House Speaker Paul Ryan pats President Donald Trump on the...

House Speaker Paul Ryan pats President Donald Trump on the back after the president signed the House Joint Resolution 41, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House. Credit: AP

Controversy over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies has flared up with reports of raids and deportations of people in the country illegally.

While liberals and progressives denounce the inhumanity of these actions, many conservatives see them as proper law enforcement and fulfillment of campaign promises. They also cry double standard, claiming that President Barack Obama was deporting just as many people.

Who’s right — and what should be done?

Conservative arguments contain something of a paradox: One moment Obama was soft on people here illegally, the next he was just as tough as Trump. This paradox was evident when candidate Trump addressed crowds vowing to end lax Obama policies that let “thousands of criminal aliens” roam our streets, then complained that he was being demonized for promising deportations when Obama had “moved millions of people out” and “nobody talks about it.”

Obama indeed deported more such people than any other president, though some conservatives have said that the numbers were inflated by counting people caught right after crossing the border. It is not quite true that no progressives complained; some immigrant advocates dubbed Obama “deporter in chief.”

It seems clear that deportation priorities have shifted under Trump. Under Obama, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents focused primarily on deporting people here illegally who had committed serious offenses. (In 2015, more than 90 percent of those deported had criminal records.) Trump, too, is prioritizing removal of criminals, but with instructions to include immigration-law violators. Even a Seattle man protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and lacking a criminal record may face deportation.

One case that has gotten a lot of attention is that of Guadalupe García de Rayos of Mesa, Arizona. The 35-year-old mother of two, brought here by her Mexican parents at 14, got a criminal record after she was arrested in a 2008 workplace raid and convicted of “criminal impersonation” for having a fake Social Security card. After that, she was deportable; however, after each annual check-in with the Phoenix immigration office, she was allowed to return to her family. (Her husband is also unauthorized; their American-born teen children are citizens.) Last week, despite protests, García de Rayos was sent back to Mexico.

For advocates for immigrants, the case symbolizes the heartlessness of deportations. García de Rayos is clearly not a danger, and separating her from her children seems pointlessly cruel. For many conservatives, it’s a simple matter: She was here illegally, and you don’t selectively decide which laws to enforce.

In fact, laws are selectively enforced all the time, and tempering legality with humanity is a time-honored tradition. The immigration debate pits those who view illegal immigration as not only a legal but a moral offense — an assault on America’s sovereignty — against those who see it as a technicality akin to, say, working as a hairdresser without a license.

What seems clear is that the status quo with regard to people here illegally is leaving huge numbers in a bizarre legal limbo. They are known to the authorities, subject to deportation at any time, allowed to stay in the United States, but not allowed to seek gainful employment.

Polls show widespread support for reforms that would allow these people to obtain permanent residency or citizenship. In a saner world, Trump could use his image as an immigration hard-liner to push for such reforms in combination with tougher border enforcement. Unfortunately, so far, this administration gives little reason to hope that we’re in a better world.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.