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Separation Of Immigrant Families Was Part Of Deportation Under Obama—Now Trump Is Expanding The Practice

There is no denying President Donald Trump’s immigration policy is far more menacing in presentation than his predecessor, President Barack Obama. But how much is this a difference in style versus a difference in substance?

The material outcomes of Obama and Trump’s deportation approaches, and the reaction among Democrats to both, tell us a lot about the circumstances in which incontrovertible violence is deemed acceptable in America.

For Trump, immigration is part of the culture war, and he does not hide the ways in which his policy decisions are motivated by animus toward immigrants. Trump has demonized immigrants for years, and since taking office, he has publicly emphasized family separation as part of his deportation policy. He is expanding detention infrastructure specifically for children with plans for a tent city-style facility in Texas. The administration has pledged to pursue deportation against 100% of undocumented people.

But Trump is adding to a foundation developed by Obama, who aggressively detained and deported undocumented immigrants for nearly his entire presidency. He did so while acting as though he was little more than a manager of the system—a helpless custodian of the law.

These differences in approach have muddied the debate about how the United States government separated families and incarcerated children in recent history. Unless we fully acknowledge the harm and injustice of this systematic violence without making convenient excuses for the past, progress may be difficult if not impossible.


There seems to be confusion. To be clear, family separation and child detention are a basic feature of American deportation proceedings. They occur on a routine and systematic basis, even if the government in charge isn’t pounding its chest about it.

In fact, immigrant communities were outspoken on this reality for many, many years.

Family separation was a frontline issue for immigration activists for the last decade or more. They warned of a generation of orphans scarred by the loss of their parents. They cautioned that Obama expanded deportation forces on his own to a degree that would be horribly exploited by a Republican president. (At the time, they were worried about Mitt Romney.)

The Obama administration conceded as much on the issue of separation in 2011, when Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs, told PBS, “Even if the [immigration] law is executed with perfection, there will be parents separated from their children.”

Many liberals contend Obama never ripped babies from the arms of screaming parents. They should ask, for example, the over 150,000 immigrant children separated from their parents due to detention and deportation proceedings in 2012 if that’s true. Or the over 500,000 immigrant children, who experienced separation between 1998 and that year.

The majority of those children were under 10 years-old. Over 5,000 were placed into foster care. Specifically, these were children whose parents were deported, not minors who came to the border unaccompanied.

Liberals suggest this separation under Obama was different than what’s happening under Trump because some of the children may have been born here and therefore not eligible for deportation like their parents. They argue families may have been separated, but Obama didn’t do what Trump is doing now.

These are troubling procedural arguments that legitimize certain kinds of violence.

Some liberals have said, even if Obama’s deportation machine was larger (and remember, it was twice as large), it was somehow kinder and gentler than Trump’s because Obama incarcerated families together and he didn’t jail kids alone. They see this as an example of how the Obama administration showed empathy towards families.

This is another semantic argument, and a rather twisted one at that because once again this argument involves defending the violence that occurs in detention. And because of that, the truth is missed.

Family detention centers were well-known havens for sexual violence and deprivation. They were overcrowded and lacked basic medical care. Numerous reports warned of these conditions over the years but were ignored throughout Obama’s presidency.

Ironically, even family detention involved separation, as the facilities primarily held women and children. Men were incarcerated separately and often forced to labor in dangerous conditions for little-to-no pay.

Obama organized ad campaigns in Central America that used the violent specter of these experiences to try and dissuade people from coming to the U.S. or sending their kids unaccompanied. Families were targeted for raids, which resulted in the detention of children and widespread fear in immigrant communities. That forced many to go deeper underground.  

When unaccompanied minors were arrested on the border, they were placed in detention. Depending on where they arrived from and whether they were assessed to be victims of trauma or abuse, they would be deported or placed in foster care.

In part because of the United States’ punitive approach to immigration, parents sent their children to the border alone out of desperation hoping they would be shown mercy. That reinforced a policy of separation.

Activists even called out the border patrol strategy, termed “Chase and Scatter,” for using family separation as a weapon against immigrants. The long-standing policy involved attacking immigrant camps in the borderlands late at night and beefing up security in certain areas to drive immigrants into dangerous terrain if they want to cross the border. These  tactics separated families and left untold numbers of men, women, and children to die injured and abandoned in the desert or be detained.

Obama’s chief of staff during the years in which he detained and deported the most immigrants was Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat who is notoriously anti-immigrant and who is now the mayor of Chicago. Emanuel was also an aide to President Bill Clinton.

Publicly available memos show Rahm pushed Clinton to ramp up deportation proceedings in the 1990s. When he assumed position in Obama’s office, lawmakers and advocates called him out for working against immigration reform efforts.

Liberals argue Obama’s deportation machine was superior for its focus on people with convictions. This was only the case for the last two of his eight years in office. But it also wasn’t what most people imagine, which is that Obama deported only murderers and rapists.

People who were convicted of minor offenses, including immigration-related offenses, were targeted for deportation.

In the U.S., most people are coerced into guilty pleas, immigrants lack legal representation, and most cases don’t even go to trial. Conviction is not a very high bar. Yet, even during this period of more “focused” deportation, advocates said the administration continued targeting people who weren’t charged or convicted of any crime at all.

Liberals have pointed to what positive accomplishments President Obama managed for U.S-born children of undocumented parents, also known as “Dreamers.”

After 6 years in office, Obama took some important actions. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program reduced some of the harm, but his administration excluded their parents from its protections. They cited legal challenges as the rationale for not expanding the program further. No matter how you cut it, this was part of a policy of separation.


Unmistakably, Obama built a massive deportation machine, which involved the systematic detention of children and separation of families. Advocates organized against the administration on these issues for years, warning that it would only get worse if a Republican were to gain control of it. Judging by the discourse on immigration today, they were ignored.

Now that Trump has materialized as the nightmare Republican from the future, which activists had warned about, Democrats and liberals avoid culpability and whitewash the past. Politicians like Diane Feinstein, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine rebrand themselves as the ones who will fix the problem without ever taking a shred of responsibility for their failures to do so over the last decade. And liberal Democrats, who spent eight years accepting what the party chose to tell them about immigration, seem to have learned nothing.

How can this system be unraveled if those who pledge to resist are unwilling to accept the harm and injustice that occurred for eight years under Obama? How can they do this without centering those experiences in their plans for change?

To say what Trump is doing is “new” is to erase a decade of pain and tireless advocacy by immigrants, who demanded an end to cruel practices under Obama. It is an admission that many were not listening or did not care at the time. And it legitimizes the violence of deportation proceedings during the Obama years and before.

There must be a reckoning in which Democrats take responsibility for co-signing this conduct and building infrastructure to support it under Obama. They must dispose of the notion that doing so somehow justifies Trump’s actions. Otherwise, Democrats will approach reform by believing resistance to Trump’s immigration policy is complete if the country returns to what the status quo was previously.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.