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Administration Deportation Reviews Doing Next to Nothing So Far

The Obama Administration introduced the deportation reviews last year to much fanfare, claiming that they would help 300,000 undocumented immigrants currently in the deportation system get a fair shake. Only threats to public safety or repeat offenders would get deported, and those contributing to society, particularly the DREAM students who know nowhere else as a homeland, would be spared.

This is not happening.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in August that the policy was first outlined in March 2010. And a senior administration official explained at the time that the process is designed to “keep folks who are low priority cases out of the deportation process to begin with.” But of the roughly 300,000 cases reviewed, only 4,400 deportations of undocumented immigrants had been halted so far.

That’s not even 2% of all cases.

We’re not talking about a program that needs ramp-up time here, we’re talking about 10 months into the process. And only 4,400 deportations have been stopped. That probably means that deportations are happening at the same record rate as before, and that non-criminals and DREAM students are getting caught up in the same Kafkaesque web. IN fact, we have anecdotal evidence of this:

(Heydi Mejia) would graduate from Meadowbrook High School on Friday, her blue gown decorated with awards from the National Honor Society, the school’s AP program and the Virginia governor.

She was scheduled to be deported to Guatemala a few days later.

In the election-year debate over immigration reform, the situation Mejia is in has become one of the most debated of all. What should the United States do with illegal immigrants who come to the country as children, grow up here, break no laws and want to remain? In Mejia’s case, what should be done with an illegal immigrant who came to the country at age 4; who speaks better English than Spanish; who wants to attend Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and become a nurse; whose knowledge about modern Guatemala comes in part from what she’s read on Wikipedia?

This is precisely the profile of someone who was supposed to be left in place, who was supposed to be lowest on the totem pole when it came to prosecutorial discretion. Homeland security came up with the directive and they’re simply not following it. Heydi was one of the lucky ones; her story got in the Washington Post, and the authorities became embarrassed enough to put a hold on her deportation. There aren’t enough media outlets in the country for this to happen every time. People are slipping through the cracks.

What I’ve heard is that this is basically a case of quotas. They have to fill orders on prison beds and airplanes flying undocumented immigrants from one place to another, and so deportation equals big business. The private prison complex pays handsomely for the privilege.

As Nathan Pippenger writes, “When it comes to immigration policy, President Obama has shown a remarkable ability to infuriate basically everyone.” Republicans have responded to every public announcement on immigration by yelling the word “amnesty,” and because the Administration is clearly more sensitive to that side of the aisle, they operate as ruthlessly as possible, with record deportations, alienating immigration reform advocates and spurring them to activism (like taking over a campaign office in Denver with a sit-in, as some did recently). And the President doesn’t like you calling him on it:

One after another, they spoke their minds, telling the president what he had done or not done that bothered them. They complained that a rising number of deportations on his watch were “terrorizing” Hispanic neighborhoods and tearing apart good families. They warned that he was losing credibility with a crucial constituency that had put its faith in him.

Obama’s body stiffened, according to several witnesses, and he started to argue with them. If they wanted meaningful change, he said, they should focus their pressure on the Republicans in Congress who opposed reform, not on him. He was with them but could only do so much. “I am not a king,” he said.

If the President wants to project an image of being bullied by Congress into separating families, at odds with HIS OWN ADMINISTRATION’S PUBLIC PRONOUNCEMENTS of what the federal agencies he controls will do, let’s just say that isn’t exactly a muscular image for a leader.

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David Dayen

David Dayen