3 Million People Were Deported Under Obama. What Will Biden Do About It?

Deportations carried out back then left immigrant communities fractured and financially devastated.

Ms. Guerrero is the author of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”

  • Jan. 23, 2021
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers in Arizona pat down undocumented immigrants from El Salvador before boarding them onto a deportation flight in 2010.
Credit…John Moore/Getty Images

On March 9, 2016, at the Democratic debate in Miami, Lucía Quiej, an undocumented mother from Guatemala, got up to speak to the presidential candidates. Her husband, Andrés Jiménez, whom she described as a hard worker, had been deported in 2013 after he was caught driving without a license, and she was raising her five children by herself. Her voice broke with emotion when she asked, “What can you do to stop deportations and reunify families?”

“I will do everything I can to pass laws that would bring families back together,” Hillary Clinton pledged.

“I will do everything that I can to unite your family,” Bernie Sanders said.

Mr. Jimenéz was among the three million people deported under the Obama administration — many of whom had jobs, homes and children in the United States. They were banished to Mexico and beyond. More than four years later, Ms. Quiej’s family remains separated. She still struggles to pay rent; a nearby church provides the family with donated clothing, food and a place to pray for help.

Her 17-year-old daughter, Angelica, has heard of Joe Biden’s pledge to create a task force to reunite children separated from their parents at the border by the Trump administration. “Why can’t they help us as well?” she wonders.

Lucía Quiej’s husband was deported during the Obama presidency. Her family remains separated.
Credit…Alan Diaz/Associated Press

When people demand the reunification of immigrant families today, they usually mean the thousands of asylum seekers separated from family members in the last four years. “The specter of [the Trump administration’s] family separation at the borders was so haunting that the term has been kind of narrowed,” said Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “But just because these things happened in the past, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a really awful present effect.”

If Mr. Biden is serious about “securing our values as a nation of immigrants,” he can’t just reverse President Donald Trump’s decisions, or label deportations under President Barack Obama a “big mistake.”

He must repair the harm that was done when he was vice president, which left communities fractured and financially devastated, as the public health researcher William D. Lopez observed in his book, “Separated.” He should extend some of the same relief sought for victims of Mr. Trump’s policy of family separation — such as mental health services and reunification — to those torn apart by Mr. Obama’s policies.

It’s true that the motivation and goals of the Obama administration’s policy differed from the Trump administration’s. Mr. Trump’s policies were designed to traumatize children and parents. They were rooted in his extremist adviser Stephen Miller’s animus for family migration.

It matters that the Obama administration’s actions were not sadistic. But it doesn’t mean they weren’t harmful. The American Psychological Association, which said Mr. Trump’s separations harmed children, previously noted that those carried out under Mr. Obama could cause “serious mental health deterioration and trauma in children.”


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What should the Biden administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress prioritize?

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Mr. Obama may not have separated families asking for refuge at the border as a matter of policy as Mr. Trump did, but he did separate those with roots in the United States. He said he was after “felons, not families.” But deportees have families, and most had committed only immigration offenses. Since being deported, a number of them have struggled with depression and substance abuse in Mexico, dreaming of their loved ones in the United States.

Mr. Biden’s immigration plan, which cites the need to “restore sensible enforcement priorities,” sounds familiar: a pledge to prioritize serious criminals, protect families and end raids in sensitive environments. Mr. Obama had the same goals, saying he was after “gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”

President Biden’s goals, which can in theory be accomplished through executive action, ignore the lessons of the Obama administration, in which the criminalization of some immigrants shattered families, and the cultures of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement led to rampant abuses.

Ms. Shah said Mr. Biden needs to be honest about the overreliance on memos and the lack of accountability for ICE and the Border Patrol. They enjoyed impunity for killings and other abuses under Mr. Obama as well as under Mr. Trump, she noted.

“We actually have to limit the discretion of the officers and the agents who act on xenophobia and bigotry — and who do horrific things to human beings under the pretext of immigration enforcement,” Ms. Shah said. “It’s not a matter of just appointing the right people. You’ve got an entrenched agency culture of abuse and impunity. It’s going to take a lot of oversight and accountability.”

Mr. Biden will need congressional and independent oversight. And he’s going to have to change the narrative around immigration, fundamentally disentangling it from criminality. Otherwise, he’ll fail to rally support for some of his most ambitious goals, such as promising to end “prolonged detention,” and to provide a pathway for citizenship for the nearly 11 million people in the United States without legal status.

For the latter, he needs Congress — and a game plan for fighting the conservative disinformation campaign that Mr. Miller and his nativist allies are likely to launch. They can’t afford to forget the lessons of the so-called Gang of Eight bill, which died in the House in 2014 amid an onslaught of falsehoods casting immigrants as welfare-guzzling criminals.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, plans to introduce a resolution for comprehensive immigration reform that demonstrates how to change the narrative from the top, rejecting the quid pro quo framing of previous immigration reform efforts in which immigrant protections come in exchange for increased border militarization.

The resolution seeks to dismantle the U.S. deportation machine and decriminalize immigration offenses, creating instead “scalable civil consequences,” such as fines and community service. It aims to end incentives for local police to work with federal immigration officers. (About 70 percent of ICE arrests occur after contact with local police officers or state prisons). “Our intent is really to disentangle the criminal justice and immigration systems,” Ms. Jayapal said in an interview.

Mr. Biden has said he doesn’t believe that the police should turn immigrants over to ICE to be deported. But his plan doesn’t mention banning ICE detainers or discouraging police cooperation with ICE. He should throw his support behind Ms. Jayapal’s resolution, co-sponsored by her Democratic colleagues Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Yvette Clarke of New York, Jesús García of Illinois, Judy Chu of California and Veronica Escobar of Texas.

It provides a path to reunification for any separated families, regardless of who separated them — because it is driven by respect for human rights rather than by political considerations. “We wanted to be broad and inclusive when we talk about family separations now that people understand how detrimental the consequences are, whether you’re separated at the border or in the interior,” Ms. Jayapal said.

Ms. Quiej fantasizes about reuniting with her husband at the airport, watching the joy on her children’s faces as they run up to him and hug him. If the priorities in Ms. Jayapal’s resolution are adopted, deportation would no longer be the consequence for minor offenses like Mr. Jiménez’s.

Jean Guerrero (@jeanguerre), an investigative journalist, is the author of the book “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”

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