President Barack Obama greets the crowd after speaking about immigration reform at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas, Tuesday, May 10, 2011, during his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Democrats have long been able to play good cop to the Republican bad cop on immigration reform and border security, which in effect has put minorities and those who care about these issues in the bind of voting for the lesser of two evils. But whether Barack Obama is trying to appeal to conservatives on immigration or is actually conservative at heart, his administration has proved that little, in fact, differentiates the two parties. Let’s take a look.
Since the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the issues of immigration and counterterrorism have been conflated. Much of the pressure to deport more and more undocumented immigrants comes from a fear that those immigrants could endanger the American people. As a result, Obama has dealt with immigration as a security problem rather than a humanitarian one. The result is what some call “Bush on steroids”—an unprecedented number of deportations, criminal-justice officers acting as immigration agents, and punitive rather than administrative detention centers.
With almost 400,000 deportations in 2010 alone, the Obama administration set a record for “overall removals of illegal aliens,” an accomplishment it openly touts on its website and in Maria Hinojosa's must-see PBS Frontline documentary Lost in Detention. "Our approach has yielded historic results, removing more convicted criminal aliens than ever before and issuing more financial sanctions on employers who knowingly and repeatedly violate immigration law than during the entire previous administration," said Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano at a special press conference held in October of 2010.
To appease immigrant-rights advocates dismayed at the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform last year, Obama assured that the focus was on detaining serious criminals—not productive members of society, and especially not students. In El Paso last May, the president reminded voters that his administration had beefed up border security so that a broad immigration-reform dialogue could begin but, he joked, Republicans would never be satisfied. Soon they’d want a moat with alligators at the border. After two and a half years of increasingly stringent immigration tactics and nothing by way of reform, the “lesser of two evils” story is beginning to come undone.
In June, the Department of Homeland Security issued an official memo instructing Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees to “refrain from pursuing noncitizens with close family, educational, military, or other ties in the U.S. and instead spend the agency’s limited resources on persons who pose a serious threat to public safety or national security.” In reality, however, the Obama administration arrested more than 150,000 noncriminal immigrants in fiscal year 2011. Some of those who qualified as criminal, had committed offenses as minor as driving with a busted taillight. Traffic violations are considered “level 2” crimes by ICE, which places it in the middle of the scale. Two studies cited in a report from the National Association of Social Workers found that that, depending on the jurisdiction, anywhere from 55 percent to 87 percent of “serious criminal” arrests through ICE’s programs stem from misdemeanors such as traffic violations.
In August, the government announced an official policy of conducting case-by-case reviews of 300,000 pending deportations with the intent of allowing many undocumented immigrants without criminal records to stay in the United States indefinitely and apply for work permits. But in October, the national immigrant youth-led organization United We DREAM reported that those cases remained in limbo—including those of more than 100 DREAM Act students under their advisement and one of their board members, Matias Ramos.
Though Ramos was a low-priority immigrant, meaning not a criminal, and though he was eligible for the DREAM Act, he was arrested in the airport and asked to purchase his own ticket to leave the country as soon as possible. He was also ordered to wear an ankle bracelet while he remained in the U.S. With the help of United We DREAM advocates, who organized a 20,000-signature petition, Ramos was awarded a six-month stay, but his ultimate fate is still up in the air.
Before detained immigrants can even discover their fate, they are typically transferred to one of 250 detention centers running out of existing jails or managed by private corporations. One of those was a woman called “Mary,” profiled in Lost in Detention. Mary was picked up in Florida for a routine traffic violation and taken to the Willacy Detention Center in South Texas, when it was discovered she had written a hot check ten years earlier. While in detention, guards repeatedly raped Mary. She begged to be deported rather than face more abuse, leaving behind her four young children. She hasn’t seen them for more than two years.
An American Civil Liberties Union investigation found that claims of sexual abuse are widespread throughout the U.S. detention system, and a Frontline investigation found that the majority of the 170 complaints of sexual abuse have neither been investigated nor resolved.
While the administration continues to incarcerate undocumented immigrants in the name of “securing the border,” it is also endangering the lives of American citizens and federal agents through the execution of reckless, cross-border operations unsanctioned by Congress.
The Department of Justice’s Operation Fast and Furious, for instance, allowed illegal guns to “walk” across the border from Arizona into Mexico so that officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) could follow the weapons back to the Mexican drug-cartel leaders who use them. Slight problem: The ATF lost track of hundreds of guns, which have begun to show up in murder investigations across the Southwest. Investigators have linked the guns to a death in the Arizona desert in December 2010 and one in Mexico in February 2011.
Even more alarming are allegations, filed in federal court in August, that U.S. federal agents allowed the Sinaloa drug cartel to traffic several tons of cocaine into the United States in exchange for information about rival cartels.
These cases highlight the hypocrisy of an administration that vilifies innocuous immigrants while enabling actual criminals to conduct illegal business and even murder in the United States and throughout Mexico.
But what can Latinos do with President Obama’s abysmal record, vote Republican? That would be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Republicans have been so brazen in their bias against Latinos [that some of them have begun to get recalled. Which is exactly the kind of thing President Obama plans to use to win votes in Arizona and other historically red states. It’s a strategy of “Hey, I won’t write the xenophobic laws.” But he sure will enforce them.