Obama Administration Redux
Our immigration policies have been shaped by xenophobic, anti-immigrant and nativist attitudes. These attitudes tend to become heightened during times of economic downturn or political instability. In short, this history is complex and marked by many policy and attitude shifts. In this essay, I will seek to shed light on the immigration policies inherited and shaped by President Barrack Obama as his second term comes to an end. Despite the Presidents intentions to overhaul the immigration system upon arrival to the White House, lack of support from Congress, an inherited convoluted immigration system and racist and xenophobic attitudes, holdovers from previous generations and policies, have had the net result of a mixed legacy, one filled with some triumphs and some tribulations.
Scapegoating of immigrant communities has a long history in the United States. Our immigration policies were formed out of these xenophobic and nativist attitudes going back to the late nineteenth century and Chinese exclusion. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, despite prior attempts by the Clinton and Bush administrations, efforts to liberalize or reform immigration policy were shelved. In an effort to keep citizenry safe, the bureaucracy tasked with immigration matters, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was reconstituted into a larger umbrella organization called the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This new bureaucracy also includes the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BSBP), the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS). This is the convoluted immigration system that President Obama inherited.
President Obama pledged during his campaign to overhaul our immigration system. Because of his inability to accomplish reform, this is seen by some to be his most glaring failure. PBS News Hour correspondent, Kathleen Hennessey writes that, “when his presidency ends in January, Obama will leave behind an outdated and overwhelmed system, with some 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.” However, his legacy regarding immigration is mixed. He will also be remembered for “protecting 730,000 young people, a generation of so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children.” I think that Obama genuinely recognized the positive contributions that immigrants have made to our nation, and tried to change public perception and some of the negative connotations taken as near fact by some by saying, “immigration is not something to fear. We don’t have to wall ourselves off from those who may not look like us right now or pray like we do, or have a different last name.”
Another source, the Washington Post, points to the controversy regarding Obama’s record on immigration. Depending on which side of the debate you are on, “Obama is simultaneously responsible for the highest rate of deportation in 20 years and a 26% drop in deportation.”  How does one reconcile this? According to the author, “changes in immigration law, terminology and classification are causing the confusion”. As was the case in the 1980s and 1990s, the media continues to play a role in this distortion. They continue to use the word “deportation” in their coverage, as did our President-elect during this campaign, however, this “category has been obsolete in immigration law since 1996.” Prior to 1996, law distinguished between those who were “excluded”, i.e. prevented from entering the U.S. and those who were “deported” or expelled from the U.S. after they had successfully entered the country. Since 1996, these two categories were combined and called “removal”. Also, those who are apprehended and prevented from entering are called “returns” currently.
Despite these positive advances, his administration was also responsible for deporting more than 2.4 million people, a total which is close to the total number deported by Bush and Clinton combined. During his presidency, the focus has changed as well. Due to limited resources, more attention has been given to “removing threats to national security and public safety, and recent arrivals.” Due to political pressure and in an effort to not be seen as “soft on immigration” or “soft on terrorists”,
So, how does this contribute to the confusion? Different administrations count and report different numbers. And different media outlets report these numbers differently. For example, Bush “seems to have reported removals and returns together” whereas, “Obama’s administration has emphasized only its number of removals”. These numbers, can of course, be manipulated to proof that Obama is either “soft on immigration” or “tough on enforcement” depending on your stance. The media’s coverage of these immigration policies adds to the confusion. On any given day, Obama might be reported as a champion of immigrants or as the president who deported the largest number of people, all depending on the media outlet from which you are getting your news.
The Nation Magazine reported that Obama failed on its promise to overhaul the immigration system, but went even further and contends that he “turbocharged it” by increasing the budget for immigration enforcement by 300 percent. The author also contends that “an increasing number of people were charged and channeled into federal prison before their expulsion”. Could this account for the numbers of “criminals” being expelled? If one is apprehended while attempting to cross the border, arrested, charged and tried, there is automatic justification for deportation or removal. This policy, dubbed “Operation Streamline” which is a joint initiative of the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice was started in 2005. It adopted a “zero tolerance” policy against those trying to enter the country illegally and initiates criminal proceedings against those who are apprehended. This criminalization of immigrants continues the racist and xenophobic attitudes and ignores the economic, social and political conditions for which people flee their home countries. Add something here that connects to Chinese exclusion.
Figure 1: Removal Statistics
Another thing that was interesting to learn and which is illustrated by the graph above, is that geography plays an important role in Obama’s immigration enforcement policies. Those who have made it to the interior of the country are much less likely to be removed than those caught near the border. How long an immigrant has been here and has avoided detection is also important. Resources are used more liberally along the southern border where there is a zero tolerance policy. This contrasts with statistics during the last year of the Bush administration where “64% of deportations were from the interior of the country”.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 2: Operation Streamline Immigration Courts
Another aspect of immigration policy which has been controversial is the use of private prisons as “detention centers” for immigrants who are awaiting trials or removal to their home countries. The LA Times reported in September that the “Obama administration is considering an end to the practice of keeping immigrant detainees in for-profit centers”. This system keeps more than 31,000 people in custody on a given day. There are four privately run detention facilities in California. Civil rights advocates have documented poor health care and abuses in these centers but ICE officials say that they are cost effective and warn that if the use of these detention centers are phased out, more people will be housed in state and local jails because the federal government doesn’t have enough facilities.
In short, Obama’s record on immigration is mixed and there is little agreement about whether he had a positive or negative net effect. It is true that deportations (removals) increased in the first four years that Obama was in office. However, those numbers have decreased in recent years. It will remain to be seen what Obama’s legacy regarding immigration will be. It stands to reason that the convoluted system will continue to vex the next administration unless it is overhauled and reformed. A path to citizenship needs to be clearly institutionalized so that immigrants who have been law abiding citizens for years can become citizens.
As matter of justice, the policy of Operation Streamline whereby immigrants are criminalized for attempting to make a better life for themselves should be eliminated. Without addressing the economic, political or religious reasons that people choose or feel forced to leave their home countries is an assault on the dignity of human beings. A failure to provide for people whose homeland is destroyed by the ravages of war is a crime against humanity. Classifying people as criminals or terrorists dehumanizes immigrants and leads to discriminatory policies, justifies xenophobic attitudes and failures to recognize the positive contributions make to American society.
These racialized policies not only endangered those that they directly effect. They also have negative consequences for the rest of the country. They undermine our democracy and create a permanent underclass who are denied full citizenship rights. Despite these obvious results, there is another less obvious outcome. These policies distract people’s attention from other national problems and they seek to create an “us vs. them” mentality which prevents people from coming together to work towards promoting and protecting democracy and equality for all. Our President-elect has capitalized on this discontent in our country by vilifying immigrants and threatening mass deportations. It remains to be seen what, if any, of the positive effects Obama may have made regarding immigration policy will remain intact during the Trump presidency.
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Bennett, Brian. “White House considers ending for-profit immigrant detainee centers, but critics say it could add billions to the cost”. LA Times, September 6, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-immigration-detention-20160906-snap-story.html.
Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.
Franco, Marisa and Garcia, Carlos. “The Deportation Machine Obama Built for President Trump”. The Nation, June 27, 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/the-deportation-machine-obama-built-for-president-trump/.
Hennessey, Katheleen. “Immigration stands as Obama’s most glaring failure”. PBS News Hour. July 4, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/immigration-stands-as-obamas-most-glaring-failure/.
Horsley, Scott. “5 Things to Know About Obama’s Enforcement of Immigration Laws”. NPR, August 31, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/08/31/491965912/5-things-to-know-about-obamas-enforcement-of-immigration-laws.
Law, Anna O. “Lies, damned lies, and Obama’s deportation statistics”. Washington Post, April 21, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/04/21/lies-damned-lies-and-obamas-deportation-statistics/.
 Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 263-64.
 Kathleen Hennessey, “Immigration stands as Obama’s most glaring failure”, PBS News Hour, July 4, 2016, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/immigration-stands-as-obamas-most-glaring-failure/.
 Hennessey, “Obama’s most glaring failure”, PBS News Hour.
 Anna O. Law, “Lies, damned lies, and Obama’s deportation statistics”, Washington Post, April 21, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/04/21/lies-damned-lies-and-obamas-deportation-statistics/.
 Law, “Lies”, Washington Post.
 Hennessey, “Obama’s most glaring failure”, PBS News Hour.
 Marisa Franco and Carlos Garcia, “The Deportation Machine Obama Built for President Trump”, The Nation, June 27, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-deportation-machine-obama-built-for-president-trump/.
 Franco and Garcia, “The Deportation Machine”, The Nation.
 Scott Horsley, “5 Things to Know About Obama’s Enforcement of Immigration Laws”, NPR, August 31, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/08/31/491965912/5-things-to-know-about-obamas-enforcement-of-immigration-laws.
 Horsley, “5 Things”, NPR.
 Brian Bennett, “White House considers ending for-profit immigrant detainee centers, but critics say it could add billions to the cost”, LA Times, September 6, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-immigration-detention-20160906-snap-story.html.
 Bennett, “White House considers”, LA Times.