‘Deporter in chief’ Obama presides over failed US immigration system

America Letter: Barack Obama has expelled more foreigners from the US than any other president

One of 10 court rooms at the US department of justice executive office for immigration review at Arlington immigration court. Photograph:  Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

One of 10 court rooms at the US department of justice executive office for immigration review at Arlington immigration court. Photograph: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

 

The girls are dressed in pretty dresses and the boys in their best clothes. Some are in suits and ties, as if about to take their First Communion or another rite of passage. For many of them, they are.

The waiting area outside the Arlington immigration court in Virginia, across the Potomac river from Washington DC, is busy with mostly Mexican families preparing to make their case to stay in the United States or plead for a relative, in a detention centre 260km away, not to be deported.

In one court a camera next to the judge pivots around, picking up statements from the bench and lawyers for the benefit of the detainee sitting in Farmville Detention Centre in the heart of Virginia. A court interpreter sitting next to the judge helps explain the proceedings in Spanish to the detainee.

Another court deals with juvenile cases, explaining the large number of families waiting for their case to come up on the long docket of hearings. Unauthorised immigrants under the age of 31 who entered the United States before the age of 16 and have lived in the country continuously for at least five years can qualify for a renewable, two- year reprieve from deportation. They are known as “dreamers” because they meet the requirements of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act.

This grey building is a good place to witness the US’s failed immigration system. Illegal immigrants, in many cases young men caught on traffic offences or common misdemeanours, face deportation, in some cases, to a country they barely know. Almost all are immigrants from Mexico or Central and South America who have crossed the US’s southern-western border seeking work.


Nearly two million deported
While US president Barack Obama has made immigration reform that, he hopes, would make citizens of an estimated 11.7 million illegal immigrants, a goal of his second term in office, he has taken flak for his administration’s heavy crackdown on the so-called undocumented. Labelled the “deporter in chief” by the anti-enforcement lobby, he has expelled more foreigners than any other president. Almost two million have been deported during his presidency, though the number fell by about a quarter last year.

Last year a man heckled Obama during a speech on immigration in California, saying he had the power to stop the deportations. “Actually I don’t,” Obama replied in an uncharacteristic response.

The number of deportations, a term that is no longer used in official immigration statistics, includes immigrants stopped from entering the US as well as those expelled from the country. Both categories have since 1996 fallen under the term “removals”. In addition, people attempting to enter the US who are apprehended at the border and sent back to their country of origin are called “returns”. Since taking office, the Obama administration has removed 1.97 million and returned 1.6 million.


Illegal Irish immigrants
Relative to the overall numbers, illegal Irish immigrants – estimated to number about 50,000 but in reality nobody really knows the exact number – barely figure in the US deportation regime.

Statistics provided by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement show the number of illegal Irish citizens removed from the US has fallen during the Obama years – 119 in 2009, 118 in 2010, 67 in 2011 and 51 in 2012. In the first of these two years the ratio of criminal to non-criminal removals was one to five. Since then the emphasis of US immigration enforcement against the Irish has shifted, weighted more towards those who are alleged to have committed crimes. Criminal cases accounted for 30 of the total 67 removals in 2011 and 25 out of the 51 removals in 2012. (This compares with almost 410,000 removals overall that year.)

US homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson was reported this week to be considering limiting deportations of immigrants who don’t have serious criminal records, in a move that would protect tens of thousands removed each year because of repeat immigration violations. The change would give a much- needed public relations boost to the Obama administration’s reputation on deportations.

On the other side of the political divide, Republicans still struggle to grasp the nettle of immigration reform, which the most ambitious in the party know will help them regain the White House.

New York congressman Pete King, the grandson of Galway and Limerick immigrants and a presidential hopeful, this week urged fellow Republican John Boehner, the House of Representatives Speaker, to push the party to support a law that would give legal status to unauthorised immigrants, something many House Republicans oppose.

“I fully understand and appreciate the argument that illegal behaviour should not be rewarded,” he said in a letter. “The reality though is that we are not going to deport 11 million immigrants.”

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