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The Burden of Record-Breaking Deportations

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last week that it had broken its own record for deportations, affirming the Obama administration’s zeal for heavy-handed immigration enforcement. According to the announcement, deportations have increased by 70 percent since the Bush administration, totaling 392,000 in fiscal year 2010.

While the agency hailed this figure as a victory, others are taking a step back to examine the huge political, financial, and human costs associated with this administration’s unapologetic and tough approach to immigration.

The human costs

DHS’s efforts have resulted in the deportations of 195,772 convicted criminals in 2010 alone—perhaps a cause for celebration, or at least relief, to the scores of Americans who buy into the immigrant-as-criminal narrative. But things are less clear-cut with regard to the remaining 196,228 non-criminal individuals deported this year.

While many of those individuals were undoubtedly swept up during border crossings—spending a relatively short spell in detention before being deported—many others were just as certainly legal residents woefully caught in the “deportation dragnet.”

Shahed Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant and legal permanent resident of the U.S., is one such individual. Seth Freed Wessler, writing for ColorLines, brings to light Hossain’s tragic—and arguably preventable—story.

The 21-year-old, self-identified Texas was stopped by border guards during a day trip to Mexico because he has brought his Bangladeshi passport instead of his green card. When an officer asked him if he was a citizen, Hossain initially misspoke and said yes, before immediately correcting himself and informing the guard that he was actually a legal resident. Though the officer verified Hossain’s status, another officer took over and initiated a chain of events that resulted in Hossain’s immediate detention and eventual deportation.

At issue was Hossain’s inadvertent—and promptly corrected—claim of citizenship, which has been a federal crime since 1996. Though not meant to target green card holders like Hossain, the broad and indiscriminate application of the law has swept up all manner of non-citizens.

Wessler notes that President Obama’s enforcement-focused immigration strategy has only exacerbated a problem decades into the making:

…The Obama administration is predetermining the fate of hundreds of thousands more. In March, a leaked ICE memo confirmed that the agency had set quotas for deportation: 400,000 this year. After the leak, ICE Director John Morton denied that the quotas actually exist. Regardless, the agency is on track to meet its alleged target. […]

The Obama administration is nonetheless staying the course, refusing to take administrative action to slow deportations or to pick a fight over a broader reform bill.

Hossain’s story is not unique, but representative of a growing population of immigrants unexpectedly and unfairly targeted by misguided and overreaching immigration control tactics.

The financial costs

Elise Foley at the Washington Independent summed up the financial costs of rising deportation numbers and found that we spent about $9.2 billion on deportations in fiscal year 2010 alone—at an average cost of $23,480 per deportee. Here’s the breakdown, via a Center for American Progress report:

Apprehension: $18,310
Detention: $3,355
Legal processing: $817
Transportation: $1,000

Foley notes that the expense may be justifiable if we’re actually deporting criminals whose long-term incarcerations would cost significantly more.

But, as Antonieta Cádiz points out at New America Media, slightly more than half of people deported in 2010 were not criminals—and of those who were broadly classified as “convicted criminals,” nearly 50,000 were only convicted of minor offenses like traffic violations. And it’s rather difficult to justify spending $23,480 on the deportation of an immigrant guilty of nothing more than a traffic violation.

The political costs

When the Obama administration decided that heavy immigration enforcement should precede comprehensive immigration reform, it didn’t expect the decision to alienate Latino voters.

But according to the American Prospect’s Adam Serwer, the administration’s enforcement push, coupled with a lack of comprehensive reform, has compromised the Latino electorate’s projected allegiance to the Democratic party:

Having won the presidency — and 67 percent of the Hispanic vote — in part on the promise of immigration reform, Barack Obama has yet to put his feet on the starting blocks. In the meantime, his administration has doubled down on aggressive enforcement policies, ramping up border security and increasing deportations. […] The Obama administration finds itself trapped. Hoping to create the political conditions for reform, it has amassed a record of strict enforcement, deporting more immigrants in 2009 than at any other time in the nation’s history, even as migration decreased. […]

…But  at this point the question isn’t whether immigration reform will happen. Rather, the question is, when it does, which party will get the credit and which will take the fall?

Serwer notes that the administration’s enforcement-heavy immigration strategy is an attempt to cater to the American public’s penchant for increased border security. Immigration enforcement has long proven popular with a large swathe of American voters because it assuages the public’s growing (albeit unfounded) fears that immigration fuels crime.

The immigrant-as-criminal narrative has worked its way into the psyches of many Americans, and is no doubt reinforced by the ubiquity of racially-charged terms like “illegals” in mainstream media. Some have speculated that the omnipresence of such language within immigration discourse has a profound impact on public opinion and policy. That possibility even prompted the Applied Research Center, publisher of ColorLines, to launch a campaign to “Drop the I-Word.”

To get a better idea of the potential political consequences of the I-Word’s mainstream ubiquity, we sat down with I-Word Campaign Organizer Mónica Novoa:

With just a few weeks until midterm elections, and the media abuzz with talk of a disillusioned and disaffected Latino voter base, the political implications of increased and indiscriminate enforcement efforts could be profound.

Deporting 392,000 immigrants in one year is monumental, but so are the financial and human costs associated with doggedly driving that figure upwards. And, come November, we may find that the electoral consequences of pushing such an arguably conservative immigration agenda are just as grave.

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