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What the New Deportation Numbers Mean: Finally, We Are Headed in the Right Direction

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But Implementation of New Enforcement Priorities is Incomplete, As Cases in Iowa, California Show

Washington, DC – This week, the Associated Press reported on new deportation numbers for the past year.  A total of 231,000 people were deported, a drop of 42% from 2012.  As AP notes, the “overall total of 231,000 deportations generally does not include Mexicans who were caught at the border and quickly returned home by the U.S. Border Patrol.  The figure does include roughly 136,700 convicted criminals deported in the last 12 months.” 

Given that the Obama Administration has deported more immigrants than any other in U.S. history, this is welcome news.  We are finally headed in the right direction.  But the long overdue shift in immigration enforcement priorities announced by the President last November is far from complete.

During the first six years of the Obama Administration, DHS deported over 2.4 million people.  By way of contrast, over eight years the George W. Bush Administration deported 1.65 million, a record that tops all that came before him.  How did President Obama pick up so dramatically where President George W. Bush left off?  DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano expanded the controversial Secure Communities Program to every county in the nation, mandatorily enlisting local police in a dragnet that ended up corralling ordinary, hardworking immigrants stopped for traffic infractions or simply for “driving while brown.” This vastly expanded enforcement drive was aimed at meeting DHS’s quota of 400,000 deportations a year.  

Why did President Obama, a man who supports comprehensive immigration reform, engage in such reckless and heartbreaking enforcement?  As Hillary Clinton acknowledged to Telemundo in a recent interview, the President ramped up deportations to record levels in an attempt to win over Republicans to the cause of comprehensive immigration reform.  The theory was that if Republicans saw that Obama was tough, it would undercut the Republican argument that Obama couldn’t be trusted to enforce the law aggressively.  But this legislative strategy failed.  House Republicans blocked a Senate bipartisan bill, arguing that Obama couldn’t be trusted to enforce the law aggressively.  Tragically, millions of families that included undocumented immigrants with years living in the U.S., and citizen spouses and children, were ripped apart.

In response to Obama’s ramped up deportations, the immigrants’ rights movement – from the bottom up – took the President and DHS on.  Rather than accept that enforcement was a necessary price to pay for future legalization, activists demanded a halt to the excessive deportations immediately.  Over time, the movement won the argument and won a change in policy. 

Over 300 states and local jurisdictions imposed limits on cooperation with DHS so that local police could focus on community safety, not doing the dirty work for federal immigration agents.  In June 2012 President Obama responded to the pressure from Dreamers and announced DACA, a program that gave young people protection against deportation and work permits.  Finally, after House Republicans walked immigration reform legislation to death, President Obama announced even more immigration policy changes via executive action.  In addition to expanding on DACA to protect additional young people as well as the undocumented parents of American kids – an initiative that is held up in the courts thanks to a Republican lawsuit – the executive actions included a significant shift in enforcement priorities.  No longer would the Administration pursue a mindless strategy of 400,000 deportations a year.  Instead, immigration enforcement would focus on recent border crossers and convicted criminals. 

But a drop in annual deportations is just the beginning of a shift in policy that has yet to be fully and properly implemented.  The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that, per the guidelines in the enforcement memo, 87 percent of undocumented immigrants should be low priorities – a total of 9.6 million individuals.  This is a population that is settled and contributing to the United States.  It is comprised of millions who would qualify for the legalization and eventual citizenship provisions outlined in the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 and was supported by the Administration.  As the New York Times editorialized in 2014, “Those who would qualify for legalization under a Senate bill passed last summer — people who do not pose criminal threats, who have strong ties to this country and, in many cases, have children who are American citizens — should not be in danger of deportation.”

While we have seen a decline in the total deportations over the past year, there remains a troubling gap between the stated enforcement priorities and the implementation on the ground.  Take the case of the Iowa Mennonite clergy leader, Pastor Max Villatoro, who was deported to Honduras last March despite an outcry from his local community and allies from across the state and nation.  Or read about a 67-year old grandfather in Los Angeles who was nearly deported due to a twenty-five year old “failure to appear” charge  – a disturbing story that Ether Yu-Hsi Lee described recently at ThinkProgress:          

“Apolinar Sanchez Cornejo is a 67-year-old undocumented grandfather from Mexico who has lived in California since 1992 and works in an auto repair shop. Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents took him into custody in an early morning raid at his house. By noon, Sanchez Cornejo was put into deportation proceedings.

Outraged by his detention, his granddaughter Yadira Sanchez — an undocumented immigrant advocate — enlisted the help of advocacy groups to flood the phone lines and inboxes of the ICE Los Angeles field office. By night, Sanchez Cornejo was released.

Sanchez reportedly doesn’t have a criminal record, although he does has a two-decade old deportation order for removal he stated that he didn’t know about. ‘He doesn’t fall under the ICE priority list,”’ Yadira insisted in a phone interview with ThinkProgress.”

Said Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice: “We’ve seen some encouraging steps forward, but more work needs to be done to ensure that a long overdue shift in enforcement priorities and practices is fully realized.  The bottom line is that we should not be deporting people for political reasons, when before long they will be able to get on a path to legal status and citizenship in the country they now call home.”

Follow Frank Sharry and America’s Voice Education Fund on Twitter: @FrankSharry and @AmericasVoice

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