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‘Deporter in chief’ Obama has alienated Latino voters

New report reveals how Obama’s immigration law enforcement priorities compare with Bush’s

November 1, 2014 2:00AM ET

House Republicans are expected to maintain their majority status in next month’s midterm elections. The GOP may retake the Senate. Analysts say Latino voters will be crucial in close Senate races. The story is different in the House, where Republicans expect to remain in control, with or without the Latino vote.

Latino voters were key to President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. However, the failure to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform means that Democrats are losing this critical support. This summer, Obama delayed a plan to defer deportation for undocumented migrants until after the midterm elections.

Latino anger at Obama, who has been called the “deporter in chief,” is justified. The president has overseen the most expansive removal program in history, carrying out more than 2 million deportations since taking office. Further delay on immigration action means more than 1,000 people will be deported daily.

But just who is counted in the 2 million deportations is the subject of widespread debate. Conservative pundits claim that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is counting border removals toward the annual 400,000 deportations quota to show that Obama has been tough on deportation. On the other hand, immigrant rights activists claim the administration is increasing interior removals, tearing immigrant families and communities apart.

The distinction is important. For example, catching migrants at the border and returning them to their home countries (as is typical of border removals) is different from arresting long-term U.S. residents in their homes, in front of their children, and sending them back to countries they left long ago (as is typical of interior removals). When an undocumented immigrant living in the United States is removed, this is nearly always counted as an interior removal. A border removal, by contrast, often involves a person who crossed the border less than two weeks before being apprehended.

So far, much of the debate over Obama’s deportation policy has occurred in the absence of comprehensive data. A new report by the Migration Policy Institute, a global think tank based in Washington, D.C., that studies the movement of people, offers detailed data on interior and border removals. The report reveals that Obama is on track not only to carry out far more removals than any of his predecessors but also to oversee more interior removals than any other U.S. president.

For context, there were 30,000 annual interior removals in 2003, when President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security. By 2008, Bush’s last full year in office, that number rose to 140,000 interior removals per year. It is clear that Bush initiated an immigration law enforcement program targeting interior removals. The Obama administration continued and intensified Bush’s focus on interior enforcement. The report shows that interior removals reached a peak of 188,000 in 2011, two years after Obama took office.

The majority of Latino voters are expected to sit out the midterm elections. If Democrats expect Latinos to turn out in large numbers in 2016, they will need to end the stalemate on immigration reform.

In 2012, perhaps in response to widespread criticism from Latinos, Obama reversed course. As a result, interior removals fell to 131,000 in 2013, a sharp drop but still far more than the yearly numbers under the Bush administration, except for 2008. During Obama’s first term alone, there were nearly three-quarters of a million interior removals — far more than during all of Bush’s eight years in office.

Beyond interior versus border removals, the report details the number of years deportees lived in the United States prior to being apprehended. According to the Migration Policy Institute, from 2003 to 2013, 648,000 of the deportees had lived in the United States for at least three years. Nearly a third of them, 216,000, had lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years. Deportations of long-term U.S. residents are often the most harmful to families and communities in the U.S., since they are the most likely to lead to family separation.

The 2 million deportations under Obama do not necessarily mean that 2 million families were separated. But this program of mass deportation has meant that least 216,000 people who likely intended to settle permanently in this country have been torn from their homes over the past decade. That amounts to the city of Rochester, New York, being depleted of its population over the course of 10 years. Or perhaps more accurately, imagine every father in San Francisco being removed from the country.

The Obama administration insists the focus on interior enforcement is making our communities safer. However, the numbers belie Obama’s claim that he is focused on deporting criminals.

To be sure, the percentage of criminal removals under the Obama administration (46 percent) is higher than under the Bush administration (36 percent). By 2013, fully 87 percent of interior removals involved people with criminal convictions. However, the details paint a different story. For example, in 2013 immigration offenses accounted for 30 percent of the 200,000 removals on criminal grounds. The vast majority of these crimes are illegal entry or illegal re-entry. The difference between a noncriminal, undocumented immigrant and a criminal alien convicted of illegal entry or re-entry is entirely a matter of prosecutorial discretion. Ultimately, it is difficult to substantiate the official claim that a higher percentage of criminal removals means that deportations are enhancing public safety. Overall, the data reveals that people with fairly minor convictions account for the majority of criminal removals in 2013. About 14,000 people were deported for drug possession, 28,000 for traffic crimes and nearly 5,000 for nuisance offenses such as trespassing and vandalism.

It is encouraging that the Obama administration changed course in 2012 and moved enforcement resources from the interior to the border. However, continued focus on interior removals, including those of people with minor criminal convictions, is sure to further alienate Latino voters, because they are the most likely to be affected when immigrant families are torn apart.

The majority of Latino voters are expected to sit out the midterm elections. If Democrats expect Latinos to turn out in large numbers in 2016, they will need to end the stalemate on immigration reform. It may be too late to change Obama’s legacy as “deporter in chief,” but he still has time to create a different legacy by taking executive action and ending his program of mass deportation.

Tanya Golash-Boza is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her latest book, “Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism,” will be published in November 2015.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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