Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here.
Ruben Navarrette says Supreme Court made the right call on immigration while the administration is struggling.
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- On the prickly subject of immigration raids, the judicial branch is moving in the right direction. And the executive branch is moving in all directions.
In a stunning rebuke of how the government has previously gone about prosecuting illegal immigrants, the Supreme Court this week unanimously ruled that a heavy-handed federal identity-theft law cannot be used against illegal immigrants who simply use fake Social Security numbers to get jobs.
Focusing on intent, the high court said that workers would have to know that the identification numbers they were using belonged to a real person who they intended to harm.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the idea of prosecutors using the ID theft law to coerce guilty pleas -- as they did after a May 2008 raid at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa -- hinged on chance. For those who randomly pick Social Security numbers, Alito wrote, "If it turns out that the number belongs to a real person, two years will be added to the defendant's sentence, but if the defendant is lucky and the number does not belong to another person, the statute is not violated."
The justices made the right call. Even as someone who gets into hot water with immigration reformers because I continue to support immigration raids as a necessary enforcement tool without which there will probably be no reform, I never bought the argument pushed by the Bush administration that those who were rounded up were guilty of identity theft.
I thought illegal immigrants should be charged with the offense they committed: entering the country illegally. And then they should be deported.
What bothers me is when an administration -- any administration -- flip-flops and plays politics with an issue that affects people's lives as directly as this one does.
Just look at the Obama administration. In another example of how it is making hash out of its immigration agenda, it announced this week a new policy on immigration raids, and -- surprise -- it's not that different from the old policy.
While we can be assured that, in light of the Supreme Court decision, the administration won't be prosecuting illegal immigrants for identity theft, it will be continuing to round them up in worksite raids. It will just be cracking down on more people.
Whereas the Bush administration turned a blind eye to employers, the Obama White House promises to bring them to justice when there is evidence that they have knowingly hired illegal immigrants. But illegal immigrants will still be apprehended and deported, the administration says.
There were actually some folks on the left, including many Latinos who consider these operations an abomination, who assumed that Obama would end worksite raids altogether, for three reasons.
First, while running for president and trying to woo Latino voters, Obama often condemned a situation where "communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing."
Second, when his administration carried out a raid of its own at an auto parts plant in Bellingham, Washington, the Department of Homeland Security promptly released from custody all but one of 28 people who were believed to be illegal immigrants. One person had already been deported.
And third, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of the Bellingham raid and promised a new policy that concentrated on going after employers and illegal immigrants wanted for other crimes rather than racking up apprehensions of illegal workers.
Personally, I never bought the idea that the administration would stop the raids. Imagine sending immigration agents into workplaces to arrest employers but not arrest the workers? How would the government build a case against people for hiring illegal immigrants without proving that the people they hired were, after all, illegal immigrants?
And once the government established that fact, how could it, essentially, decide to ignore it?
Anyone who supports President Obama -- and his administration -- and who thought otherwise was ignoring something else: reality.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.