The bad, the ugly, and finally some good

A primer on the past five years inside the broken immigration system

We’ve all heard the common refrain that “the immigration system is broken.”  Everyone acknowledges the problem. It’s the one thing that Tom Tancredo and I can agree on.  Trying to figure out what the solutions should look like, though, requires understanding of what works and what’s broken in the current policies we have on the books.

Here in this blog space “Hustlin’ for Justicia,” I’ll offer weekly dispatches from the front lines of the broken immigration system.  For those of you who aren’t immigration geeks like me, I figure it’s helpful to look back and put the policies that influence the current debate in context.  The past five years of immigration policy under the Obama administration have been confusing and contradictory.  The same president who deported a record-breaking 1.5 million immigrants in his first term by means of highly controversial programs like Secure Communities also offered a reprieve to deportation for 400,000 immigrant youth with the Deferred Action program last year.  Those are some seriously mixed messages.


The bad:  

The Bush administration deported 2 million people in eight years, which averaged out to 20,964 deportations per month. Obama, the self-professed reformer, deported 1.4 million in just half that time, with an average of 32,886 monthly.  How did Obama deport nearly as many people in four years as President Bush did in eight?

Under Obama, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducts immigration raids at worksites, as it did in 2011 at the Wildcat Dairy in Fort Morgan, in ways that mimic the Bush-era 2006 raid in at the Swift meatpacking plant in Greeley.

By and large, though, Obama has preferred to avoid the bad publicity that accompanies large-scale immigration raids. Having a bunch of cops and ICE agents show up at a worksite in the morning to round up immigrant workers for deportation, and then having a bunch of crying children with no one to pick them up from school that afternoon tends to make unhappy headlines.

Instead, over the past five years, ICE has capitalized on opportunities to increase deportation numbers in ways that aren’t as overt. The difference between ICE under Bush and ICE today is that Obama administration kicks people out of the country far more quietly.


The ugly:  

What could be less flashy than a data-sharing program?  With a name straight out of the “1984” doublethink playbook, the Secure Communities (SCOMM) program – first implemented by the outgoing Bush administration in fourteen jurisdictions in October 2008, one month before Obama won the presidential election – increased the exchange of information about immigrants and augmented collaboration between local police and federal immigration agents. As soon as Obama took office, one of his first policy directives on immigration was to implement SCOMM nationwide.  By March 2011, 1,210 jurisdictions had implemented the program, and SCOMM is now operating in all 3,181 jurisdictions nationwide.


Here’s the CliffsNotes version of how SCOMM actually works. Cops arrest a person, and the arrestee is booked at the local jail.  Then the arrestee’s fingerprints are run through SCOMM’s national immigration database. If his or her name pops up as an immigration violator, ICE then issues a “hold” that prompts police to detain the arrestee for up to 48 additional hours (not including weekends and federal holidays) until he or she can be picked up and placed into an immigration detention center to be deported. All this, regardless of whether the person was actually ever convicted of any crime whatsoever, and with no differentiation between an arrest for a minor traffic violation or a violent crime.  The kicker is that the local jails foot the bill for holding ICE detainees for the additional time.


SCOMM was controversial from the start. Though ICE touted the program as a tool to deport immigrants with serious criminal records, its own statistics demonstrated that less than twenty percent of people deported had been convicted of a serious crime. In Colorado, a broad coalition of critics condemned the program for fear that it would lead to fewer immigrants reporting crimes and cooperating with law enforcement.  Outgoing Governor Bill Ritter faced lots of criticism when he signed the agreement with ICE to implement SCOMM in Colorado just days before he left office in January 2011.  Nevertheless, the program was rapidly implemented in here and across the country, with stunning efficacy.


In fact, the SCOMM deportation machine was so adept at flagging record numbers of immigrants for deportation that it earned Obama the moniker “Deporter-in-Chief.”  In 2012 alone, Obama deported 409,849 people, even as he made campaign promises to pass immigration reform.


…And finally, some good:  

Two years ago, with the Obama’s re-election looming, a desire to win the Latino vote and immigration courts backlogged nationwide, the Obama administration took two steps to try to provide immigrant communities some relief from its own deportation policies.


First, in December 2011, ICE selected Denver and Baltimore to pilot a new program, referred to as prosecutorial discretion, to administratively close deportation cases against individuals who met certain criteria (such as their length of time in the United States, criminal histories, and family ties) that deemed them “low priorities for removal.”  However, six months later, the program was criticized for having closed less than two percent of pending cases before the Immigration Court.


Following escalating protests – led mostly by undocumented youth — at Obama campaign headquarters in Denver and other swing states across the country, the administration announced in June 2012 a second initiative promising administrative relief to immigrants.  The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allows certain undocumented immigrant youth to apply for a work permit and a reprieve from deportation for two years. Last week, DACA celebrated its first anniversary since its implementation on August 15, 2012, and the program has been transformative for the approximately 400,000 whose applications were approved in the past year.   Sarahi Hernandez, a student at Metro State University of Denver and one of the 8,335 Coloradans who have received DACA so far, says that her life is radically different now.  “DACA opened up many doors that had been closed since I can remember. I am able to further my education, work, drive, and provide.  More than anything, DACA allows me to value the everyday things.”


Where do we go from here?  

DACA has created a lot of political opportunity both at the federal level and state levels.  Obama appeased immigrant and Latino voters frustrated by his deportation policies and won re-election.  Also, following the contentious election, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and seven other senators known as the bipartisan Gang of Eight passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill in June 2013.  During this year’s state legislative session, DACA’s success helped propel the bipartisan ASSET bill to allow undocumented youth who attended Colorado high schools to pay in-state tuition rates to passage.  Colorado also repealed SB90, the legislative predecessor to Secure Communities, and allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses.


Still, progress is slow. Even if every single DACA-eligible young person applied for and received Deferred Action – and to date, only about half have applied – that would impact less than one million of the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.  Even though the Senate passed its immigration reform bill, the measure’s likelihood of passing the House of Representatives is inching closer and closer to a-snowball’s-chance-in-hell territory.  And, as House members hem and haw on whether to take up an immigration reform bill in Congress and as pundits weigh in on the political angles, police and the feds, through SCOMM, each day are rounding up hundreds more immigrants. The federal deportation machine keeps rolling. Families continue to be ripped apart. And the Obama administration keeps breaking records as the number of human beings being booting across the border because they happen not to have been born here inches closer to 2 million with no end in sight.

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About the Author

Julie Gonzales

Julie has nearly a decade of experience engaging grassroots communities across Colorado in the democratic process, organizing around immigrant justice, education reform and workers’ rights. As a paralegal at the Meyer Law Office, P.C., she supports noncitizen clients in deportation proceedings. She received her undergraduate degree in History and Ethnicity, Race and Migration from Yale University in 2005. Born on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona and raised in the borderlands of south Texas, Julie has lived in Denver for the past eight years and is proud to call Colorado home. She blogs about immigration and race for The Colorado Independent.

You can reach Julie at
Follow her on Twitter @julieah.

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