After just six years in office, President Barack Obama will have overseen 2 million deportations. It took Republican President George W. Bush eight years to reach 2 million deportations. It took 20 presidents between 1892 and 1996 to reach as many deportations.
Many activists find it ironic that Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, will go down in history as the president who has deported the most people.
Obama’s program of mass deportation is on par with other racially tainted tragedies in our history: Indian boarding schools that kept Native American children from their parents; internment camps where Japanese citizens and Japanese Americans were forced to live during World War II; and the Jim Crow laws that denied equal opportunities to African Americans.
As much as many Americans would like to think we have buried racially discriminatory episodes deep in our history, contemporary mass deportation proves otherwise. It primarily affects nonwhite people; is carried out without due process; and separates millions of children from their parents.
Under Jim Crow laws, African Americans were denied access to schools, housing and the ballot box. When long-term residents of the United States are deported, some face a life of exile from the only country they have ever known for convictions such as marijuana possession or tax evasion. Like Jim Crow laws, deportation laws primarily affect one group of people: more than 97 percent of people deported last year were Caribbean or Latin-American immigrants, even though they only account for 60 percent of non-citizens.
Many of these deportees were deported to countries they barely know. I recently interviewed 150 deportees in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Brazil who recounted horror stories of police brutality, gang violence, homelessness and a life of poverty and isolation.
The deportation of legal permanent residents has hit black immigrants particularly hard. Using data from the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Census Bureau, I calculated that one of every 12 Jamaican and Dominican male legal permanent residents has been deported since 1996.
The United States currently detains upwards of 30,000 immigrants per day, much as it imprisoned more than 120,000 people of Japanese origin during World War II without trials or other court processes. The Department of Homeland Security has broad discretion to arrest and detain any person they suspect does not have the legal right to be in the United States. People held under such detention do not have the same rights and safeguards as criminal suspects. They do not have the right to a speedy hearing before a judge nor do they have the right to appointed counsel.
Like Native American children taken from their parents in the early 20th century, the same is happening to immigrants today. One Guatemalan deportee I interviewed has a custody hearing for her daughter this month, which she is unable to attend. She expects she will lose her parental rights.
When immigrants face deportation on criminal grounds, judges are often unable to take their family ties into account before ordering a deportation. Current immigration laws barely distinguish between a long-term legal permanent resident with U.S. citizen children convicted of writing a bad check and a visa over-stayer convicted of murder. Both of these crimes can be considered aggravated felonies and can lead to deportation with no due process.
In 2012, more than 400,000 people were deported. Nearly 100,000 of them were parents of U.S. citizens. Tens of thousands of these children will grow up in the United States knowing that the U.S. government has taken away their right to grow up with one or both of their parents.
Obama could issue an executive order ending deportations until comprehensive immigration reform that restores due process is enacted. This would be in keeping with his legacy as a civil rights and constitutional lawyer. It also would keep families together and avoid unnecessary suffering.