Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

¿Sí se puede? Obama’s deportation legacy

Quota driven immigration dragnet is the Democratic Party's latest Latino problem

April 13, 2014 7:00AM ET

President Barack Obama’s deportation policy has come under harsh criticism from immigrant rights activists. This month they launched several campaigns, including #Not1More and the Obama Legacy Project, to protest the administration’s record pace of deportations. At least 2 million people have been deported since Obama took office.

The administration’s misguided tactics have angered even some of Obama’s closest allies. Janet Murguia, head of the National Council of La Raza, referred to Obama as a “deporter in chief” last month. This harsh criticism from a Latina leader and longtime Democratic supporter does not bode well for Obama. The Latino vote helped Obama win the 2012 election, yet as the 2014 midterm elections loom, Democrats are losing traction among Hispanic voters. Disillusioned with the lack of progress on immigration reform, many Latinos are simply losing interest in voting.

Obama has repeatedly argued that his immigration law enforcement agenda has focused on dangerous criminals and gangbangers. In 2012 he defended his deportation policy, arguing that its primary focus is catching crooks, and promised to hone in on those deemed a threat to public safety or national security.

The evidence that the Department of Homeland Security has been doing exactly the opposite is hard to ignore.

Last week the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research organization at Syracuse University, issued a damning report on the criminal convictions of deportees, providing data that was not previously available. The report, which analyzed 2.3 million deportations by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from 2008 to 2013, found that less than half these deportees had criminal convictions. Moreover, it noted that most of these convictions were minor. “ICE currently uses an exceedingly broad definition of criminal behavior: Even very minor infractions are included,” the report said. “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.”

It is time for Obama to use his executive authority to create a deportation policy that is smart not only in name but in reality.

In other words, half of all deportees had no criminal record whatsoever, and large numbers of criminal deportations involved people with traffic offenses. “For example, anyone with a traffic ticket for exceeding the speed limit on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway who sends in their check to pay their fine has just entered ICE’s ‘convicted criminal’ category,” the report added. “If the same definitions were applied to every citizen — rather than just to noncitizens — available evidence suggests that the majority of U.S. citizens would be considered convicted criminals.”

Of course, under U.S. law, one does not have to be convicted of a crime to be deported; you only have to be undocumented. However, with 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, the White House has to set priorities. The administration maintains that the goal of immigration enforcement is not to deport all 10 million undocumented immigrants. Instead, its goal is to deport 400,000 people a year, focusing on noncitizens convicted of crimes.

While the ICE has consistently achieved the annual quota, its attempts to focus on dangerous criminals have largely failed. The enforcement initiative Secure Communities was created to help ICE meet the latter goal. Under this program, local law enforcement agencies submit to the ICE fingerprints of each person they arrest. The agency then issues a detainer for individuals it wants to hold, directing agents to arrest them.

Instead of issuing detainers only for people with serious crimes, the quota has caused the ICE to cast a wide net — using its resources to sweep up as many deportable aliens as possible, with little regard for the nature of their criminal record. A new data point from the TRAC report renders this evident. In 2013 a quarter of all deportations were for traffic violations such as speeding and driving under the influence. While safe driving is valued in this country, in common parlance we do not generally refer to people with traffic convictions as criminals.

The criminality of people convicted of immigration violations is even more questionable. Last year, the most serious crime committed by 1 in 5 people deported on criminal grounds was the petty misdemeanor of illegal entry. The difference between those deported for being undocumented and those removed for an immigration violation of illegal entry is almost entirely a question of prosecutorial decisions. In other words, the 47,000 people deported for illegal entry were converted into criminals primarily for reporting purposes.

The third-largest crime category for 2013 is drug offenses. Notably, the most common offense in this category was marijuana possession, which has been decriminalized in Washington, Colorado and other locations.

Instead of enhancing public safety, Obama’s deportation policy has put thousands of kids in foster care and deported hundreds of thousands of parents of U.S. citizens — creating a massive Latino problem for the Democratic Party. It is time for Obama to use his executive authority to create a deportation policy that is smart not only in name but in reality.

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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