U.S.

Obama faces immigration protests in 40 U.S. cities

Immigration advocates shift tactics to press for an end to deportations

Oriel Siu, left, at a demonstration outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., March 11, 2014.
Thomas Soerenes/The News Tribune/AP Photo

Jaime Valdéz spent 17 years in Phoenix before he was deported to Mexico in February, in what he says is retaliation for protests against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. On Tuesday, Valdéz turned himself in at the port of entry in Nogales, Ariz., to protest what he calls the inhumane practice of separating families. He hopes U.S. authorities grant him humanitarian parole.

"The president says he wants humane treatment, which is exactly what I was fighting for when ICE retaliated by deporting me,” said Valdéz, 31. “I hope that more humane treatment can start with our cases today.”

This act of civil disobedience by Valdéz is part of a growing campaign against President Barack Obama’s policy on deportations, which are expected to reach the 2 million mark this month. What started several months ago with isolated protests at immigration detention centers and border crossings has expanded into a national movement that will reach a crescendo on Saturday, when immigration reform advocates in more than 40 U.S. cities engage in a national day of action and call on Obama to suspend deportations.

The #Not1MoreDeportation campaign will include a rally in front of the White House, an attempt to shut down the Broadview Detention Center in Chicago and a march to City Hall in Los Angeles to call on ICE to change its immigrant detention policy.

Saturday’s planned protests underscore a recent shift in tactics among immigration advocates. Frustrated with the prospects of legislative reform in Congress, immigration proponents are increasingly calling on Obama to take direct action on immigration and use his executive authority to halt deportations.

“We see a significant change in the immigration debate,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, the largest online Latino advocacy organization in the United States. “Efforts at comprehensive immigration reform have been declining in momentum and are officially dead.”

Hispanic support for the president is wilting as well. Seventy-one percent of Latinos voted to re-elect Obama in November 2012. But his approval rating among the group has dropped 23 points in the last year — the biggest decline among major subgroups, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The public’s disapproval of Obama is reflected in a growing grass-roots movement against the president’s deportation policy — which, in turn, has recently garnered mainstream support in Congress. Last month, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, an author of the Senate-approved immigration reform bill, called on Obama to halt deportations for relatives of U.S. citizens. And although most Republicans remain staunchly opposed to a comprehensive immigration reform bill, some GOP members openly admit the party needs to tackle the deportation issue to make inroads among Hispanics.

“The bottom line is, the Hispanic community, the Latino community, is not going to care [about other issues] until we get beyond this issue,” Rand Paul, R-Ky., referring to deportations, told the Washington Post.

Obama’s record

In May 2011, Obama told an audience in El Paso, Texas, that his deportation policy was focused on “violent offenders and people convicted of crimes, not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.”

But a majority of deported immigrants are not dangerous criminals, say advocacy groups. Statistics from ICE show that most people caught in the immigration dragnet have no criminal records or have committed nonviolent crimes, according to a report by the Immigration Policy Center.

In fiscal year 2013, for example, ICE deported 368,644 immigrants. Of these, 1 in 5 were Level 1 deportees, convicted of an aggravated felony. But in recent years, Congress has steadily expanded what “aggravated felony” means. Whereas the initial definition covered murder, federal trafficking of drugs and arms, it now includes more than 30 forms of offenses, including failing to appear in court and filing a false tax return.

Obama responded to pressure last month by ordering Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review the administration’s deportation policies, with the hope of finding more humane ways to enforce the laws. Immigration advocates point to Obama’s use of prosecutorial discretion in the summer of 2012, when he stopped deportations of young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. With midterm elections approaching in November, they hope the president will find the motivation to take further action.

Republicans, meanwhile, have said Obama is running an imperial presidency, and they warn that unilateral action on deportation would jeopardize any chance of broader immigration reform in Congress. Last month House Republicans passed the Enforce Act, which would limit Obama’s prosecutorial discretion to stop deportations — a measure Senate leaders called dead on arrival.

“[Obama’s] legacy is at a tipping point,” said Carmona. “The president can continue with high levels of deportations and separation of families — and be remembered as the worst president in U.S. history on immigration. Or he can choose a path where through executive authority, he can provide relief to the undocumented population.”

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