Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
From The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, engraved at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty
America – for centuries it has been a land of dreams, destination of immigrant masses, sanctuary, and safe haven. When he was elected in 1980, President Ronald Reagan famously described the United States as a ‘shining city on a hill’, invoking Christianity. The reality of immigration was that the newcomers always faced extreme hardships, from finding work to overcoming barriers in language and culture. Nevertheless, over time, these immigrants became a part of society and helped build this country.
Today, however, it often seems like the US have abandoned that position. A political atmosphere that is increasingly hostile to immigrants and minorities, and a bureaucracy that is broken and tears families apart, are in stark contrast with the vision of a nation that welcomes immigrants.
Two events drastically changed this debate: NAFTA and 9/11.
Many of the changes in the past years – both in public opinion and in policy – can be attributed to two events. The first one was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a contract between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, to reduce trade barriers and expand economic cooperation. NAFTA was actually supposed to reduce migration into the US by empowering the Mexican economy, thus enabling Mexicans to earn decent salaries and live in dignity. The mechanisms of globalization, and the way NAFTA was implemented, resulted in the opposite: US corporations pushing into the Mexican market weakened the country’s own businesses. NAFTA ultimately increased the stream of Mexicans searching for a better life in their northern neighboring country.
Another event led to a drastic shift both in public opinion towards immigrants and in actual policy: the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, which transformed America. The citizens of the superpower entered a state of being under constant threat and in an endless war against terrorism. Immigration suddenly became an issue of national security.
Immigration and counterterrorism became inseparable when then-President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, overseeing immigration-related agencies such as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB). From 2001 to 2011, the new domestic security bureaucracy cost 598 billion dollars to run.
In the 21st century, the population of undocumented immigrants in the US constantly grew (in part, a logical consequence of globalization), while funding for border and immigration enforcement boomed. This lead to a drastic spike in the numbers of immigrants deported from the U.S.: from about 200,000 people in 2011 to almost double that, ten years later. Under the Bush administration, the debate about undocumented immigrants (often called illegal immigrants, a term to which I object) was characterized by prejudice and a focus on security: enforcement, deportation, law-and-order politics.
When Barack Obama came into office in 2009, he and his progressive Democratic Party tried to shift the conversation and make the immigration policy more humane. Many undocumented immigrants were able to push back their deportation dates under the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) programs. But the attempts at reform were met with heavy resistance from the conservative Republican Party, and the US immigration system remains, in many ways, broken.
Obama’s immigration agenda has not been purely liberal and humane – he had to make significant compromises in order to gain Republican support for his plans. In 2008, Obama and his secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, introduced a scheme called “Secure Communities”. The program essentially required local law enforcement officials to run the fingerprints of arrestees through a national database of immigrants to be deported. If the individual turns out to be marked for deportation, they can be held until immigration agents arrive.
Critics of this policy argue that it has created a climate of suspicion in American communities: if undocumented immigrants are victims or witnesses of a crime, they may be afraid of reporting it to the police, out of fear that they could will be held and then face deportation. So, while Obama and Democrats have made some attempts at bettering the lives of undocumented immigrants, some of their administration’s policies have had the opposite effect. “Secure Communities” feeds the machinery of detention and deportation that has had such a devastating impact on the country’s undocumented immigrant community. ICE, the federal agency in charge of enforcing immigration law, has been notorious for its merciless deportation programs.
Immigrant activists have especially focused on ICE programs to remove so-called ‘criminal aliens’ – designed to deport undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes in the US. Obama and other liberals promised that these programs were created to go after people who had committed serious crimes. But the numbers tell a different story: a New York Times data analysis showed that of the roughly two million deportation cases decided under the Obama administration, two-thirds involved persons who had committed only minor infractions, such as traffic violations. And almost one in five cases – 394,000 people – were of immigrants without any criminal records at all.
Most of those deported have not committed serious crimes.
And another investigation revealed that of the more than 500,000 people removed under ICE’s Criminal Alien Program (CAP), a quarter had no criminal convictions. Between 2004 and 2015, the budget for CAP grew from $6 million to a stunning $322 million – an increase that can only be explained by authorities’ broadening the definition of who counts as a ‘criminal alien’, thus leading to the mass expulsion of people who had committed no serious crime.
Specifically, the removal of individuals with drug offenses has gone up significantly, increasing by 43% from 2007 to 2012. More than 34,000 non-citizens had to leave the US for nothing more than possession of marijuana.
These numbers are pressing, but they don’t tell the story of real human suffering. Every number represents an individual – someone like Kenault Lawrence. Lawrence was a legal resident; originally from Jamaica, he had spent almost his entire childhood and his adult life in the US. One day, Kenault was arrested and selected for deportation. His criminal record contained two minor marijuana convictions, which the ICE had falsely classified as ‘drug trafficking felonies’. He was deported.
His wife Melissa and their son were left behind, a happy American family torn apart. Without Kenault, who had had a stable job, Melissa had to add two waitress jobs to the one she already had. She now needs food stamps, and her son is growing up without his father.
ICE and its habit of overstating low-level drug convictions as ‘aggravated felony’ have even drawn criticism from the US Supreme Court. In 2013, in Moncrieffe v. Holder , the judges argued with a 7-2 majority: “This is the third time in seven years that we have considered whether the government has properly characterized a low-level drug offense as ‘illicit trafficking in a controlled substance,’ and thus an ‘aggravated felony.’ Once again we hold that the government’s approach defies the ‘commonsense conception’ of these terms.”
Even the Supreme Court disagreed with ICE’s aggressiveness
The systematic misclassification of drug offenses by ICE yields terrible, inhumane outcomes. If a candidate for deportation has been convicted of an aggravated felony, the immigration judge is barred from considering mitigating factors, such as strong family ties in the US or community involvement. For legal residents, old convictions can come to haunt them even after long periods of time; a Human Rights Watch investigation revealed legal residents being surprised by early-morning raids years after their conviction.
Marsha Austin, a grandmother from Jamaica, now a permanent resident in the US, was singled out for deportation for a conviction dating back to 1995 – for selling five dollars’ worth of crack cocaine. Ricardo Fuenzalida, a Chilean immigrant, was placed in immigration jail for months in 2013 because of two marijuana possession convictions from 13 years earlier.
And it’s not only the deportations: ICE is notorious for its inhumane detention centers. A New York Times investigation revealed abuse and neglect in ICE’s prison system, and detailing the deaths of 107 detainees between 2003 and 2010. It also documented that senior officials systematically covered up these cases and deceived the public.
Rampant abuse is also a trademark of the US Customs and Border Patrol
Another organ of the US immigration system, the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), tasked with securing the nation’s borders, is also well-known for its misconduct, failures and the regular lack of accountability. An activist group called “No more deaths” uncovered terrible conditions in the CBP-run reception camps close to the southern border after interviewing 13,000 ex-inmates. The immigrants described physical assaults by guards, inadequate food, unhygienic sanitary facilities and other problems.
Dozens of people have been killed in confrontations with CBP agents in the past few years, but no border patrol officer has ever been held accountable. When the CBP official in charge of investigating misconduct within the force tried to change this, aggressively pursuing investigations against rogue officers, his superiors simply sacked him.
Despite Obama’s immigration reform, for six million undocumented immigrants, deportation remains a sword of Damocles hovering over them.
And while some undocumented immigrants enjoyed at least temporary protection under President Obama’s immigration actions, some six million unauthorized immigrants are ineligible for amnesty under these laws, meaning that the possibility of facing deportation still hovers over them like a sword of Damocles.
A Republican Party pulled to the right by Donald Trump is unlikely to take a conciliatory position on immigrants this election season.
The mission to make America’s immigration law more humane will most likely not be achieved in Washington. Next year, Americans will vote for a new president. And the Republican Party’s field of candidates has been drastically pulled to the right by their controversial poll leader Donald Trump. Trump, who summarily smeared Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’, plans to build a wall at the Mexican-US border (and send the bill to Mexico, whose government he plans somehow to convince to pay for it).
He also wants to deport all of America’s 11.3 million undocumented immigrant population – a plan that is triply terrible. First, it will be draconian and inhumane, sending entire families (including those with US-born children) back to their violence-afflicted, miserably poor home countries. Secondly, it is an economic impossibility: according to a think tank, the deportation plan would take twenty years to complete, and cost between 420 and 620 billion USD (both the physical cost of the deportation and the resultant damage to the American economy). Thirdly, it is unrealistic: deporting a number as vast as 11.3 million people will require massive resources. Additionally, the deportation of US-born citizens would require the abolition of birthright citizenship, a practice enshrined in the 14th amendment to the US constitution.
Despite these concerns, Trump’s plan is increasingly popular: in a November 2015 poll, almost half (49%) of GOP (Republican) supporters trusted Trump most in the issue of immigration.
The other, more moderate GOP candidates had to react to this, adopting hardline positions to be able to compete alongside the Trumpmania. None of the Republican presidential hopefuls, for instance, supports Obama’s immigration orders.
Obama’s immigration legacy also faces another risk: the courts. 26 states have taken on his deferred action executive orders, and in November, a federal appeals court ruled against his proposals.
With so much inaction on federal level, some communities have taken matters into their own hands.
Throughout the nation, cities deny cooperation with federal immigration agencies, shielding undocumented immigrants from deportations. Such ‘sanctuary ordinances’ exist across the US, from Chicago to San Francisco. In July, after an undocumented immigrant protected by ‘sanctuary ordinance’ in San Francisco murdered a young woman named Kate Steinle, conservative pundits jumped at the case. They politicized it, alleging sanctuary cities sheltered dangerous criminals. The brother of murder victim Kate Steinle later called out Donald Trump and others for using her sister’s tragic fate to further their anti-immigrant agenda.
In October, Senate Democrats blocked a Republican attempt at cutting off federal funding for sanctuary cities to force them to comply. The New York Times criticized the Republican attempt in an editorial:
“The laws are a class-action slander against an immigrant population that has been scapegoated for the crimes of a few, and left stranded by the failure of legislative reform that would open a path for them to live fully within the law.” (Interestingly, the editorial also harshly condemned Obama’s Secure Communities program). However, North Carolina and other states have actually passed similar legislation to end sanctuary ordinances.
For many undocumented immigrants in America, there is little hope that their life in the shadows, defined by a constant fear of deportation and vulnerability to exploitation will end any time soon.