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Rep. Luis Gutierrez Headshot

Are President Obama's Deportation Changes Real?

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On Tuesday morning, I am going to see for myself. I'm flying to Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend the first hearing in the deportation case against Gabino Sanchez, a husband and father of two U.S. citizens who is facing deportation after more than a dozen years living and working peacefully in the United States. I will go with his attorney, Marty Rosenbluth, Executive Director of the NC Immigrant Rights Project in Durham and will be joined by clergy and supporters trying to stop the deportation of Gabino Sanchez and others like him.

For me, Gabino Sanchez is a test of whether changes in deportation policies announced by President Obama last year are actually prioritizing serious criminals for removal and not deporting working parents, DREAM Act-eligible youth, and those with deep community ties. The case against Gabino Sanchez should be administratively closed if the new Obama guidelines are being followed.

His story is typical. He entered the country 13 years ago as a teenager without a visa in order to support his family in Mexico facing several serious medical problems. He worked and eventually married and settled down in Ridgeland, South Carolina. His two young children are American citizens who have never lived anywhere else.

He is being deported because Ridgeland is a community where driving a car and being Mexican is enough to get you pulled over repeatedly and charged with multiple misdemeanors for driving without a license. The local police set up check points or park outside apartment buildings and mobile home communities where Latinos live so they can pull over immigrants and then slap them with a charge of driving without a license. This is a systematic way of manufacturing a criminal history for immigrants who are working or driving their children to school. This makes them easier to deport and it is happening across the country, especially in the South and in states that are implementing restrictive new immigrant-targeted laws to criminalize undocumented immigrants and get them deported by the federal government.

Gabino Sanchez cannot get a driver's license, cannot get legal immigration papers, and must drive to support his family. His misdemeanor criminal history, if you can call it that, is a product of his undocumented status combined with a heavy dose of good old-fashioned racial profiling for DWB (Driving While Brown).

When President Obama's Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last year that it would prioritize the deportations of immigrants who have committed serious crimes like rape and murder and apply prosecutorial discretion for immigrants with deep ties to the United States and no criminal history, I thought it would help immigrants like Gabino Sanchez. With jails and detention centers filled with non-criminals, overloaded court dockets, and record-setting deportations, the new policy was necessary to relieve a maxed-out deportation system. We improve public safety by deporting serious criminals and in order to do so, we must prioritize who we are deporting.

But the U.S. is still deporting immigrants like Gabino Sanchez by lumping them in with actual criminals, murderers and drug dealers who are a threat to our communities and our nation. Despite the fact that I and others have been told that DHS would not hold minor traffic violations against immigrants being considered for discretion. DHS, I was told, does not want to be a conduit for people who have been targeted by local police because of racial profiling.

Somewhere between the announcement and the implementation of President Obama's deportation policy, something has failed. Last Thursday, the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told Congress that his agency had reviewed more than 142,000 pending deportation cases and had closed or dismissed proceedings against only about 1,500 individuals (with another 10,000 still being considered). Previous analysis showed that, of the more than 1 million people deported by the President, half were non-criminals. So the figure announced by ICE -- 1,500, or about 1 percent -- is incredibly low. And disappointing.

In an election year, there is of course a political dimension to all of this. The President must garner a significant portion of the Latino vote and hope for excellent turnout in order to be reelected. While Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans are finding new and ever more effective ways to turn off Latino voters, this may not be enough in a close election where all roads to Washington go through Latino neighborhoods. Romney, for example, supports the ludicrous fantasy that 11 million or so immigrants should leave the country permanently, even those like Gabino Sanchez (and two-thirds of the other undocumented immigrants) who have lived here for a decade or more. The political cost with Latino voters was underscored again in a Fox News Latino poll that shows likely Latino voters in November overwhelmingly -- more than 80 percent -- support measures like the DREAM Act and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

But massive increases in deportation -- and a policy to give relief to parents and young people with deep roots here that is apparently not making a significant impact -- undercuts the President, not to mention the damage to families, individuals, and public safety.

That's why I am going with Gabino Sanchez to his hearing on Tuesday in North Carolina. I want to see what is happening firsthand and why there is this disconnect between policy and practice. That is also why I am meeting with my newly formed Family Unity Advisory Group in Chicago on Wednesday. Convening this group of clergy, community leaders, advocates and immigrants will help me ensure the President's guidelines are being applied to eligible immigrants in Illinois. We will not only be identifying cases that deserve prosecutorial discretion, but helping the community arm itself with information and strategies to prevent the deportation of individuals and the needless destruction of families.

I believe the President when he says he wants drug dealers and gang-bangers out of immigrant communities and I support him in that goal.

But Gabino Sanchez is not a criminal. He is a man supporting his family and raising his children in the country he has lived in since he was an adolescent. We should be working to find ways to allow him to do that legally, not finding ways to deport him and destroy his family. If the federal government's deportation policies have meaning and if our opposition to racial profiling has credibility, the case against Gabino Sanchez should be closed.