President Obama is presiding over a broken immigration system that has deported two million human beings since he assumed office in 2009. It is a horrific figure that we too often forget represents incalculable human suffering, including an estimated 150,000 U.S. citizen children who had a parent deported in FY 2012 alone. In fact, the Obama administration has already deported more human beings than George W. Bush did in eight years and more than double the number of people Bill Clinton deported.
Actually, it's more than any president ever, which is why the president's immigration allies are fast becoming adversaries.
Two weeks ago, the president barely avoided a resolution from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which was about to formally criticize his administration's staggering number of deportations. In early March, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)--three members of the Senate's Gang of Eight immigration reform negotiators--also criticized the president's deportation record by calling on him to slow down the pace of his administration's deportations. Things have gotten so bad that the National Council of La Raza has rightly dubbed President Obama the "deporter-in-chief."
In the face of this intense heat, the president has asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to undertake a review of the administration's deportation priorities and policies, so they can be executed in a more humane manner. To curb the record-level deportations, the president should immediately undertake the following actions to help fix America's disastrous immigration system.
First, the president should instruct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to prioritize only the deportation of individuals convicted of serious violent offenses in recent years. According to DHS's own fiscal year 2013 data, 67 percent of the 368,644 people deported have either no criminal history or have only been convicted of minor misdemeanors. Even this figure is misleading, as those with criminal histories include individuals convicted of low-level crimes, such as offenses based on immigration status like driving without a license. No one should be ripped away from their families and communities because of a traffic offense.
Second, the president should instruct DHS to cease asking state or local police to detain peaceful immigrants who pose no threat to public safety. Under Secure Communities and other DHS programs, state and local police submit fingerprint scans of anyone arrested to DHS. The scans are then run through a database to identify people without immigration status. If there's a "match," DHS can issue an immigration hold, asking state or local police to detain (often at their own expense) a person for 48 hours--but in practice can be much longer--until the individual can be transferred into DHS custody for deportation.
These immigration holds are issued regardless of why the individual was arrested or even whether the individual was ultimately convicted of a crime. In FY 2007, DHS issued roughly 80,000 of these holds; in 2012, this number jumped to over 270,000. Too often, mistakes are made, with U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, often of Latino descent, improperly detained by policies that invite racial profiling. By ensuring that only immigrants with recent conviction histories of serious, violent crimes are detained by state or local police, the president can partially alleviate the fear and devastation that has been wrought by Secure Communities.
Third, no one should be deported without being given the opportunity to see an immigration judge. Currently, the administration flouts the due process rights of immigrants by relying on deportation methods, such as expedited removal and reinstatements of old decisions, which bypass a judge. Judicial hearings ensure a judge can consider the impact a deportation will have on the individual's family or loved ones as well as any other mitigating circumstances.
In fiscal year 2013, over 260,000 people were deported without ever seeing a judge, nearly twice as many as in 2005. This is a disgrace to the due process rights the country was founded upon. The president should use his authority to limit the use of deportations without court hearings to the greatest extent possible. At a minimum, he should ensure that all individuals are screened to determine whether they are eligible for immigration relief or have other compelling factors that weigh in favor of them remaining in the United States.
In addition to implementing these reforms, President Obama should provide deportation relief and work authorization to people who have lived in the U.S. for five years and do not pose a current serious threat to the public. Instituting these changes would go a long way to curbing record-level deportations, keeping families together, protecting American communities, and safeguarding civil liberties.
The president already has the power to reverse his failed immigration and border security policies. Now he just needs the political will and moral courage.
Laura W. Murphy is director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office.