On Tuesday the 15th of April, Alan Gomez, a dedicated immigration reporter at USA Today, published an opinion column contradicting the claims of the immigrant rights community and validating the Obama Administration’s spin. Gomez has long demonstrated fairness, rigor, and attention to important stories in his reporting, which left many concerned about this inaccurate, seemingly dismissive, and counter-productive opinion piece.
This is a pivotal moment in the immigration reform debate. A decade of seemingly intractable gridlock in Congress has given way to a new, fragile consensus on the following points: (1) The status quo is unjust. US immigration law and policy is not just “broken,” it is affirmatively immoral, (2) The President has the legal authority to do more to protect immigrants, and his deportation policy (and how it is understood by the media) has an effect on political prospects for legislation, and (3) The President should do more to reverse aspects of his policies that unnecessarily criminalize, deport, and dehumanize immigrants.
In recent weeks, unified opposition to the Obama Administration’s deportation policy has resulted in hurried meetings at the White House meant to divide the immigrant rights movement, as the Obama administration has rushed to fend off mounting criticism by arguing that its deportation record is not as bad as it looks. We can expect more top-down pressure on opinion-makers in an attempt to contravene growing pressure that is being built from the bottom-up.
Particularly because the Department of Homeland Security is very adept at obfuscating its record and engaging in coordinated propaganda, it is critical to maintain a clear public record. We agree with Cornel West that a condition of truth is allowing suffering to speak, and that is what has happened in recent weeks as reporting on immigration has shifted. We hope the trend will continue with coverage lifting, rather than silencing, the voices of emerging immigrant rights leaders. It is in this spirit that we offer the following line-by-line response to the Gomez op-ed:
“Voices: Obama deporter in chief? Not quite”
MIAMI – Much has been made in recent weeks over President Obama’s deportation record.
Critics say he’s ignored his responsibility to enforce the nation’s laws and allowed undocumented immigrants to roam free. Immigration advocates say he’s escalated enforcement to a record-setting pace, tearing apart good, hard-working families in the process. (This understates the case that is being made by the immigrant rights community. Separated families are indeed an immediate and visible consequence of the unjust status quo. But immigrant rights advocates have also made the case that the President’s policies are criminalizing immigrants, undermining public safety, generating a nationwide civil rights crisis, and casting a cloud of suspicion that treats all undocumented immigrants as a priority for removal and punishment instead of inclusion.)
So which is it? A slew of news articles and think tank reports have used reams of deportation data to come up with wildly varying conclusions. But the fact is this: The number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. deported by the Obama administration has fallen in each year he’s been in office. (The data is not clear on this, as explained below. Presumably Gomez is referring to interior removals here, but this is not clearly defined.)
Deporter in chief? Far from it. (In a short sentence, Gomez dismisses the opinion and experience of thousands. And while the intent of the piece is to argue that the President’s deportation policy is less brutal than it appears, it remains a fact that the President is the “deporter-in-chief.”)
In Obama’s first year in office, his administration deported 237,941 people (from the interior). That number represents the traditional definition of a deportation: someone living their life in the U.S. when they encounter a law enforcement officer who has them shipped out of the country.
By last year, that number had fallen to 133,551. And of those, 71,938 had been previously convicted of at least one felony or several misdemeanors – the “criminal aliens” that the administration has targeted. (This interpretation excludes “traditional deportations”—to use Gomez’s term—within in 100 miles of border, masking the total number. Moreover, DHS is not a credible source. About the Secure Communities program, for example, a federal judge has said there is “ample evidence that ICE and DHS have gone out of their way to mislead the public,” and Congresswoman Lofgren said that ICE was “dissembling and deceiving.” Gomez himself concedes throughout the piece that the Obama Administration engages in spin to defend its record). That means of the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, fewer than 70,000 who have led generally peaceful lives here were deported last year (First, that’s a large number. Second, it appears to embrace dehumanizing rhetoric implying that all immigrants convicted of crimes are violent. Third, it fails to count the number of people who may have been apprehended at the border while returning to their homes in the United States.)
Yes, the Obama administration says it deports 400,000 people annually (This is a curious sentence construction. It is true the Obama administration “says” it is deporting approximately 400,000 people per year. It is also true that the Obama Administration is, in fact, deporting approximately 400,000 people per year. A side note though: it is also true that the total number of removals went down last year, and we hope it will continue to go down…), recently passing the 2 million mark throughout the president’s time in office. But the majority of those cases involve people caught by Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border and processed through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (These people include both recent crossers, people living along the border, and people who were coming home from visits abroad. Gomez’s argument appears to be that the border deportations are less harmful than interior deportations. If so, part of his argument rests on an implicit defense of repugnant programs like Operation Streamline.). In years past, those people would have been quickly shipped back to Mexico. But starting under President George W. Bush, many of those people are being handed over to ICE so that the agency can formally charge them (Yes, the decision to end the so-called “catch and release” policy has changed the way the numbers are counted, but it also has had the effect of criminalizing immigrants. The crime of unlawful re-entry accounts for many of the “criminals” the Administration “says” it is deporting among its high priorities. In the past, there were fewer consequences to being apprehended on the border, and as a consequence repeat “returns” were overcounted by comparison to today.)
The basic accounting of Obama’s deportation record has been muddled in two ways. (It has been “muddled” for many reasons. It would be more accurate to say “at least two ways.”)
First, the president, in an effort to appease Republican critics, has touted the 400,000-deportations-a-year number as proof of his tough record. (This statement concedes that the Obama Administration spun its record as a political strategy, but it assigns motivations that remain factually in dispute. Taken at its word, the Administration “touted” deportations in attempt to establish “enforcement credentials” with Republicans. Some, however, believe a more cynical strategy was at play, as the administration attempted to triangulate, preserving immigration as an “issue,” moving the debate rightward in effort to divide the GOP. Either way, it appears there is agreement that President Obama’s deportation policy is politically motivated. And as a thought experiment, ask this question: Was Janet Napolitano to the left or right of George W. Bush on immigration when she took over at DHS?) Secondly, the president has come under increasing fire from immigration advocacy groups to either slow down deportations or stop them completely. (This summation omits at least two large demands from grassroots groups: an expansion of relief such as DACA and an end to S-Comm. A full articulation of recommendations and options for the President to implement was published by the #Not1More Blue Ribbon Commission last Thursday and is available here.)
The backlash started last September when seven undocumented immigrants handcuffed themselves to the gates of the White House to call on the president to halt deportations (The backlash to Obama Administration deportation policy started much earlier. The September action marked an escalation in long-standing work. Using it as a starting point invisibilizes the fights for DACA and against SCOMM. The #Not1More campaign was formally launched in April 2013). More groups joined in the chorus, culminating in a March speech by Janet Murguía, the president of the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest and most well-financed immigration advocacy group. In it, she called Obama “deporter in chief.”
That led to a White House meeting last month (The White House meetings were a reaction to the groundswell of pressure from immigrants across the country and to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus position that—beyond merely criticizing the President’s deportation record—called for affirmative relief, expansion of DACA status, and an end of Secure Communities.), when the president voiced his frustration with leaders of several immigration advocacy groups. In his time in office, Obama has stopped the work site immigration raids (and massively increased “paper raids”—I-9 audits contributing to denial of jobs, retaliation for worker organizing, and theft of wages) so frequent under Bush and created a program that has granted protected status to more than 500,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. He has stopped the deportation of relatives of military members, is considering extending work visas to spouses of foreigners working in the country and ordered a system-wide review of deportation practices to see how to conduct them “more humanely.” (This is almost verbatim the Administration’s defense of its record. It also omits competing views like this one, arguing that the Obama administration itself is engaged in a policy of attrition similar to Arizona’s SB 1070).
During the meeting, Obama asked the immigration advocates why they shifted their focus from House Republicans (With notable exceptions, those invited to the meeting did not represent groups that had “shifted the focus” from House Republicans to the President. Indeed, the meeting was designed to disrupt a growing consensus that we should pressure both the GOP and President Obama. The idea that this is an either/or proposition is one that is advanced principally by the White House) who hold the keys to immigration overhaul. The Senate passed a sweeping immigration bill in June, but House Republicans have done nothing in the 10 months since.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., summed up the feelings of the White House, when she called the focus on Obama a “gift to the Republicans.” (This omits the fact that Leader Pelosi, as well as several Gang of 8 Senators, and even former ICE director Sandweg have called for more action from the President. Moreover, Leader Pelosi has specifically agreed with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in its call to expand deferred action, suspend deferred action and end S-Comms.)
Judging by the numbers, she’s right. (This is a spurious conclusion: it is unclear what numbers are used in this piece, where they came from, and how or whether they are related to Leader Pelosi’s statement).
Gomez is a Miami-based correspondent for USA TODAY.