CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein about a bill she introduced, which would prohibit the federal government from separating immigrant children from their families during arrests at ports of entry or within 100 miles of the border of the United States.
As he asked his question, Tapper brought up a photo taken in 2014 of children sleeping on the floor of a cage at an immigrant detention center.
“There were a lot of things done to undocumented immigrants that the immigrant community was very upset about during the Obama years, that Democrats didn’t seem that outspoken about,” Tapper said. “What do you say to people who say, where was all this activism during the Obama years?”
“I don’t believe that it was nearly to the extent that it is done today,” Feinstein said. “And candidly, I didn’t really know enough about it at the time to focus on it. I do know enough about it now.”
Immigration arrests rose during President Donald Trump’s first year in office when he reinstated the Secure Communities Program (S-Comm), which began in 2008 under President George W. Bush and continued into President Barack Obama’s second term.
But the rate of arrests under S-Comm today has stabilized at a level far below that of the Obama administration. Back then, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made arrests at a rate that was more than double what it is under Trump, according to analysis from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
ICE under Obama averaged 309,887 arrests per year from 2009-2012, while ICE under Trump averaged 139,553 in 2017.
Obama set records between 2008 and 2014 with the number of people arrested and placed in deportation proceedings under S-Comm. Those numbers plummeted by more than half in 2015, when S-Comm was replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP).
Both programs use fingerprints collected during bookings by state and local police departments to identify individuals for deportation. The primary difference between the two programs is PEP attempted to put greater emphasis on deporting people who had been convicted of a crime.
“Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day,” Obama said as his administration assumed a posture of being “smart on crime.”
Arrest rates dropped significantly under PEP. Still, 221,763 people were arrested during the two years it was in place.
According to TRAC, PEP mostly reduced arrests that came through law enforcement referrals. The rate of other arrests in the community (at homes, in courthouses, at workplaces, and other locations) remained relatively unchanged over those two years.
TRAC’s findings dovetail with the number of deportations and detainers in which ICE requests local police hold someone while they investigate and initiate deportation under each administration.
The rate at which detainers were issued increased slightly in Trump’s first few months of office before leveling off. Still, they were issued at roughly half the rate they were during S-Comm when Obama was president. And it’s the same situation for deportations.
Senator Feinstein claimed she “didn’t really know enough about it at the time to focus on it” but does “know enough about it now,” pointing to recent hearings in the Judiciary Committee.
Feinstein was on the same committee in 2013 when it held hearings amid talk of an immigration reform package. It was major news that year.
Anti-deportation protesters interrupted the hearing multiple times. Senators heard testimony from undocumented activist Jose Antonio Vargas, who said,”We dream of not being separated from our families and our loved ones, regardless of sexual orientation, no matter our skill set. This government has deported more than 1.6 million people, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, in the past four years.”
By 2013, undocumented activists had been organizing and sounding alarm over the separation of families from deportation and detention for years. Protestors were in that room because the president promised to negotiate an immigration reform package on the campaign trail, only to turn around and dramatically expand the deportation machine while in office.
In fact, Feinstein was under fire in 2015 from immigration activists because of legislation that would attack sanctuary jurisdictions by forcing governments to cooperate with ICE in apprehending immigrants.
As reported by Politico, “Feinstein’s bill is trying to get us to the point where we continue to generate fear at the local level. She is basically … joining the Donald Trump bandwagon,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream.
Feinstein told Tapper “at least 50 children a day are taken from their parents. And the thing is, they’re taken and no one knows what happens to them. Their parents don’t know how to find them. And you have now the first person, one of the fathers, that died in jail.”
Breaking up of families and separation of children from their parents is a practice that dates back to the Obama administration. As Rewire News has pointed out, men were routinely separated from their children and families during deportation proceedings.
Immigrants were held in family detention centers that were rife with sexual abuse and lacked adequate facilities and medical care. Obama claimed the administration would stop sending immigrants to family detention centers in 2009, or rather limited to exceptional circumstances in a single state. But family detention continued, as did the trauma and abuse.
Six years later, when the Obama administration went to court to try and continue family detention, and when a federal court again ordered the administration to release children held in detention because they weren’t licensed for childcare, the administration circumvented the decision’s intent to end that detention by getting Texas to change its child care licensing procedures to keep them open.
In January 2016, the Obama administration openly targeted immigrant families for arrest, separation, and deportation via early dawn raids. It was part of an explicit strategy to attempt to scare people fleeing death and abuse in their home countries from crossing the US border.
This deterrence strategy included ad campaigns in Central American countries discouraging people from making the trip by warning them of detention and deportation.
Hillary Clinton, who Feinstein endorsed for president, said, “We have to send a clear message, just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.”
Between 2012 and 2016, dozens of immigrants died in detention.
“I find it just inhumane, callous, and something I never thought my country would do. So it’s very worrisome and we’ve got to stop it,” Feinstein concluded.
Yet, to some extent, the U.S. government has had an inhumane or callous immigration policy since at least Obama.