Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, almost 2 million people have been deported – more than under any other president. That’s not just a steady drumbeat; it’s a full-on marching band.
1,100 people a day.
45 people an hour.
One every 80 seconds. Each of those people leaves behind a life: a home, a job, and in many cases, a spouse. And for many, children, often U.S.-born.
“Can you imagine? To just disappear on your children?” said Ingrid Chapman, executive director of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
The immigration system is widely described as being “broken,” and Congress has tried repeatedly to overhaul it. Yet it remains largely intact since 1986, and immigrant families continue to be separated.
During the first half of 2011 alone, more than 46,000 parents of U.S.-citizen children were deported, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Some estimates peg the number even higher.
With immigration reform policy once again stalled in Congress, advocates will gather in more than 40 cities on Saturday for a day of action. The rallies, organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, reflect a shift among immigration reform groups. Where once they focused on the halls of Congress, they’re now blocking deportation vans. Where once they set their sights on legislative reform, they are now pointing a finger at the president himself.
“My family and I have endured the pain and emotional trauma family separation brings,” said Evelyn Servin of Russellville, Ala., whose husband is undocumented. “I am here to tell President Obama to stop the deportations.” Servin was part of a group that chained themselves to the doors of an Alabama detention center on March 26.
Even Janet Murguía, the normally supportive president of the National Council of La Raza, called Obama the “deporter in chief” in a major speech last month.
All of which raise some questions: can the president actually stop the march of deportations? And if he can do something, why isn’t he?
Why So High?
Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., points to three factors: legislation that predates Obama, technological and policy changes and more enforcement resources.
In 1990, the entire budget for what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service was $2.1 billion (in 2013 dollars.) By 2013, with lawmakers and residents voicing concern about national security, the budget for immigration enforcement agencies was eight times that amount. The U.S. Border Patrol grew from 3,715 employees to 21,391.
The agency has also changed how it conducts its business, especially after the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. Before, most undocumented immigrants swept up by authorities were “voluntarily returned” to their home countries, Rosenblum said.
“You put somebody on a bus without any formal processing or implications beyond being returned,” he said.
Now, most are formally “removed” – the official term for deported – through a legal proceeding. Once removed, it takes years to become eligible for even a visitor’s visa, and returning to the country could result in criminal charges.
“There’s a certain reinforcing cycle to it,” Rosenblum explained. “Once somebody gets removed, it’s easier to remove them again.”
Certain rights to appear before a judge also have been curtailed since the 1996 law. Before, the accused could seek relief before an immigration judge, arguing, perhaps, that they had longstanding ties in the U.S., or were the sole caretaker of U.S.-born children.
That’s not so much the case today. In 2012, 75 percent of all removals were in categories that did not require going before a judge, Rosenblum said.
Shiu-Ming Cheer, an immigration attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, said a lot of the people she represents have “a spouse and kids, or run their own business. (Immigration enforcement) doesn’t consider those positive factors.”
Technology, coupled with a policy change, played a role in the increase, as well. Since the 1990s, fingerprints have been digitized, and those digital databases are searchable.
More on Deportations
Watch a video from Silicon Valley De-Bug about Martha Medina, a woman who lived in the U.S. but was deported to Mexico. She was found living in a hole in Tijuana. Journalist Cindy Carcamo examines the issue of U.S.-born kids who leave the country with their families in “Accidental Foreigners: America’s Forgotten Citizens.”
It used to be that local law enforcement would check a suspect’s fingerprints against the FBI’s crime database. In 2008, DHS began a program called Secure Communities, or S-Comm. It was greatly expanded under Obama.
Under that program, fingerprints are sent to DHS to run through their immigration databases, too. Anytime someone has contact with DHS, whether it’s to apply for a visa or when they’re deported, their fingerprints wind up in the database. This “growing library” of immigrant fingerprints, Rosenblum said, makes it easy to find a match.
This powerful tool enables law enforcement agents to sweep up a lot more people. Immigrants can wind up being questioned, and even held for something as innocuous as driving with a broken taillight. Selling food on the street. Doing an ordinary day’s work. Walking the kids to school. And their fingerprints are sent to DHS.
Safer Communities? Actually, No.
DHS says it’s focusing on priority cases, especially criminals. But that can paint a distorted picture.
ICE’s own figures show that most people who are deported don’t have a criminal record. Among those who do, most are low-level offenders. And many of them have only one offense on their rap sheet: coming to this country without proper paperwork.
It’s gotten to the point where immigration enforcement is driving growth in federal prisons. In the entire federal court system in 2012, 30 percent of offenders were convicted only of immigration offenses, according to the Pew Research Center.
“This is a huge waste of resources,” said Cheer, the immigration attorney.
All of this – the budget, the legislation and the policies – has had a profound effect on the immigrant community, said Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. That’s especially true of Obama’s Secure Communities.
“It’s insidious in a way,” he said of the program. “It doesn’t require any additional effort on the part of local police and yet the information they’re generating is going to Homeland Security.”
It’s caused immigrants – many of whom have entered the country for more financial stability and to support their families – to be afraid to leave their neighborhoods or to drive their kids to the library. It’s caused kids to worry every time a parent heads off to work.
And advocates are tired of lobbying a Congress that isn’t taking action in both houses.
In 2012, Obama issued a memorandum called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that allowed people who had been brought to this country as children to seek a “deferral” of removal actions and get a work permit.
The idea was to “ensure that enforcement resources are not expended on low priority cases,” according to DHS.
Ju Hong, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, was one of thousands of young people covered by DACA. In November 2013, during a presidential visit to San Francisco, he interrupted Obama with a plea.
“Mr. President,” he said, “please use your executive orders to halt deportations. You have the power…”
The president turned to face him. “Actually,” he said, “I don’t.” Obama maintains it’s up to Congress to pass immigration reform.
There is heated debate among legal, Constitutional and political experts on how much power the president has in this regard. His enforcement discretion is “broad,” but not “unfettered,” the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said in a December report.
Advocates point to DACA and argue that he could expand that to people without criminal records who have U.S.-born children. Or to people who are caretakers for ill family members. Or to family breadwinners.
“It would be a large-scale way of saying these are all low-priority people,” said Cheer.
But presidents can’t simply decide not to enforce laws they don’t like, Rosenblum pointed out. “They have to have a rationale for it,” he said.
Scarce resources was a rationale for DACA. But Congress has made sure resources for immigration enforcement are available.
Still, advocates point to other opportunities for change.
The president could also end Secure Communities or another program called Operation Streamline, which has limited immigrants’ ability to have their day in court. In many cases, they get less than one minute to plead their case.
There’s a lot more room for prosecutorial discretion, as well, advocates say. DHS, with the president’s approval, could simply decide to pursue fewer cases where the accused’s only offense is an immigration violation. In individual cases, he could allow stays of deportation. He could pressure anti-immigrant communities to end racial profiling. He could require hearings before judges.
“We feel the power to do those things is there,” Cheer said. “It’s a matter of political will.”
In all of this debate, that’s one thing just about everyone agrees on: it’s about politics.
“It’s hard to see Congress doing anything, so people want to press the president; but if he does anything aggressive on rolling back enforcement, that could really poison the well on doing anything legislatively,” Rosenblum said. Meanwhile, “Republicans are making the argument that the administration can’t be trusted.”
In early March, under pressure from immigration advocates, the president announced that he is reviewing deportation policies.
In the meantime, advocates are upping the pressure. On Saturday, they’ll hold marches and rallies nationwide. Some, organizers say, will move toward civil disobedience.
“This campaign has shifted the dialogue,” said Gabriela Benitez, of the Latino Union of Chicago, who is helping organize protests in that city. Instead of talking about Congress’ failure to pass immigration reform, “We believe that one of the main and more attainable goals is to halt deportations.”
As they gather on Saturday, protesters will carry banners with three words that have resonated deeply among immigrant families during this national debate: “Not One More.”
Maureen O’Hagan is the reporter for Equal Voice News.