Back to News & Commentary

Immigration Policy in the Obama Years: Dragnet Enforcement First and Foremost?

Chris Rickerd,
Senior Policy Counsel,
ACLU National Political Advocacy Department
Share This Page
June 15, 2011

In El Paso last month, President Obama gave a speech on immigration reform in which he said: “I know that the increase in deportations has been a source of controversy. But I want to emphasize: we are not doing this haphazardly; we are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.”

Two and a half years into the president’s tenure, the true story of the administration’s immigration enforcement practices is in fact a disheartening one dominated by the deportations of families and community contributors who have never been in trouble with the law. In a time of fiscal austerity, when cuts are being made to vital services across the country, consider two dollar amounts: $12,500 per deportation and $7,500 per migrant apprehension. In the proposed 2012 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget, almost $3 billion is allocated just to non-border detention and removal operations. At the border, relentless increases in resources have outstripped any conceivable needs. Combined with a 73 percent decline in apprehensions over the last decade, this has led to “agents fighting boredom” and roaming to conduct interior enforcement on trains and buses that are nowhere near a border.

“Hold on,” you say, “the Obama administration is committed to targeted enforcement that removes dangerous convicted criminals, right?” That’s accurate, insofar as we hear this all the time from government officials in Washington. But the mantra of targeting doesn’t hide a senseless dragnet operation in the field that’s taking place at a time when violent crime rates are the lowest in 40 years. The Obama administration had deported more than 779,000 people at its midpoint, an 18 percent increase over President George W. Bush’s last two years in office. More than half – 450,000 people – had no criminal record, precisely the “families . . . folks who are just looking to scrape together an income,” described by President Obama.

And, on top of that, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) most recent breakdown of criminal deportations shows that 23 percent have been misdemeanor offenders. ICE says it doesn’t engage in quota-based enforcement, but in the same breath asserts that its bloated resources now mandate the deportation of 400,000 individuals a year. That’s 1,100 people a day at $12,500 each, many with U.S. citizen children left behind who suffer “psychological harm, behavioral changes and problems in school.”

How is this happening when the president is on record with a pledge to change immigration enforcement practices? He said on the campaign trail: “When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working and we need to change it.”

Some say Congress’s inaction on “comprehensive immigration reform” ties the administration’s hands. This is not true. There is ample and unassailable legal authority supporting the prudent exercise of discretion by the executive branch to end the abuses endemic to current immigration enforcement.

Which of these easy-to-implement actions has DHS taken to show a good-faith commitment to change enforcement practices in the way President Obama envisioned?

  1. implemented a program of deferred action for DREAM-eligible students and parents of U.S. citizen children
  2. reacted to the cholera epidemic and general devastation in Haiti by suspending deportations
  3. held off on deportation cases involving same-sex partners in light of the Department of Justice’s conclusion that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional
  4. fulfilled its summer 2009 promise to create a truly civil immigration detention system after addressing systemic problems of detainee deaths, sexual abuse, inadequate medical and mental health care, and overincarceration
  5. ended counterproductive raids that detain and remove “collateral” immigrants who are not the raids’ targets after exposing their children to drawn weapons

The answer, sadly, is “none of the above.”

In addition to its blind spot on discretion, and despite the budget crisis, the administration has not restrained its spending on ineffective and wasteful enforcement programs. Why continue the mistake of delegating immigration powers to state and local police when, according to a DHS Inspector General report, the so-called 287(g) program “may be in violation of the Purpose Statute, which requires that appropriations be used only for their intended purposes, and the Anti-deficiency Act, which prohibits agencies from spending in excess of available appropriations.” A total of $251.6 million has been spent over the last six years on the 287(g) program despite its repeatedly documented flaws, culminating in the most recent audit’s conclusion that “there is no assurance that funds allocated to the 287(g) program were used as intended.” And DHS also continues to expand ICE’s Secure Communities initiative recklessly, without prioritizing dangerous convicted criminals or addressing either the program’s incentives for state and local racial profiling or its endangerment of domestic violence and other crime victims. No wonder the governors of Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts have concluded that Secure Communities is wrong for their states.

These dashed hopes for enforcement reform have real consequences, for the immigrants directly affected above all, but also for America’s fidelity to its constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws. We know the administration can do better because it has taken some positive steps in the immigration realm like standing up to oppose Arizona’s unconstitutional “show me your papers” racial profiling law; curtailing the use of counter-productive worksite raids; and releasing a welcome guidance instructing school districts to avoid enrollment practices that interfere with kids’ school attendance based on their or their families’ immigration status. Yet by failing to live up to its immigration enforcement pledges and policies, the Obama administration continues to abet erosion of family unity and humane treatment, harming this country’s values and its identity as a nation welcoming to immigrants. The ACLU will keep holding the administration accountable for its actions and omissions. For now, its mid-term immigration enforcement record is far from satisfactory.

Learn more about immigration enforcement: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page