The Hard Truths About Obama’s Deportation Priorities

The truth matters. In this moment of panic as Trump terrorizes immigrants, we should not abandon the truth to highlight the brutality of Trump’s immigration policies. Trump’s Executive Orders on immigration, his expansion of who is defined as a criminal and his rhetoric about “bad hombres” are a departure from Obama, but not as much as we might like to believe.

If progressives keep lying to themselves about their past, they are doomed to continue to push the same failed policies of the corporate wing of the Democratic party, exemplified by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. On immigration, the answer to Trump is not returning to Obama’s policies, but rather moving in a new direction that drastically reduces deportations and ceases to criminalize low-level offenses.

The mainstream media keeps repeating the falsehood that Obama focused on deporting serious criminals. As the ‘New York Times’ put it in a recent article, “Gone are the Obama-era rules that required them to focus only on serious criminals.” The editorial reinforced this characterization, stating “ICE and the Border Patrol under Mr. Obama were ordered to focus on arresting serious criminals and national-security risks.”

The data from the Department of Homeland Security tells a very different story. From 2009-2015, 56% of all immigrants removed from the country had no criminal convictions. The preliminary data from 2016, when Obama was still in office, suggests that this trend of deporting non-criminals continued. What’s more, a good portion of the so-called criminal deportees were arrested on low-level misdemeanor charges such as marijuana possession.

If you only look at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removals, a subset of the total, the scenario shifts slightly. Up until 2010, most people ICE removed had no criminal convictions, but over the next six years their enforcement began to focus more on those with such convictions. But even in 2015, over 40 percent of ICE removals had no criminal conviction and of the 59 percent who did, many were guilty of minor charges, certainly not the image of felons and gang bangers Obama conjured up.

Obama’s Policy of Targeting Felons, Not Families Was a Lie

The ‘New York Times’ is correct inasmuch as Obama publicly claimed that immigration enforcement would be targeted against criminals. In November 2014, in the same speech in which Obama announced his Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program, he proclaimed:

“We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.”

The problem with this narrative is that it was false at the time Obama made the statement and it continued to be false through the rest of his presidency. Aside from the much-needed DACA program, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security continued to deport far more people without any convictions or whose only crime was crossing the border without authorization than they did the so-called “serious criminals” threatening our “security.”

The ‘New York Times’ didn’t have to go far to discover the truth. In one of their own articles in April 2014, the ‘Times’ reported that since the time Obama took office, “two-thirds of the nearly two million deportation cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all.” A few days later, a ‘Times’ article stated that the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research organization at Syracuse University, reported similar findings. “It found that in fiscal year 2013, ‘only 12 percent of all deportees had been found to have committed a serious or ‘Level 1’ offense based on the agency’s own definitions.’”

A September 2016 Marshall Project report found that since Obama announced his intention to focus on “felons, not families” in 2014, 60% of deportations they studied “were of immigrants with no criminal conviction or whose only crime was immigration-related, such as illegal entry or re-entry.” The report continued, “Twenty-one percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes other than immigration. Fewer than 20 percent had potentially violent convictions, such as assault, DUI or weapons offenses.”

Even those who acknowledge that Obama in fact deported more people without criminal convictions in his early years perpetuate the myth that in his later years he focused his deportations on non-criminals. This is also untrue. The Department of Homeland Security reported that it removed and returned over 450,000 people in 2016. Of this number, 85 percent were people caught crossing the border without authorization. Fewer than 8 percent of these deportees were felons or accused of being in a street gang. Even if one just looks at ICE administrative arrests in the interior of the country, and ignores the people caught crossing the border, less than 9 percent of these people had felonies or were in street gangs. The vast majority of ICE removals were for misdemeanor offenses and some “unknown subclass.” The data is clear. Obama was largely deporting, to paraphrase him, moms providing for their kids and not gang members. Gang members made up less than one-quarter of one percent of removals. If gang bangers were the target, then Obama missed by a long shot.

Even those who acknowledge that Obama in fact deported more people without criminal convictions in his early years perpetuate the myth that in his later years he focused his deportations on non-criminals. This is also untrue.

Trump Continues and Accelerates Obama’s Deportation Policies

The well-publicized ICE raids in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency sent shock waves through immigrant communities. In a five-day period, 680 undocumented immigrants were rounded up in raids that ostensibly targeted “criminals,” but actually netted people with no criminal convictions who were simply in the vicinity of the raid. One egregious example of these “collateral” arrests was that of Daniel Ramirez Medina, a DACA student in Seattle who was arrested on a raid meant to target his father. ICE subsequently claimed that Ramirez had admitted to being a member of a gang, a claim that Ramirez vehemently denies. There is also evidence that ICE officials doctored Ramirez’s statement by crudely erasing parts of it.

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly claimed the raids were “routine” and part of “targeted enforcement operations.” An analysis by the TRAC of such ICE raids under Obama suggests that the recent nationwide raid represented a spike in arrests at workplaces and homes, although the arrest of people in communities had become routine under Obama. According to TRAC, ICE arrested and removed roughly 1250 people per week in 2016. Although, ICE picked up most of these people from jails and other law enforcement agencies, almost 300 per week were community arrests at workplaces or homes.

In other words, the recent ICE raids under Trump were significant and alarming, but hundreds of such arrests happened every week under Obama. The only difference was that such arrests had become so routinized in the past that the mainstream media barely noticed.

Pointing out the similarities between Trump and Obama’s deportation policies should not assuage our anger, but rather mobilize us to oppose the anti-immigrant machine that was strengthened by Obama and is now being ramped up by Trump. The fact that Secretary Kelly describes ICE raids at homes in the middle of the night as routine should be horrifying not because Kelly is lying, but because he is largely telling the truth. Mass detention and deportation became a routine part of daily life under Obama, and it only threatens to become worse under the new president.

In other words, the recent ICE raids under Trump were significant and alarming, but hundreds of such arrests happened every week under Obama.

Why It Matters

Some immigrant advocates have argued that to dwell on the extreme nature of Obama’s deportation policies not only doesn’t matter now, but that it undermines the very real and present threat posed by Trump. However, while Trump’s immigration policies must be opposed and defeated, we also have to be mindful of the ways in which putatively progressive Democratic politicians continue to use the rhetoric of protecting hard-working immigrants while continuing policies that lead to mass deportations.

As mayors in progressive cities across the country declared their cities to be sanctuaries and vowed not to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, they also refused to stop their broken-windows policing which delivers immigrants directly into the hands of ICE for deportation. Sanctuary is a meaningless designation if immigrants, either documented or undocumented, can be arrested for low-level crimes such as subway fare-evasion, and then deported once the city sends their fingerprints to the FBI and thereby to ICE.

Mayor Bill de Blasio declared New York City a sanctuary, but at the same time his police arrest people for selling mango slices on the street without a license or walking through a park at night. In 2015, police arrested 30,000 people for subway fare evasion. Queens Councilman Rory Lancman recently criticized de Blasio’s hypocrisy in declaring sanctuary at the same time that he continues to arrest immigrants for such low-level offenses. As Lancman put it, “Bill de Blasio’s broken-windows policing is the fuel for Donald Trump’s deportation machine.” In effect, Mayor de Blasio is condemning immigrants who commit the “crime” of jumping over a turnstile to deportation.

Cities and states do not have the power to make or change immigration laws, and sanctuary can only provide limited protection from deportation. However, local governments can decide how they police their communities, which can have a huge impact on the number of people they make vulnerable to deportation. As journalist Daniel Denvir phrased it in a recent Slate article, “Prosecutors and police don’t make laws, but they have the power of discretion.”

Making Criminals of Us All

Obama’s distinction between the good, hardworking immigrants and the bad criminals fed the criminalizing stigma attached to immigrants. In a 2012 debate, Obama argued that if we are going to go after “folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families.” In the president’s worldview, “gang bangers” should be deported. Moms feeding their families and Americanized students should remain. Defending DACA students is popular among progressives, but painting these students as the “good” immigrants puts 10 million other immigrants into the “bad” category by implication.

Defending DACA students is popular among progressives, but painting these students as the “good” immigrants puts 10 million other immigrants into the “bad” category by implication.

Obama’s rhetoric and his policies thus fueled the carceral logic that led to mass deportation and mass incarceration in the first place. As it turned out, the vast majority of those “gang bangers” he was targeting turned out to be people who just crossed the border without authorization or committed a misdemeanor crime. But once you criminalize a population, few people ask questions. The mainstream media parrots the myths of Obama focusing his deportations on “serious criminals” while refusing to confront the truth.

In their Sunday newspaper and on television during the Academy Awards, the ‘New York Times’ launched a campaign proclaiming the importance of truth: “The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.”

If we are to take these words to heart, then we must reckon with some hard truths: Most immigrants deported by Obama were not felons, sanctuary is meaningless without ending broken-windows policing, and criminalization is another path toward mass deportation.

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