Deporter In-Chief

Has President Obama Earned the Title?

For 14 years, Ingrid Vaca has quietly taken care of her two children by cleaning houses in Northern Virginia. But the immigrant from Bolivia says she can never stop looking over her shoulder, especially since President Obama assumed office and deportations of undocumented workers like Vaca have shot up.

“My kids don’t have any idea of how scared I am,” said 51-year-old Vaca, whose children and now 19 and 21 years old and have grown up in the U.S. “I’m really frightened something will happen and my kids won’t see me again.”

Obama has had a rocky relationship with the nation’s immigrant community. Since he first ran for the White House, he’s promised to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws in such a way Vaca and millions of undocumented immigrants get a chance to come out of the shadows. But immigrant advocates and the president’s Latino allies on Capitol Hill say they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them time after time, and are now focusing on the president’s record, not his promises.


Smoking Gun

The smoking gun is the sheer number of deportations. On October 1, ironically during Hispanic Heritage Month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued its latest report on removals, a document that confirmed what immigration advocates had already guessed –that Obama has deported well over 2 million people during his time in office. This is more than all other U.S. presidents combined.

The report said the DHS deported about 438,000 immigrants from the United States in 2013, a record number. The leading countries of origins for those deported were Mexico (72 percent), Guatemala (11 percent), Honduras (8.3 percent) and El Salvador (4.8 percent.). DHS also said 44 percent of the undocumented migrants apprehended last year were deported by “expedited removal” or without a hearing before an immigration judge.

Deportations increased almost every year since Obama assumed office. In the 2013 fiscal year, they rose by more than 20,000 over 2012 and by more than 51,000 over 2011, the latest DHS report shows. But the Obama administration says it’s become more tactical in its removals, concentrating on those with criminal records and those who are detained on or near the border, instead of targeting those who have lived a long time in the United States and created a life here, like Vaca.

An analysis of U.S. deportation policy by the Migration Policy Institute determined more than 4.6  million noncitizens have been removed since immigration enforcement policy was changed in 1996. That means nearly half of those deported in the last 17 years were removed in the first five years of Obama’s presidency. The Institute said the Obama has focused on what it has decided are high priority cases, but border enforcement officials don’t always follow that policy or use the “prosecutorial discretion” the administration has given them to avoid deportations of people with ties to a community who don’t pose a threat.


A Stick and No Carrot

Jose Magaña-Salgado, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) disputed the administration’s argument that only hardened criminals and new arrivals are being removed.

“The fact that the administration claims that it is concentrating on border removals doesn’t obviate the fact that some of them [had been sent home] and are re-entering the country to reunite with families here,” he noted.

Magaña-Salgado said the federal government considers the border to include an area up to 100 miles from the Rio Grande.

 He also accused the administration of misleading the public when it said that in the interior of the nation, deportation were focused on “the worst of the worst” convicted immigrant criminals.

“Some of them have been convicted of minor violations and federal immigration infractions,” he said.

The Migration Policy Institute’s analysis found the largest category of convictions for criminal deportees was immigration crimes, accounting for 18 percent of criminal removals in the past 10 years. The next three largest crime categories were FBI Part 1 crimes (a definition that includes homicide, aggravated assault and burglary, 15 percent of criminal removals during the period), FBI Part 2 crimes identified as violent offenses (14 percent) and FBI Part 2 crimes identified by as nonviolent offenses (14 percent).So according to the institute’s analysis, only about 29 percent of the criminal deportees had been convicted of major crimes and/or dangerous behavior.

How did the president earn the scornful “deporter-in-chief” label from the Latino community? Magaña-Salgado said the president’s initial intention was to show members of Congress he was tough on border enforcement to make it easier to sell lawmakers on a comprehensive immigration plan.

“But unfortunately not many members of Congress came to the table,” Magaña-Salgado said.

The Democratic-controlled Senate approved a comprehensive immigration bill that stalled in the GOP-led House, whose leaders wanted only to pass punitive measures and tighten border security. So the stick had been used but the carrot never offered.

Faced with a restive Latino community and pressed by immigration advocates, Obama used his executive authority to issue a memorandum called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, in 2012. It directed the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and other federal agencies involved in the apprehension and deportation of the undocumented to practice “prosecutorial discretion” towards those who immigrated to the United States as children and were in the country without legal status.

On a case-by-case basis, the administration allowed immigrants who met certain criteria, including a clean police record and were at least 15 years old to be granted, for a period of two years and subject to renewal, employment authorization and the right to pay in-state college tuition and obtain drivers licenses in many states.Vaca’s children, and nearly 600,000 others have benefitted from DACA. But it does not provide a path permanent legal status and could be scrapped by future  president.

It did, however, embolden immigrant advocates to hope Obama would use his executive power to protect other immigrants from deportation. Once again, the advocates were disappointed.


Breaking Records

“Your administration has presided over a record-breaking number of deportations that have separated families, instilled fear in communities and fundamentally destabilized the notion of fairness and justice that our nation was founded upon,” said a letter to Obama by a coalition of 37 Latino groups called the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda.The letter was sent at the end of July, just as a flood of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America was peaking, straining federal detention facilities. Obama was at the time considering expediting the return to their homelands, without an immigration hearing.

Finally, the president asked Congress for money to handle the influx of migrant children. The GOP-controlled House responded with a bill that would abolish DACA. An angry Obama then said he would use his executive authority to reform the immigration system by the end of summer. Then he thought better of it, deciding instead to wait after the Nov. 4 elections to act.

Why? Because Senate Democrats in “red” states who were in danger of being ousted from office pleaded with the president to hold off. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, usually loyal to the White House, felt betrayed.

A Congressional source said the Hispanic Caucus had been set to vote on a resolution in January critical of Obama’s deportation policy, but the president called the lawmakers to the White House and convinced them to wait:

“The president said ‘don’t pass this resolution, I’ve asked [Secretary of Homeland Security] Jeh Johnson to review our deportation policy.”

Weeks later, Johnson told caucus members he was conducting that review, but did not set a timeline or a deadline for the task.“I have heard a number of cases that lead me to want to reevaluate our priorities to make sure we’re getting this right, and that’s what I’m doing right now,” Johnson said.  “I am dedicated and committed to ensuring that our removal priorities are focused on threats to national security, public safety and border security.”

But after Obama delayed his promise to use his executive authority to help immigrants in September, the Hispanic Caucus approved a resolution that said “the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is deeply disappointed with the president’s decision to delay executive action and asserts that justice, fairness and good policy should never be delayed.” The resolution also pointed out that the delay will “exacerbate suffering” and result in an additional 60,000 deportations, 1,000 a day, by Election Day on Nov. 4.

“I think the president will have the courage to act.  And then it will be the Congress’ turn,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

But once again, Obama was able to wring concessions from the Hispanic Caucus.

At first the Latino lawmakers insisted Obama act the day after the elections. But the possibility one Senate race might not be decided, a squeaker in Louisiana that may not be settled until after  a November runoff, prompted the president to ask the caucus to give him more time.  In the end, the resolution called for the president to act to end the “moral crisis harming American communities after the November 4, 2014 elections and before the end of the holiday season.”

The Hispanic Caucus may have been willing to wait, but not other Latinos.

On Oct. 2, the day after the Department of Homeland Security released the 2013 deportation figures, Obama was heckled when he gave a speech at the Hispanic Caucus’ annual gala by a woman identified as “undocumented activist“ Blanca Hernandez. Twice she yelled “we need relief now,” as she objected to deportations under Obama.

Since then, the president and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as other prominent Democrats like Hillary Clinton,  have been heckled by angry immigrant activists at several public events. Obama is also getting heat from immigration hard liners who say he would act unconstitutionally if he moves on immigration. Some Republicans said it would destroy any effort to approve a comprehensive immigration bill.

“Acting by executive order on an issue of this magnitude would be the most divisive action you could take — completely undermining any good-faith effort to meaningfully address this important issue, which would be a disservice to the needs of the American people,” according to a statement form Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.


Golden Cage

Meanwhile some advocates are wondering, “was former President George W. Bush better on immigration?”

Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Washington D.C., said Obama had promised quick action on immigration soon after he assumed office and never delivered. But it wasn’t only those expectations that were dashed, the president continued to disappoint the Latino community over the years. Nuñez said Bush made a good-faith effort to get immigration reform passed by Congress, but was hamstrung by his party.  That was more honest than Obama, who makes promises and pulls back from them when the political winds change, he said.

Mary Meg McCarthy of the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center told the Washington  Post that in some ways immigrant rights were better protected under Bush. “The head of ICE at that time, Julie Myers, really believed in access to legal counsel, so there was at least that recognition,” McCarthy said.

But most Latino advocates continue to hope Obama comes through for them.

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda is lobbying the White House to create an “affirmative relief process” modeled after DACA that would allow all who qualify to apply for protection from deportation and receive authorization to hold a job. Felons would not qualify for this relief, but those convicted of minor offenses and immigration infractions could apply.

While immigration advocates are hoping the president uses his authority broadly, some say he won’t be able to address the real problem. Gustavo Salmeron, 37, a Spanish teacher in Chicago, is adamant that Congress must overhaul immigration laws he calls unjust.“Stopping deportations temporarily is not enough,” he said.

Salmeron met his wife Marlene in  Mexico City and moved with her to the U.S. After the couple had two children, Salmeron tried to adjust his wife’s undocumented status by traveling with her to Juarez, Mexico and applying for a visa.  But a change in the law he was unaware of barred his wife from returning to the U.S. for 10 years because she had violated immigration law.

Marlene – accompanied by the couple’s American-born children – lived apart from Salmeron in Mexico for seven years, vulnerable like others with relatives in the U.S. to kidnappings and blackmail. In May, thanks to a successful asylum claim, Marlene was able to return to Chicago and the family was reunited.

“There was no point in our suffering,” Salderon said. “But nobody cares.”

Meanwhile, in NorthernVirginia, Vaca is hoping the president, or Congress will act to help her obtain some sort of legal status and stop the deportations.“I don’t care if it’s executive action or a new law,” she said. ”I want to live in peace.”

She said her status has kept her from visiting family back in Bolivia, or showing her children the land of their ancestors.“I live in a jaula de oro [golden cage],” she said.  “This country has helped me better myself but it holds me prisoner.”

By Ana Radelat