Have We Been Unfair to Obama on Deportations?

A once-indiscriminate deportation policy has shifted toward a much more careful approach.

Leon Krauze is a journalist and host of Fusion TV's Open Source, a news and commentary program.
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Leon Krauze, Fusion
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Leon Krauze, Fusion
April 16, 2014, 6:36 a.m.

On my show, Open Source, I re­cently in­ter­viewed Dolores Huerta, per­haps the most im­port­ant Lat­ina wo­man of the 20th cen­tury. Near the end of the in­ter­view, I wanted to get her take on Pres­id­ent Obama’s con­tro­ver­sial de­port­a­tion policy. Huerta, I found out, does not mince words.

“Obama mis­cal­cu­lated,” she told me flatly.

She went on to ex­plain how the pres­id­ent ad­op­ted a pun­it­ive ap­proach to­ward de­port­a­tion in­ten­ded to con­vince the Re­pub­lic­an Party of his tough­ness on im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment. The hope was to bring the op­pos­i­tion on board for a com­pre­hens­ive over­haul of the coun­try’s im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem. In­stead, he got noth­ing in re­turn.

Even after Obama set a re­cord pace for de­port­a­tions, Re­pub­lic­ans still said he “couldn’t be trus­ted” on the is­sue. As a res­ult of this “mis­cal­cu­la­tion,” the pres­id­ent now faces an un­ex­pec­ted and com­plex chal­lenge with the His­pan­ic com­munity. Obama is un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure from Latino groups to act on his own to cut back the num­ber of de­port­a­tions, es­pe­cially of people who have fam­il­ies in the U.S.

Yes, the same man who in 2008 prom­ised change while bor­row­ing Cesar Chavez’s (and Dolores Huerta’s) fam­ous line, “Yes, we can,” has now been dubbed the “de­port­er-in-chief.”

It can seem an un­fair turn of events, but Obama has earned it. After five years of bru­tally ef­fect­ive im­ple­ment­a­tion, the pres­id­ent’s well-oiled de­port­a­tion ma­chine has now man­aged to re­move and ex­pel close to 2 mil­lion people. Num­bers of that mag­nitude al­low few sub­tleties.

Even less so when it comes to pub­lic per­cep­tion; nu­ances are few and far between these days. For the last five years, His­pan­ics in Amer­ica have heard ba­sic­ally two story lines:

a) The Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives has failed to sup­port any sort of com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and

b) Barack Obama is de­port­ing His­pan­ics.

With some hind­sight, the White House surely could have pre­dicted that the lat­ter nar­rat­ive would pre­vail. A story that in­volves the per­sist­ent suf­fer­ing of hu­man be­ings will al­ways prove more in­ter­est­ing (and thus, more polit­ic­ally dam­aging) than a story that fol­lows bor­ing polit­ic­al pro­ced­ure.

So, be it by a stroke of luck or some sort of Ma­chiavel­lian scheme, the Re­pub­lic­ans — who are the real op­pon­ents of im­mig­ra­tion re­form — have re­ceded to the back­ground. Ad­vocacy groups con­cen­trate on de­noun­cing Obama’s de­port­a­tion policy rather than on keep­ing the pres­sure on the House GOP.

Truth be told, we His­pan­ic journ­al­ists have fol­lowed the same pat­tern. For the last few months, we have fo­cused al­most solely on the “de­port­er-in-chief” nar­rat­ive, ef­fect­ively grant­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party a thor­oughly un­deserved res­pite. This is both mor­ally un­der­stand­able and journ­al­ist­ic­ally jus­ti­fi­able. But, truth be told, it might not be com­pletely fair. Or — dare I say it — bal­anced.

The fact is, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­port­a­tion ma­chine has been im­prov­ing its meth­ods and act­ing with an in­creas­ing sense of dis­cre­tion. As we all know, at the be­gin­ning of the Obama pres­id­ency, Im­mig­ra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment and oth­er agen­cies ex­ecuted the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s policy in­dis­crim­in­ately. Obama’s polit­ic­al gamble res­ul­ted in the de­port­a­tion of hun­dreds of thou­sands of un­doc­u­mented mi­grants who had no pri­or crim­in­al re­cord.

In oth­er words, the Amer­ic­an gov­ern­ment kicked thou­sands of people out of the coun­try whose only form­al sin had been com­ing here without pa­pers. These were fath­ers and moth­ers, and young kids, of course, who had been brought to this coun­try at a very early age (the now fam­ous dream­ers).

This massive de­port­a­tion sys­tem has caused, without any doubt, an un­ne­ces­sary and shame­ful hu­man­it­ari­an crisis. No one in their right mind could cast doubt over wheth­er this is a somber chapter in Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency.

But journ­al­ism de­mands rig­or. And re­cent num­bers show that this in­dis­crim­in­ate de­port­a­tion policy has shif­ted to­ward a much more care­ful ap­proach. In 2013, the total num­ber of un­doc­u­mented people with no crim­in­al re­cord and no pri­or im­mig­ra­tion vi­ol­a­tions who were de­por­ted after be­ing de­tained in the coun­try’s in­teri­or was drastic­ally re­duced. In 2009, the num­ber was close to 150,000; by 2013, the num­ber be­came 10,336.

That’s why the ques­tion stands: Have we been un­fair to Obama? The an­swer is, mostly yes. De­port­ing 2 mil­lion people — most of whom don’t pose a danger to their com­munit­ies — is a costly mis­take. But it’s also true that any re­cent cri­tique of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s policy on de­port­a­tion should al­low for much needed nu­ances, es­pe­cially in the light of re­cent de­vel­op­ments.

There really is no point in de­noun­cing a crisis without the ca­pa­city to identi­fy pro­gress when it be­comes evid­ent.

Le­on Krauze is a journ­al­ist and the host of Fu­sion TV’s Open Source, a news and com­ment­ary pro­gram.

This art­icle is pub­lished with per­mis­sion from Fu­sion, a TV and di­git­al net­work that cham­pi­ons a smart, di­verse, and in­clus­ive Amer­ica. Fu­sion is a part­ner of Na­tion­al Journ­al and The Next Amer­ica.

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