One throwaway line: That’s what US President Barack Obama dedicated to the topic of immigration in his final State of the Union speech on Tuesday, just days after his administration decided to prioritize the deportation of women and children who came to the United States seeking asylum.
“I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing,” Obama said in his prime-time address to Congress. “Fixing a broken immigration system,” for instance. And that was it. With one year left in office, and after deporting more than two million people, all the president had to offer was five words that sounded more like a political obligation – he can’t just not mention it – than a political priority.
In 2008, though: “People need us… to enact comprehensive immigration reform once and for all,” said Obama, then just a candidate. “We can’t wait 20 years from now to do it. We can’t wait 10 years from now to do it. We need to do it by the end of my first term as president of the United States of America.” Indeed, so important is the issue, addressing an immigration system so broken it leaves around 12 million people without legal status, that “I will make it a top priority in my first year as president.”
He said that about eight years ago. Meanwhile, just 10 days before, the brunt of his latest crackdown on immigrants from Central America living in the US without proper documentation began to be felt.
“They came in unmarked trucks,” Joana Gutierrez, who alleges that immigration agents entered her home without a warrant, told reporters. “They went in and removed the children, my niece, my husband, and did not care that the children were crying. What they did was an abuse.”
What they did was in keeping with US policy under a president who promised reform: In order to discourage those fleeing poverty and violence in the Americas, the Obama administration has decided a show of force is necessary. This, the actions convey, is what will happen if you come to the land of the free: agents of the state will whisk you and your family away, put you all in a detention center and send you back to the place you fled – where you might very well die.
From 2014 to October 2015, in fact, a study of deaths reported in the news found that no fewer than 83 asylum-seekers deported by the US government in the preceding year had been murdered upon their return to countries in Central America, like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, all places that have been wrecked by US trade policy and support for repressive governments in the name of stability and free enterprise.
On January 6, the latest group of human beings to be forcibly removed from their homes within the borders of the United States arrived back in Guatemala: 131 people, with hundreds more to follow. If the past is prologue, then in a year’s time several of them will be be murdered – they will have been murdered – while the majority will toil away in the poverty they sought to leave behind, perhaps making clothes or picking crops to be delivered tariff-free to their former neighbors in the USA.
And the worst of it is out of sight, at least to most of those who were watching the president’s address: In response to the influx of asylum-seekers from late 2013 to late 2014, Obama began paying Mexico tens of millions of dollars to keep the poor and scared from ever reaching the US border. Deportations from the US are slightly down, as result, while deportations from Mexico have risen by about 70 percent.
That comprehensive immigration reform is no longer a top priority for this US president is not altogether unjustified: The Congress whose support would be needed to pass such reform is full of conservative Republicans (and Democrats) who have no sympathy for Syrians fleeing a devastated war zone, much less Latin Americans fleeing devastated economies and drug war-fueled violence.
But comprehensive reform or nothing is not the only option. As president, Obama could, for instance, unilaterally decide to not carry out the deportations he unilaterally decided to carry out these past few weeks. In June 2012, for instance, Obama signed an executive order protecting from deportation some of those who were brought to the United States by their parents as children. It was a limited action, but an honorable one – the product of direct action and the mobilization of those most at risk of state-sponsored eviction. He could do something similar again.
The next president could in a year’s time reverse any executive action this one takes. Still, the stain of having sent men, women and children – guilty of no crime but having sought a better life – back to a place where they very well might be killed, and where they will at the very least have their spirit crushed, would be on another’s conscience.
Why, though, when in legacy-building mode, would Obama seek to go out on a policy of callously enforcing immigration laws he came into office promising change? It’s a question that lacks a definitive answer. Perhaps it is to help his party at the next election, based on the assumption that too much compassion for the poor and downtrodden will only help the overt fascists at the polls. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t actually care all that much about the lives he is destroying.
Perhaps, rather than be the progressive some hoped he might become when no longer faced with the prospect of reelection, the president is showing us who he really was all along: not a man deeply troubled by the US government’s policy of separating loved ones and breaking up families, but a competent and eager administrator of the cruel system he inherited.