As Barack Obama prepares to exit his presidency, he leaves a list of accomplishments, but immigrant rights advocates judging his legacy will likely remember this president as the “deporter-in-chief.” During the latest round of deportations ordered by his administration – whose most recent targets include children fleeing violence from Central America – the stalemate in Congress over immigration reform has been made worse by Obama’s refusal to lead on this issue. Since he came into office in 2009, Obama has facilitated the deportation of 400,000 immigrants each year, a group that is disproportionately male and Latino. This is bad public policy.
First, contrary to what anti-immigrant groups would have you believe, the country is spending more today than it ever has ever on immigration enforcement, a wasteful and terrible use of taxpayer dollars. In fiscal year 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a budget of $64.9 billion, only six percent of which goes to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the component of DHS devoted to customer service and processing immigrants’ applications to adjust status. In fact, the DHS receives more funding than any other federal criminal law enforcement agency. While the Obama policy purports to be targeting only those convicted of a crime with standing deportation orders, as outlined under his new PEP-Comm (Priority Enforcement Program) set of priorities, the reality is that the program incentivizes racist policing and creates a dragnet even for individuals who have never been convicted of a crime.
Second, these policies are destructive to families – 16.6 million individuals live in mixed status families (with at least one unauthorized individual), and middle-of-the-night roundups are causing lasting traumas, especially to children – a fact recognized even by the Department of Justice. Removing primary breadwinners and caregivers creates psychological and economic damage to families. For those deported parents who are left with the choice to either leave behind their native-born and US citizen children, or take them to a country where they often don’t know the language and face bureaucratic barriers to full integration and well-being, there can be devastating consequences.
Lastly, Americans should be wary of any policy that expulses individuals without due process. Contrary to popular belief, immigration law is a civil matter. Yet, the number of immigrants in detention centers went from 6,785 in 1995 to 34,000 in 2013. Many of these detention centers are privately run, house women and children, and routinely deny detainees access to counsel. In the recent spate of removals, judges have already halted the deportation of 20 individuals last month who had not been able to exhaust their legal options in the hasty rush to detain and deport.
The rush to deport has meant that actually our laws are not being enforced, because those who are most vulnerable are being denied the legal counsel that even those in the criminal legal system are usually afforded. To the contrary, in detention centers, pro-bono lawyers have been banned from doing their work in South Texas and Southern California, and attorneys are finding it increasingly difficult to advocate for those most in need.
In immigration law court, judges with lifetime appointments can issue exorbitant bonds that indigent migrants are unable to pay. They also evaluate asylum claims in inconsistent ways, which have resulted in gross inequities across the country. But most returned immigrants never even see a day in court, and their removal is in the hands of low-level immigration officers who decide their fate within minutes. Those who remain in detention are protesting their living conditions – including sexual abuse, lack of medical care and even deaths – in a system that was never meant to be punitive. This is a threat to US democracy.
History will reveal this era of deportation to be a time of nativism, with little regard for the structural forces that are causing our neighbors to the South to flee economic precarity and the violence that the United States has had a large hand in creating through negligent drug and trade policy.
We should be concerned with the growth of immigrant-only prisons, mass removals without due process and the ongoing terrorizing of largely Latino communities. We should be concerned regardless of the economic impact these migrants play (though the research suggests their contributions outweigh their costs), and we should scrutinize the precarious workplace conditions that generate these economic benefits.
We should be especially concerned for vulnerable children and continue to question a system that disproportionately deports men to their deaths. We must question the racist and uneven policing that impacts communities of color, including those undocumented immigrants who are framed as priorities for removal.
As Republicans debate who can double down on immigration enforcement more effectively, I urge progressives to consider immigrant rights as a canary in the coal mine for all our rights.