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President Obama: Deporter-in-Chief

Joanne Lin

 by Speak Freely / ACLU

The lead statement of the House GOP immigration standards released last week says, "Border Security and Interior Enforcement Must Come First." While catchy, this phrase suggests that enforcement has not been taking place. The reality is that since 1996, our nation's singular immigration policy has been enforcement-first and enforcement-only. This folly of decades of enforcement-first has come at a tremendous cost – to American taxpayers who have funded it, to immigrant families torn asunder, and to all of our civil liberties.

Today the federal government spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined. According to a Migration Policy Institute report released last year, the federal government spent nearly $18 billion in fiscal year 2012 on immigration enforcement – approximately 24 percent more than collective spending for the FBI, Secret Service, Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

In addition, the Homeland Security (DHS) immigration enforcement agencies -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection – refer more cases for federal prosecution than all Justice Department law enforcement agencies combined. In recent years ICE has locked up approximately 430,000 individuals per year in detention facilities – which exceeds the total number of prisoners serving sentences in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities for all other federal crimes.

President Obama has earned the title "Deporter-in-Chief." While Republicans decry the President for failing to enforce the immigration laws, this administration is about to hit the two million deportations mark – a record for an American president. Even as President Obama makes immigration reform the top legislative priority for his second term, DHS continues to deport about 1,000 people a day – including many who could qualify for legalization under the Senate-passed immigration reform bill. The DHS enforcement machinery seemingly operates on auto-pilot, wrecking untold numbers of American families and communities every day.

Whether measured by budget allocations, criminal prosecution volumes, or people deported – it is clear that the federal government, through both Democrat and Republican administrations, has pursued an enforcement-first policy. This enforcement-first and enforcement-only approach is precisely what has produced our failed immigration state – the very state that demands comprehensive reform. Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Americans (including 69 percent of Republicans surveyed) favor a path to citizenship for immigrants if they meet certain requirements including a wait period, pay fines and back taxes, pass criminal background checks, and learn English. The time has come to abandon the folly of enforcement-first and to focus on legalizing the 11 million aspiring Americans.

© 2021 ACLU

Joanne Lin

Joanne Lin works on immigration issues for the ACLU.

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