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Deporters-In-Chief: The Trump-Obama Partnership on Immigration

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This is pattern we should all be familiar with by now: Trump takes an already extreme Obama-era policy and makes it worse; liberals who were silent under Obama attack Trump for this policy; Trump strikes back by garbling the truth while making a legitimate but entirely hypocritical point; and liberals cite Trump’s self-serving and factually inaccurate criticism to absolve their side of any sins.
— Branko Marcetic

On immigration, Trump and Obama are partners. They would never admit it, of course. Neither will their supporters. But Trump’s monstrous immigration policy grows out of Obama’s. We cannot renounce one without confronting the other.

One day, a Democrat will again sit in the White House. It is vitally important that liberals do not give that President a pass on immigration, like they did with Obama.

Why attack Obama? Why now?

For a very simple reason. Our immigration system is a vast and evil machine. For the sake of justice, the mechanism must be dismantled. To take it apart, we must see it clearly. And seeing it clearly means acknowledging that The injustice of our system did not begin with Trump. The point of criticizing Obama is to explain, directly and without ambiguity, that these are failures of the system, not one administration. On immigrants, Obama was cynical; but Trump is actively malicious.

But Trump lives in a house that Obama built.

When Obama was deporting more people than all prior Presidents, where was the liberal outrage? You cannot blame this all on the Republicans. What about the two years where the Democrats had a supermajority? Was immigration unheard of then?

Imagine talking to somebody who honestly believes that racism started when Trump was inaugurated. That’s what it feels like discussing immigration now. In February 2014, The Economist (of all publications) found Obama wolfish:

America is expelling illegal immigrants at nine times the rate of 20 years ago; nearly 2m so far under Barack Obama, easily outpacing any previous president … Border patrol agents no longer just patrol the border; they scour the country for illegals to eject. The deportation machine costs more than all other areas of federal criminal law-enforcement combined.”

Did Trump’s racism unleash the authoritarian power of ICE? Of course. But Obama was indifferent to ICE during his tenure. Trump is a racist. Obama is not. But it was the Democrat that deported 177,000 more people than the Orangeman, in 2009, his first year in office.

In Obama’s second term, the Border Patrol and ICE saw their budget ramp up from $18 billion to $20 billion. Between 2009-2015, 2.5 million undocumented people were deported. In 2012 alone, Obama sent back 409,000 souls, a record.

Obama defenders will point out that the increased numbers are due to a change in how the government defined “deportation.” That’s not a good argument for their case. According to the L.A. Times:

Until recent years, most people caught illegally crossing the southern border were simply bused back into Mexico in what officials called “voluntary returns,” but which critics derisively termed “catch and release.” Those removals, which during the 1990s reached more 1 million a year, were not counted in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportation statistics. Now, the vast majority of border crossers who are apprehended get fingerprinted and formally deported. The change began during the George W. Bush administration and accelerated under Obama. The policy stemmed in part from a desire to ensure that people who had crossed into the country illegally would have formal charges on their records.

As Chris Newman noted in 2014, Obama’s system criminalized immigration violations. In 1992, immigration offenses amounted to a fraction of federal convictions: five percent. By 2012, they made up thirty percent, right behind drug cases. There’s a neat symmetry there. It’s an American-driven drug war that spurs South American migration … and it’s an American justice system that arrests the people who are fleeing the very violence we created. The American government is like the hospital: we’re there at the beginning and the end.

On immigration, the Obama administration was not gentler or wiser than Bush’s. They just documented their injustice more thoroughly, and were keen to turn the eyes of surveillance on broken and desperate people.

Indeed, the Obama team had a fetish for numbers. The “bed mandate” legislation was established in 2009. That law demands that 34,000 immigration detention beds be maintained; ICE has a quota for the number of people they lock up. Who supported it? Obama did. He signed the DHS Appropriations Act of 2010, which includes the sentence “maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.”

In a statement regarding the 2010 law, the Obama White House wrote that “The Administration strongly supports Senate passage of H.R. 2892.”

An ACLU blog post documents the terrible treatment of teen mother Jahveel Ocampo, and then adds this kicker:

If you assumed this abuse happened during the Trump administration, think again. Jahveel was threatened in 2009 by President Obama’s Border Patrol, and her treatment was not an isolated incident. Her case is part of a pattern of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by Customs and Border Protection officials against child immigrants that existed long before President Trump emboldened the agency by unleashing its officers to enforce his draconian immigration policies. We have received more than 30,000 pages of internal government documents detailing this abuse between 2009 and 2014 throughout the southern border region. These records, obtained through an ACLU Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent litigation, offer a glimpse into an immigration enforcement system that had been plagued by brutality and lawlessness long before Trump was elected.

As Branko Marcetic writes, “Here is a brief list of things the Obama administration did do:”

• Arrested tens of thousands of undocumented parents whose kids were US citizens, causing them to lose contact with their children.
• “Disappeared” those parents in the immigration enforcement system, where they were nigh-on impossible to track down, before deporting them to countries they hadn’t lived in for as long as decades.
Orphaned thousands of kids who were left without a legal guardian when their parents were shunted to another country.
• Sent the parents of those kids to places where there was more than a good chance they’d be kidnapped, tortured, sexually assaulted, killed, or sometimes all of the above.
• Traumatized both the kids left behind and the kids whose parents were undocumented but not yet arrested, which saw those kids develop symptoms of PTSD, stress-based health problems, and night terrors.

“In other words,” Marcetic writes, “Obama may have never specifically called for migrants to have their kids taken away when crossing the border, but wrenching parents away from their kids — in many cases, permanently — was for many years a regular, known outcome of his policies.”

Perhaps you’re used to immigration arguments that turn on wonkish, hair-splitting foofafara. Let’s subtract the honkytonk. Here’s the right policy: Open borders and the free movement of peoples. In the long-term, these are the only coherent progressive positions. Citizenship is privilege, and this privilege is entirely dictated by an accident of birth. It’s absolutely no different than being born into the medieval nobility. Moreover, capital can go anywhere, but labor can’t. Until this balance is sorted out, all talk of a globalized world is empty air.

Even for the timid, the next steps should be self-evident. Shut down the ICE goon squad. No more auto-deportation. Create a rational, humane, quick path to citizenship, and permanent residency for everyone else. Whittle down the asinine visa screening hell-gauntlet. Create worker’s rights, and give them to undocumented laborers. Make violation of those rights a punishable offense. Push for drug legalization and end the drug war, thereby undercutting the criminal cartels. Punish companies that employ undocumented workers: either pay a decent wage or shut down.

Finally, the most important fact about the Presidency of Donald J. Trump is this: Trump is the result of our system. He’s not an outsider. Trump is not an alien virus infecting a healthy political order. He is the logical outcome of an unequal country and broken government. Until we confront this fact, we will lose.

Immigration is one of the places where our system has failed. We are obsessed with borders: imaginary boundaries between countries, and bright lines between Presidencies. Humanity and honesty comes when we admit the continuity of both.

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