5 THINGS PRESIDENT OBAMA CAN DO FOR IMMIGRANTS BEFORE HE LEAVES OFFICE
Comprehensive immigration reform has failed. Millions of immigrants have been deported. President Obama’s executive action programs are in limbo.
As Obama enters his final six months in office, his legacy on immigration has yet to be determined. Will he go down as the savior who stretched the limits of his power to provide relief for millions of Dreamers or the trojan horse who rode in promising hope and change, while tearing apart immigrant families and communities through raids and deportations?
If Obama wants to rescue his immigration legacy while shedding the lame duck President stereotype, he should take BOLD decisive action on immigration. Here are some ideas:
1. Take a stand against the 1996 laws which criminalized millions of immigrants.
Over the last year the Obama administration has taken stands against the War on Drugs and the War on Crime, acknowledging both as failed policies that overwhelmingly impact communities of color. In fact, just last fall the administration announced the release of 6,000 prisoners who were convicted of drug offenses. Unfortunately, the Administration has yet to speak out against the impact of these same failed policies on immigrants. As a result of two laws enacted in 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), immigrants convicted of certain crimes are subject to mandatory deportation.
During Obama’s two presidential terms millions of immigrants have been deported as a result of contact with the criminal justice system, including drug offenses. In fact, nearly 2,000 of those granted clemency last fall were immediately moved into deportation proceedings. Given the widely acknowledged failures of the War on Drugs and the War and Crime, as well as public sentiment which leans toward drug law reform and against mass incarceration, the Obama Administration should come out in favor of striking the criminal grounds for deportation in the Immigration and Nationality Act. To start, he can endorse a resolution introduced by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus calling for a repeal of the 1996 laws.
2. Pardon thousands of immigrants across the U.S. who have been deemed deportable.
When Obama announced his clemency initiative last fall advocates across the country cheered. But this proclamation of leniency for was hardly an olive branch; the 6000 inmates released barely put a dent in the U.S. prison population. Today, thousands of immigrants are encaged in our federal prison system. And most immigrants, even those with papers, and those who have served their time in the criminal justice system, will not reap the benefits of clemency. Once released from prison, they will enter immigration proceedings, where they will be moved to immigration detention” read: immigration prison) and in most instances, they will be deported. Only a full Presidential pardon will protect immigrants in the federal criminal justice system from detention and deportation. To show that he truly believes in “second chances,” the administration should pardon the thousands of immigrants currently in federal prison facing deportation upon release.
3. End Local-ICE collaboration programs like 287(g)
In order to carry out its objectives, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency charged with enforcing U.S. immigration law, partners with state and local law enforcement agencies who agree to perform the duties of ICE agents by investigating and arresting non-citizens suspected of immigration violations. In practice, this program known as “287(g),” has led to a slew of constitutional violations, including racial profiling in some of the counties that have implemented the program. Reports have also shown that the 287(g) agreements net very few of its targeted offenders and actually threatens public safety by hindering relationships between communities and local law enforcement agencies. In Maricopa County, Arizona, a jurisdiction that enthusiastically implemented 287(g), response times to 911 calls increased and violent crimes and homicide rates increased at the same time that the Sheriff’s office diverted resources to immigration enforcement.
The administration has come out strong against racial profiling and violence at the hands of police, calling it wrong, misguided, and ineffective. Ending 287(g), a program that lends itself to bias, would show that Obama is serious about racial justice and recognizes that unjust over-policing and racial profiling is also an immigration issue.
4. Cancel contracts with private prison corporations
The “corporatization of mass incarceration,” the “prison industrial complex,” or whatever else it’s called, has led to the dramatic growth of the US mass incarceration system over the last twenty years. On any given day tens of thousands languish in immigrant detention centers, which are usually housed within federal and state prisons, and run by private contractors such as Correctional Corporation of America and Geo Group. Private prison contractors have been accused of physical and sexual violence, and abuse, in addition to numerous health, safety, and environmental violations. Public outcry has led to politicians from both sides speaking out against this morally questionable industry. Some of the 2016 presidential contenders have even weighed in.
Before he leaves office, President Obama should place a moratorium on, cancel, or refuse to renegotiate contracts with private prison companies. Better yet, he should ….
5. Close all federal prisons and detention centers -
As documented by scholars such as Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, Black people represent the largest population in U.S. prisons and jails. Similarly, Black immigrants make up a disproportionate share of those imprisoned in the immigration system. According to a forthcoming report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, despite representing only 7% of US immigrants, Blacks make up over 21% of those in immigration detention due to criminal convictions and are nearly three times more likely than their counterparts of other races or ethnic backgrounds to be detained and deported.
Additionally, while immigrants facing deportation are supposed to be held in “civil detention” — in many cases detainees have not been charged with a crime — conditions within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, even the Administration’s “family detention centers,” shows that this is hardly the case. Detainees have reported incidents of rape and assault, arbitrary solitary confinement, lack of access to medical care and spoiled food. Dozens of immigrants have died at the hands of detention center staff. And like the mass incarceration system, immigration detention is costly. The US spends over $1.84 billion dollars per year — that’s over $5 million dollars per day — on immigrant “custody and operations.”
Many are starting to acknowledge that racial imbalances exist across all forms of mass incarceration, including immigration detention. Any shrewd, prudent, policy thinker, like Obama, should recognize that the US mass criminalization system is a costly failure and that shutting down prisons and detention centers would enable us to reimagine not only our criminal justice system, but other injustices facing immigrants, Black Americans, and other marginalized communities.
Admittedly, some of these recommendations are ambitious. But in a year where the status quo is being challenged and big ideas are resonating in the media and at the polls, taking on the gargantuan task of fixing our immigration system, would have a lasting impact on the President’s legacy and bring dignity and justice to millions of immigrants and their families.
A version of this op-ed appeared on truth-out.org on June 23, 2016.