Next week, President Obama vacates the White House. He takes with him eight years of accomplishments on a wide range of fronts. Throughout his two terms, I have devoted considerable energy to criticizing his shortcomings and, when appropriate, noting the ways in which he has improved migrants’ lives. As Donald Trump takes command of the Executive Branch, the long process of reviewing President Obama’s crimmigration legacy begins.
President Obama presided over the most consistently heavy-handed immigration policing practices in the nation’s history. Under his watch, ICE detained hundreds of thousands of migrants every year. Among these are children as young as months-old, mothers, and entire families. Alongside ICE’s immigration detainees, the U.S. Marshals Service steadily expanded the population of confined migrants under its purview. Almost 100,000 migrants who were suspected of doing nothing more serious than coming to the United States without the federal government’s permission spent time inside in a prison or jail. These folks were prosecuted in federal courts and almost always convicted. After which they were handed over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for punishment in a federal penitentiary. When they had served their time, they were transferred into ICE’s custody for more detention and deportation. Often the cycle continued, impeded only by the stringent border policing that began growing long before President Obama took office, but never contracted. All the while, the northward trek became more difficult. Migrants inevitably died. Smuggling predictably became more expensive, luring big-money operators like drug cartels.
In the interior, President Obama’s DHS tapped the resources of local police to expand the federal government’s immigration policing prowess. Immigration detainers, long a tool in the federal government’s immigration law enforcement kit, took on a central role in the Obama-era ICE. Relatedly, the agency embraced the Bush Administration’s Secure Communities program as a centerpiece of its own immigration enforcement regime. In immigration courts and federal courts throughout the country, the Obama DHS and Justice Departments consistently argued in favor of broad readings of existing immigration laws to give ICE greater power to deport people who had run-ins with the criminal justice systems. Time and again, the federal government’s lawyers claimed expansive powers to penalize so-called “criminal aliens.”
Under the guise of targeting, as President Obama once put it, “felons, not families,” his Administration imprisoned and deported more people than ever in the history of the United States under a single president.
And at every turn, advocates pushed back. To his Administration’s credit, it often listened. There were sympathetic ears within the White House, Justice Department, and even DHS. Often these were drowned out by the saber-rattling emanating from the field, usually courtesy of the ICE union that, facts indicating otherwise, seemed to believe that Washington had tied its members’ hands. At other times the White House simply disagreed with advocates and their governmental allies, hoping (long after any such hope was reasonable) that strong-armed immigration law enforcement would convince Republicans to sign onto comprehensive immigration reform. Ultimately even President Obama realized that no amount of compromise could bring along enough Republican votes. To them, anything potentially emanating from President Obama was unacceptable—the details be damned.
At that point, President Obama took to the power of his executive authority. Key officials within his Administration issued prosecutorial discretion guidelines and, most recently, took a harsh view of the federal government’s relationship with the private prison industry. Above all else, DACA changed lives. It was never sold as permanent and, as Donald Trump’s impending inauguration reminds us, it is not.
Ironically, President Obama’s legacy might be most dictated by what Trump does. Trump’s immigration enforcement bureaucracy will follow Obama’s. In that way, Trump necessarily builds on what Obama has created. And what Obama has created is a well-oiled policing apparatus that can be deployed in the mean-spirited, vindictive, fear-mongering, racist, life-threatening fashion that Trump has promised. Obama’s immigration policing has created many nightmares for migrants. With the right mix of political opportunism and disregard for human life, it can be thrown into overdrive.
Setting that foundation, I fear, might be what we come to remember of President Obama. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps instead advocates will be able to resist Trump’s plans and, in a few years, the nation will find itself in a holding pattern regarding immigration law enforcement waiting for the next opportunity to move forward on the centuries-old project of becoming a more tolerant, welcoming community. Here’s hoping.