THE BLOG
11/24/2014 12:44 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

'Felons, Not Families' Oversimplifies a Complex Reality

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Words count. Especially when uttered by the president of the United States. In announcing his Executive Order changing immigration rules last Thursday, President Obama used the phrase "felons, not families." This phrase has its origins in the criminal justice lexicon, where advocates have for years sought its demise as outdated to describe those with criminal convictions.

Criminal justice advocates have worked tirelessly to change the language politicians, practitioners, and the public use to describe those who come into contact with the criminal justice system. For example, instead of the words "felons" or "offenders," those working to improve policies for individuals who have been and are incarcerated use terms such as "formerly incarcerated" or "individual" or "people with criminal records." The nation has made significant progress on reintegrating the formerly incarcerated into communities through work supported by the Justice Department's Second Chance Act. There has also been a slow change in departments of corrections and their partner agencies which assist individuals to reenter society after incarceration. Despite this progress, there are still many barriers that undermine formerly incarcerated individuals' ability to participate in the labor market and successfully reintegrate. There are employers who refuse to hire the formerly incarcerated, hurdles to housing, crippling criminal justice debt, and some states even deprive those with criminal records of the right to vote.

The president stated:

"...over the past six years, deportations of criminals are up 80 percent. And that's why we're going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids. We'll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day."

There has been little discussion of the White House's newest catch phrase, which speechwriters must have bandied about for months. The phrase is reminiscent of language politicians used more frequently in the 1980s and 1990s when crime rates were rising. Embedded in the rhetoric is that those who have run afoul of the law are a continuing threat and that they should forever exist outside of it. There is no notion of rehabilitation. Some did notice the language and balked. Criminal justice reform advocate Glenn Martin tweeted, "'Felons, not families' @BarackObama? Such hypocrisy. On the one hand you're supporting reentry and on the other you're destroying families." And journalist Liliana Segura ‏@LilianaSegura added, "The 'felons, not families' line in Obama's immigration speech is so dehumanizing. 'Felons' are fathers, mothers, sisters, sons."

Obama's words were also disappointing because of the bright line he drew between those convicted of a criminal act and their families. More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent; about 1 in 28 children in the U.S. have a parent in jail. Nationally, there are more than 120,000 incarcerated mothers and 1.1 million incarcerated fathers with minor children. In fact, so many families are affected by incarceration that last year Sesame Street introduced a new Muppet named Alex, who has a parent in jail.

The president's words about "felons" were disheartening not only because of his "felons, not families" sound bite, but because the White House PR machine tweeted it after the speech hoping it would catch on. Fortunately, so far it hasn't, with Democrats supporting the new immigration regime, and Republicans, such as House Speaker John Boehner calling the initiative "damaging to the Presidency itself," because of its assertion of executive power.

While President Obama should be applauded for reaching past the partisan gridlock in Congress that has made it impossible to improve the lives of millions of families torn apart because of strict immigration laws, his emphasis on families over felons seems outdated and a rhetorical step backward, not forward.