Comprehensive immigration reform has failed. Millions of immigrants have been deported. President Obama’s executive action programs are in limbo.
As President Obama enters his final six months in office, his legacy on immigration has yet to be determined. Will he go down as the savior who stretched the limits of his power to provide relief for millions of Dreamers? Or as the Trojan Horse who rode in promising hope and change while opening the door to raids on immigrant families, communities and record deportations?
If President Obama wants to rescue his immigration legacy while shedding the lame duck president stereotype, he should take bold, decisive action on immigration. Here are some ideas:
1. Take a stand against the 1996 laws that criminalized millions of immigrants.
Over the last year the Obama administration has taken stands against the war on drugs and the war on crime, acknowledging both as failed policies that overwhelmingly impacted communities of color. In fact, just last fall the administration announced the release of 6,000 prisoners who were convicted of drug offenses. Unfortunately, the administration has yet to speak out against the impact of these same failed policies on immigrants. As a result of two laws enacted in 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), immigrants convicted of certain criminal offenses were deemed mandatorily deportable.
During Obama’s two presidential terms, millions of immigrants have been deported as a result of contact with the criminal legal system, including drug offenses. In fact, nearly 2,000 of those granted clemency by the president last fall were immediately moved into deportation proceedings. Given the widely acknowledged failures of the war on drugs and the war and crime, as well as public sentiment now leaning toward drug law reform and against mass incarceration, the Obama administration should come out in favor of striking the criminal grounds for deportation in the Immigration and Nationality Act. To start, he can endorse a resolution introduced by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus calling for a repeal of the 1996 laws.
2. Pardon thousands of immigrants across the US who have been deemed deportable.
When Obama announced his clemency initiative, advocates across the country cheered. But this proclamation of leniency was hardly an olive branch; the initiative barely put a dent in the US prison population. Today, thousands of immigrants are caged in our federal prison system. And most immigrants, even those with papers and those who have served their time in the criminal legal system, will not reap the benefits of clemency. Once released from prison, they will enter immigration proceedings, where they will be moved to immigration detention (read: immigration prison) and, in most instances, they will be deported. Only a full presidential pardon will protect immigrants in the federal criminal legal system from detention and deportation. To show that he truly believes in “second chances,” Obama should pardon the thousands of immigrants currently in federal prison facing deportation upon release.
3. End collaboration programs between ICE and local law enforcement agencies.
In order to carry out its objectives, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency charged with enforcing US immigration law, partners with state and local law enforcement agencies who agree to perform the duties of ICE agents by investigating and arresting non-citizens suspected of immigration violations. In practice, this program — known as “287(g)” — has led to a slew of constitutional violations, including racial profiling in some of the counties that have implemented the program. Reports have also shown that the 287(g) agreements net very few of the program’s targeted offenders and that the program actually threatens public safety by hindering relationships between communities and local law enforcement agencies. In Maricopa County, Arizona, a jurisdiction that enthusiastically implemented 287(g), response times to 911 calls increased, and violent crimes and homicide rates increased at the same time, as the sheriff’s office diverted resources to immigration enforcement.
The administration has come out strong against racial profiling and violence at the hands of police, calling it wrong, misguided and ineffective. Ending 287(g), a program that lends itself to bias, would show that Obama is serious about racial justice and recognizes that unjust over-policing and racial profiling is also an immigration issue.
4. Cancel contracts with private prison corporations.
The “corporatization of mass incarceration,” the “prison industrial complex,” or whatever else it’s called, has led to the dramatic growth of the US mass incarceration system during the last 20 years. On any given day, tens of thousands languish in immigrant detention centers, which are usually housed within federal and state prisons, and run by private contractors such as Correctional Corporation of America and GEO Group. Private prison contractors have been accused of physical and sexual violence and abuse, in addition to numerous health, safety and environmental violations. Public outcry has led to politicians from both sides speaking out against this morally questionable industry. Some of the 2016 presidential contenders have even weighed in.
Before he leaves office, President Obama should place a moratorium on, cancel or refuse to renegotiate contracts with private prison companies. Or better yet, he could close prisons altogether, which brings us to the fifth and boldest action he could take.
5. Close all federal prisons and detention centers.
Any shrewd, prudent, policy thinker like President Obama should recognize that the US mass criminalization system is a costly failure and that shutting down prisons and detention centers would enable us to reimagine community safety and reduce the injustices faced by marginalized communities, including immigrants, Black and Brown Americans, and Indigenous people, who are all disproportionately incarcerated through the United States’ toxic combination of prisons and detention centers.
While immigrants facing deportation are supposed to be held in “civil detention,” conditions within ICE detention centers, even the administration’s “family detention centers,” shows that this is hardly the case. Detainees have reported incidents of rape and assault, arbitrary solitary confinement, lack of access to medical care and spoiled food. Dozens of immigrants have died at the hands of detention center staff, and in many cases detainees have not been charged with any crime.
And like the mass incarceration system, immigration detention is costly. The US spends more than $1.84 billion dollars per year — that’s more than $5 million dollars per day — on immigrant “custody and operations.” Instead of pouring this money into a violent system structured by racism, the US could instead invest in alternatives to community safety that do not involve mass incarceration. Admittedly, some of these recommendations are ambitious. But in a year when the status quo is being challenged and big ideas are resonating in the media and at the polls, taking on the gargantuan task of fixing our immigration system would have a lasting impact on the president’s legacy and bring dignity and justice to millions of immigrants and their families.