The Migration Policy Institute released today another report that attempted to dig into the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) numbers and explain who has been deported under the Obama administration. Their findings aren't surprising: The formidable immigration detention and deportation machine created under President Bush and expanded under President Obama has become skilled at detecting and deporting those living along our borders and those who come into contact with local law enforcement in the interior of our county.
But that's not the whole story.
The report doesn't tell us how the increased reliance on local law enforcement as an immigration enforcement tool has led to the criminalization of everyday activities in immigrants' lives. Far too many immigrants are funneled through the deportation machine after nothing more than a traffic stop. These immigrants -- along with others -- may attempt to re-enter the country unlawfully in a desperate attempt to be reunited with their families or to safeguard their rights as parents. Not doing so might result in their children being placed into foster care or up for adoption.
This report, along with recent TRAC and New York Times investigations, demonstrates that nearly all aspects of deporting an individual are routinized, mechanized, and meted out with disturbingly little thought at the totality of the circumstances at hand. Worse, they remind us that our detention and deportation system has an Alice in Wonderland quality to it: our basic values are turned upon their heads, and common sense is nearly always disregarded.
Take, for example, the very definition of the border: For immigration purposes, the border extends 100 miles inland, creating a zone in which Border Patrol agents can infringe upon the rights of U.S. residents as far north as Riverside, Calif., and as far south as Columbus, Ohio. Those deported at the "border," then, could just as easily be longtime residents of cities and towns full of people who have never been to the actual border.
The topsy-turvy nature of our detention and deportation policy doesn't end there. Our detention and deportation system is geared toward removing the maximum number of people, regardless of the damage a deportation could cause to a family, community, or local economy. As a result, parents of U.S. citizen children have been deported due to traffic infractions and veterans have been deported due to mistakes made decades ago. No regard is given to the societal and economic damage these deportations cause.
Immigration judges also must cope with a detection, detention, and deportation system that has grown at an accelerated pace, but without adequate court funding to match. While budgets for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol increased by 300% between 2002 and 2013, the budget for immigration courts increased by only 70%. It's little wonder, then, that 75% of immigrants are deported without seeing a judge.
President Obama has ordered DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to review these policies and to bring our current policies in line with our values. We -- along with many others -- have already made several suggestions to restore fairness and justice to a department that has long lacked both qualities, but our overarching suggestion is simple: It's time to recognize our nation's immigrant-rich heritage and stop treating immigrants as nothing more than a way to inch toward a deportation goal written on an office whiteboard.
Instead, let's create a court system that allows an immigration judge to look at all aspects of an immigrant's case before determining whether an individual should be deported. Currently, immigration judges cannot take into account whether an immigrant is a breadwinner for her family or a community leader when determining if she should be deported. Oftentimes judges cannot even consider whether an immigrant has U.S. citizen children.
Secretary Johnson could bring us closer in line with our value of fairness by instilling accountability within his department. Instead of encouraging agents to hit deportation quotas, immigration agents should be instructed and given incentives to look at each individual case to assess an immigrant's ties to the U.S., how she is contributing to her family, community, and society, and what relief she may be eligible for.
As the Migration Policy Institute report demonstrates, our Alice in Wonderland detention and deportation system preceded President Obama. But that doesn't mean President Obama is powerless to end the madness. Indeed, he is on solid legal ground and has great authority and power to do so. He, along with Secretary Johnson, has an opportunity to stop pushing more than one thousand immigrants a day through a system where logic, common sense, and due process are nothing more than buzzwords. It is time to restore fairness, justice, and balance to a system that has run amok.