During President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night, he mentioned that he still hoped to pass comprehensive immigration reform before his term ended, something he “guaranteed” during his first year.
In the hour that followed, the president did not mention immigration again, despite nationwide raids being carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiative targeting Central American families. Thus far, 121 asylum seekers have been detained, the bulk of them women and their young children.
The president’s failure to address immigration in a real way during his last State of the Union address only seemed more glaring in the context of the raids and following Monday’s Brown and Black Democratic Presidential Forum hosted by Fusion, during which the deportation polilcy was a key concern. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley all participated in the forum, which provided a rare opportunity for the three candidates to address the concerns of communities of color.
Non-white voters are a growing part of the U.S. electorate, with Latinos in particular making up 17 percent of the population. Every 30 seconds, a Latino citizen turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote, which is one of many reasons the “Latino vote” has received unprecedented media attention.
So it came as no surprise that immigration, often thought of as the primary concern of Latinos, took center stage at the forum, with each of the candidates taking shots at each other and trying to distance themselves from the more severe stances of GOP candidates like Donald Trump.
All three candidates denounced the ongoing raids. Sanders and O’Malley expressed particular concern for the children being deported back to places like El Salvador, where a 70 percent spike in violent deaths led to the most recent mass migration of asylum seekers presenting themselves at the U.S. border, as is required by U.S. asylum law. This same population, according to advocates, is being targeted by DHS’ new initiative for—as DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement—coming here “illegally.”
Both Sanders and O’Malley said they would give Central American asylum seekers temporary protected status, which, among other things, means the migrants would not be removed from the United States. Clinton, who infamously said in 2014 that unaccompanied migrant children from Central American should be “sent back,” was forced to defend the statement. Journalist Jorge Ramos, one of the moderators for the forum, pulled no punches with Clinton, asking her if she had a “Latino problem” and if she was going to be the next “Deporter in Chief,” referring to President Obama’s roughly two million deportations while in office.
“The raids aren’t an appropriate tool to enforce immigration laws,” Clinton told Ramos. “To put it in a broader context: We have to have comprehensive immigration reform .… I would prioritize criminals and those plotting and planning threats against our public safety on my list [for deportation].”
When Ramos asked Clinton directly if she would deport children, she sidestepped several times before telling Ramos, “Let me say this: I would give every person, but particularly children, due process to have their story told. And a lot of children will, of course, have very legitimate stories under our law to be able to stay. … I cannot sit here and tell you I have a blanket rule about who or who won’t ever be let into the country to stay because it has to be done individual by individual.”
Clinton, like O’Malley, also vowed to put an end to private detention, a multimillion-dollar industry. O’Malley said for-profit detention centers, especially those that detain families, are a “shameful practice,” asserting that when U.S. citizens “learn our country maintains the largest system of immigrant detention camps of any developed nation in the world, they will rise up and say it’s not right.”
Undocumented organizers and activists aren’t as confident as O’Malley—and for good reason. It wasn’t too long ago that citizens showed up in Murrieta, California, holding signs saying “Return to Sender,” just to spit on the “deportation buses” of Central American children, asylum seekers being transported by ICE from detention centers to immigration processing centers.
Abraham Paulos, executive director of Families for Freedom, a New York-based multi-ethnic human rights organization by and for families facing and fighting deportation, told Rewire that the average citizen doesn’t understand the challenges of navigating the immigration system, let alone the impact the country’s policies have on migrants.
“There is not an understanding of how violent the immigration system and its policies [are] to families,” Paulos said. “There is a mainstream narrative around immigrants couched in terms of assimilation and citizenship. We [at Families for Freedom] tend to stay away from that type of narrative because it doesn’t present a full picture of brown and Black immigrants in this country or the conditions they face.”
While U.S. citizens place great importance in the statements of powerful politicians like Clinton condemning the raids, that condemnation does nothing to quell the very real fear undocumented communities have surrounding detainment and deportation. Paulos said politicians’ statements of support “don’t mean anything” and are only made out of political convenience.
“Raids in this country have increased since Obama gave his infamous speech … when he announced the priority enforcement program, which prioritized people [for deportation] that had been in the criminal system. It also prioritized recent arrivals, but no one saw that part because” of the attention paid to the “felons, not families” portion, he said.
Paulos added that it’s important to be as critical of Democratic candidates as it is Republican candidates, especially when you consider the current U.S. landscape—with a broken immigration system, thousands in detention centers, and millions of deportations—is a direct result of laws that were passed during a Democratic presidency. “Specifically, they were passed during the Clinton administration, and now we have another Clinton willing to uphold those policies,” he explained. “Hillary Clinton can denounce the raids, but what she should really do—and what all candidates should do—is denounce the really harmful laws passed in the 1990s. That would be more meaningful in our community.”
The laws Paulos referred to are the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of non-citizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them.
“Those laws passed during the 1990s, which also included the ‘war on drugs,’ were failed policies. They did nothing but destroy our communities,” Paulos said. “To think that Democrats have a better approach than Republicans is a farce. None of the Democratic candidates have presented anything that really addresses detention in a real way. The conversation is too wrapped up around citizenship. We need to really try to make sure our community members, our families, and our loved ones are living free from the fear of detention.”
U.S. citizens who identify as “liberal” or “progressive” have long been confused by undocumented activists’ approach to Democratic politicians they deem to be on the side of immigrants.
Obama, for example, is responsible for “deferred action,” has spoken out in support of the DREAM Act, and has promised comprehensive immigration reform. Why, then, do undocumented activists call him “Deporter in Chief” and “heckle” him? Because of his record deporting more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, the usual response from liberals is, “It would be worse under a Republican.”
Solutions to the United States’ immigration issues aren’t easy to come by. During the forum, all three candidates confirmed the need for comprehensive immigration reform that would include providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Before that can happen, however, we as a country need to stop seeing detention and deportation as solutions for the immigration issues we have.
Paulos said that when we talk about immigration and immigration enforcement, there is a “major elephant in the room,” and that is their relationship to the U.S. criminal justice system. Just as conditions were placed on deferred action, any candidate pushing for a pathway to citizenship will require beneficiaries to meet certain conditions, including no record in the criminal system.
Many of those deported by the Obama administration had contact with the criminal system. In this way, Paulos said, deportation is no longer separate from the criminal system; deportation is just an extension of mass incarceration.
It’s important to note that if you are deported and return to the United States to reunite with your family, for example, that is a felony. And as a felon, you immediately become a deportation target. So, when President Obama said “felons, not families” when announcing his executive action in November 2014, his administration, in very real ways, was ripping families apart.
“For these candidates, like Bernie Sanders, who discuss social inequality, they have to understand all of the intersections—and particularly what we’re seeing in the criminal justice system and in detention,” the executive director said. “A couple of months ago, 6,000 federal prisoners were slated for release, but more than 2,000 were non-citizens and now they’re slated for deportation. For U.S. citizens, a sentence can be deemed disproportionate, but for a non-citizen, it’s not disproportionate and it leads to deportation.”
As Paulos clarified, citizenship will help, but it can’t be framed as the cure-all for the many challenges Black and brown undocumented communities face.
“In the end, it’s short-sighted because no candidates on either side are doing anything about detentions and deportations; no candidates are talking about the 1996 laws that have created the current climate. If those things aren’t addressed, everything else is futile,” Paulos said. “Comprehensive immigration reform would only add more complicated laws our communities must navigate and I would argue that may not be the best approach. Trying to repeal the 1996 laws would change things in our communities. First, before anything, we need to step back and see that we have a violent system that detains and deports everyone. No one is safe.”