States illegally is usually a civil infraction and not a criminal one.

Last week, in a transparent attempt to turn the screws on Republicans demanding spending cuts, the DHS announced that -- because of budget constraints and the possibility of mandatory cuts due to sequestration -- it was releasing from custody several hundred illegal immigrants. At a White House briefing, press secretary Jay Carney assured reporters that those being released were "low-risk, non-criminal detainees."

In other words, the administration freed some of the very folks that it wasn't supposed to have locked up in the first place.

Someone isn't telling the truth -- again. This recurring dishonesty comes from the fact that the administration wants to have it both ways by positioning itself as both tough and compassionate.

When it wants to be tough, it describes deportees as a bunch of violent criminals with long rap sheets. When it wants to be compassionate, the administration insists that it is keeping its hands off those illegal immigrants who President Obama likes to refer to, when schmoozing with Latino audiences, as "hard-working people looking for a better life."

That's the Obama two-step. It's the kind of clumsy footwork that the media and the American public have witnessed on a regular basis since stories started appearing a few years ago about how the administration was breaking deportation records and removing around 400,000 people a year. Now officials are on track to have removed 2 million illegal immigrants by the end of 2013; this is about the same number of deportations that the U.S. government carried out from 1892 to 1997.

That's the real story here. It's the fact that we've never seen an administration that is so cynical in manipulating U.S. immigration policy to meet political objectives.

The story is not what liberals think it is -- that somehow Obama has rediscovered his humanity and finally become the president they voted for. That's a nice thought, except for one thing: Carney was quick to tell reporters that the president wasn't part of this decision and that the detainee release was the work of "career officials at ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) without any input from the White House." So much for Obama rediscovering his humanity. When it comes to immigrants and immigration policy, we're not likely to see that anytime soon.

And the story is not what has conservatives so worked up. Overreacting just as Obama knew they would and thus playing right into his hands, they fear that the administration has let loose into our neighborhoods a bunch of folks who represent a cross between Al Capone and Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. As is usually the case when we talk about immigration, the right is dead wrong. Every audit that has been done of the hundreds of thousands who are, each year, offered a one-way ticket out of the United States shows us that very few are violent criminals or, in fact, criminals at all.

Other deportees are technically guilty of a crime, but it's one that most people probably wouldn't consider serious. Under current immigration law, those who are deported and re-entered the country are charged not with a civil violation -- which would be the case on the first illegal crossing -- but with a felony. If your nanny is an illegal immigrant (I know, can you imagine such a thing?) and she was deported but re-entered the country, she has committed a felony. So according to the U.S. government, every day when you go to work, you hand your kids over to the care of a hardened criminal.

When trying to be tough, the administration will count the nanny -- or housekeeper, gardener, senior caregiver, etc -- as part of its list of "criminal" deportees. When trying to be compassionate, it is just as likely to leave them off the list.

There are so many games, so many tricks. This administration does whatever is convenient at the moment, and makes up policy as it goes. But just because the administration can't keep it all straight doesn't mean the American people shouldn't.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is