On January 18, Barack Obama used his final press conference as president to pledge to the public that he will speak up if the administration of Donald Trump crosses a line, whether that’s imposing “systematic discrimination” or silencing the press. “There’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake,” Obama told journalists assembled in the White House briefing room. “I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids, and send them someplace else, when they love this country.”
Yet the president’s palliative remarks that afternoon concealed a more harrowing truth: sweeps and forced expulsions of children would not constitute a break with norms of his own administration, which oversaw more deportations than any other in U.S. history. During Obama’s tenure, mass incarceration of mothers and their children became a mainstay of the U.S. response to the violent displacement of peoples across Central America. And amidst the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, Obama has greatly expanded the U.S. deportation machine, overseeing a higher number of border patrols than any previous administration. That deportation machine is now being handed to Trump, whose administration is aggressively delivering on his fascist and white supremacist campaign pledges to slam the door on refugees and migrants.
“We have to remain vigilant of what Obama’s actual policies were, and not just pay attention to the rhetoric,” Tania Unzueta, an organizer with the Chicago-based Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD) and Mijente, told AlterNet. “If you look at the actual policies from the White House and how they impacted our communities, it is obvious that the policies were bad and were harming people.”
During his tenure, Obama forcibly deported more than 2.5 million people—a figure that does not include those refused entry at the border, self-deported due to the climate of fear or died trying to reach safe haven. This number of expulsions is not only unprecedented, but marked an increase of 23 percent from the George W. Bush administration.
These deportations played out in harrowing scenes across the country, right through the final year of Obama’s presidency. In the beginning of 2016, former Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson presided over a significant escalation in raids targeting immigrants, migrants and refugees primarily from Central American countries. “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents barged into homes, even when asked for warrants at the door, removing mothers and children as young as 4 years old,” the advocacy organization Not1More Deportation reported in January 2016.
This targeting accelerated last spring, with ICE boasting in May that it had “arrested 331 individuals during a month-long operation targeting criminal aliens and other immigration violators in six Midwestern states.” When Johnson was invited to deliver the commencement address at the Nashville-based Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School last May, he was shouted down by community members, including teachers of nine high school students who had been detained since the beginning of the year. “Education, not deportation! Stop the raids!” the protesters chanted.
But these violent sweeps date back further still. In December 2013, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice released a report detailing an ICE-enforced program of “race-based community raids” known as the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative. According to Saket Soni, the executive director of the workers’ center, the program enforced “indiscriminate community raids at apartment complexes, grocery stores, laundromats, Bible study groups, and parks based purely on racial profiling. Often working with local law enforcement, New Orleans ICE arrests people who appear Latino and uses high-tech mobile bio-metric devices, first created for U.S. military use in Iraq and Afghanistan, to conduct immediate bio-metric record checks. Most people are handcuffed before the fingerprinting begins, and based on the results, many are immediately separated from their families and transported to ICE detention centers for deportation.”
Unzueta said that such raids give a glimpse of what an escalated crackdown could look like under Trump. “We know a little bit about how these raids could look because they were done under Obama,” she said.
The spike in deportations has been coupled with the continuation of the country’s unrivaled prison industrial complex. Shortly after Obama was elected, he expanded the so-called “Secure Communities” program created under George W. Bush. Established as a collaboration between DHS and the Department of Justice, Secure Communities relied on collaboration between local, state and federal law enforcement to target undocumented people ensnared in the criminal justice system and labeled “criminals.” The program has worsened racial profiling and escalated the criminalization and deportation of undocumented people across the United States. Advocates have long decried the division of undocumented people into “good” and “bad” immigrants based on their incarceration histories, underscoring that everyone deserves to be treated wtih respect and dignity.
Under George W. Bush, the program existed in only 14 counties. In 2009, that number ballooned to 88. By 2012, it was ubiquitous across the country. Thanks to sustained grassroots resistance led by the communities targeted, Obama announced in 2014 that he was ending the program. But its replacement—the Priority Enforcement Program—still relies on the targeting of people caught in the prison industrial complex.
Meanwhile, Obama escalated prosecutions against people seeking to move across the U.S. border. Marisa Franco and Carlos Garcia noted for The Nation in June, “Within two years of coming into office, President Obama doubled the number of people being prosecuted for reentry by expanding Bush’s border-court system, Operation Streamline, which tries up to 70 people per day in a cattle line of sentences. The experiment went from three jurisdictions in 2008 to every single border sector except California by 2010. From the time of its invention in 2005 to just four years later in 2009, Streamline sent over 209,000 individuals to serve federal prison sentences for no reason other than crossing the border.”
The rise in criminal prosecutions impacted borderlands as well as the internal United States. The advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership reported in 2012 that “From 2008 to 2011, unauthorized re-entry convictions (8 U.S.C. § 1326) in court districts not on the Southwest border increased by the greatest margin of any four-year period in history, more than double that of the previous four years.”
Meanwhile, Obama expanded the 287(g) program, which was authorized in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton. According to ICE, the program “allows a state or local law enforcement entity to enter into a partnership with ICE, under a joint Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), in order to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions.” The program expanded immigration enforcement powers to local police, giving them the authority target undocumented people in the streets and in jails, leading to an escalation in racial profiling. While the Obama administration later partially scaled back 287(g), Trump has referenced this initiative and Secure Communities as models to emulate and “revitalize.”
The Obama years have not been without hard-fought gains by the immigrant justice movement. The Dreamer movement of undocumented students successfully pressed Obama to take executive action in 2012 and pass Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But even this reform, which grants limited deportation reprieve to some undocumented young people who came to the country as children, is being targeted by the Trump administration. Now, those Dreamers who fought for DACA are teaming up with undocumented people across the country to build Movimiento Cosecha, or Harvest Movement. They are preparing to go on the offensive during the Trump years, building towards the ultimate goal of launching “massive civil resistance and non-cooperation” to defend the dignity and safety of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.
In 2014, the mass detention of families fleeing violence and poverty in Central America became the cornerstone of Obama’s response to the displacement crisis, which was exacerbated by U.S. policies in the region. As the Detention Watch Network explains, “Family detention is the inhumane and unjust policy of jailing immigrant mothers with their children – including babies. Upon arrival in the U.S., families are locked up in remote and punitive detention centers, with little access to legal and social services, often experiencing widespread human and civil rights violations.”
The large-scale incarceration of children was condemned by human rights organizations, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a survivor of a World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp. And it has been loudly protested by detained mothers, who have waged repeated hunger strikes and issued public letters decrying their conditions and indefinite detention.
“We are desperate because this will be the second Christmas that our children have to spend here,” seventeen prisoners at the Berks County Family Detention Center wrote to state authorities ahead of the 2016 holiday season. “This is in addition to all the other special dates—such as the birthdays of our children and our own, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.—that we have had to spend in this jail… We ask you, seventeen desperate mothers, to give the biggest gift to our children of being able to spend Christmas among family.”
In an August 10 open letter to Jeh Johnson, 22 mothers imprisoned at the Berks Family Residential Center wrote, “Our children, who range in age from 2 to 16, have been deprived of a normal life. We are already traumatized from our countries of origin. We risked our own lives and those of our children so we could arrive on safe ground. While here, our children have considered committing suicide, made desperate from confinement. The teenagers say that being here, life makes no sense. One of our children said he wanted to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare.”
Yet, the Obama administration has aggressively fought court efforts to shut down these family prisons, leaving intact an infrastructure that allows U.S. authorities to incarcerate thousands of mothers and their children.
Family internment does not include the tens of thousands of other people who have been detained on immigration charges, a number that ICE put at 42,000 last year. High levels of incarceration have fed the booming private prison industry, even as it supposedly fell out of favor with the Obama administration’s justice department. Like family detention centers, private and public immigration prisons have faced rolling hunger strikes. Immigrant detention is consistent with the U.S. track record of remaining, under Obama, the world’s largest jailer by far.
Obama’s funneling of public resources to ICE and other deportation initiaves has aided and abetted these nationwide sweeps. According to the American Immigration Council, “The number of Border Patrol agents deployed between ports of entry roughly doubled from 10,717 in FY 2003 to 21,394 in FY 2012. At the same time, the number of CBP officers working at ports of entry grew from 17,279 to 21,423. And the number of ICE agents devoted to Enforcement and Removal Operations more than doubled from 2,710 to 6,338.”
Immigration authorities are responsible for the systematic disappearing and deadly targeting of migrants, as outlined in a must-read report released in December 2016 by the Arizona-based organizations Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths/No Más Muertes. The Clinton-era “Prevention Through Deterrence” plan imposed in the mid-1990s has “pushed migration into increasingly remote corridors,” the report states. “In turn, Border Patrol agents have been tasked with apprehending migrants, refugees, and other border crossers in the isolated, vast expanses of wilderness between official ports of entry. With the exception of those border crossers who have already decided to surrender to border agents, the sole method of apprehension available to Border Patrol personnel is chase through deadly terrain.”
“Border Patrol agents chase border crossers through the remote terrain and utilize the landscape as a weapon to slow down, injure, and apprehend them,” the report states, noting that such chases “lead to heat exhaustion and dehydration, blisters and sprains, injuries due to falls, and drownings.” Meanwhile, border patrol agents “regularly assault border crossers at the culmination of a chase.” In remote areas, excessive force often takes the form of “beatings, Tasers, dog attacks, and assault with vehicles,” the report states.
The result is a crisis of deaths and missing persons in the borderlands. According to the report, which draws on the testimony of border crossers and hundreds of cases from the Missing Migrant Crisis Line, tens of thousands of people have disappeared since the 1990s, with 1,200 going missing last year alone. “We run as if we were blind, as if we had a cloth over our eyes,” one unnamed border crosser who suffered wounds after running into a barbed-wire fence, told researchers. “Border Patrol can see everything though, and they know where the fences and the cliffs are. They will chase you towards them.”
“The known disappearance of thousands of people in the remote wilderness of the U.S.-Mexico border zone marks one of the great historical crimes of our day,” the investigation concludes.
“It’s really important to understand that there is already this massive deportation machine that was constructed by Obama,” Bethany Carson, researcher and organizer for Grassroots Leadership, told AlterNet. “The massive nature of our immigration enforcement system already is widely misunderstood and underestimated, as well as the fact that there is a very militarized border that is harder to cross than any time in our history.”
Carson warned that this apparatus is now in the hands of an even more dangerous administration. “The kind of prioritization Trump is doing is no prioritization at all,” she said. “The way he has expanded who he is prioritizing for deportation means every single immigrant who is now removable is going to be a priority. Now we are seeing that Trump is very willing to sign these authoritarian and outrageous executive orders that constitute an all-out attack on immigrant communities.”
Trump’s first two weeks in the White House have been met with growing resistance, as millions around the world have taken to the streets, flooded airports and protested American embassies. Communities are staging popular assemblies and holding trainings to prepare for rapid response to defend their neighbors against a potential spike in mass expulsions. Amid this groundswell is a nationwide push, led by undocumented communities and the Movement for Black Lives, demanding an expansion of sanctuary to defend everyone from state-sanctioned violence, including deportations, police violence and mass imprisonment. This movement is not just calling for a return to Obama-era policies, but demanding an improvement on what came before so that real sanctuary is afforded to all: immigrants, refugees, Black, poor, Muslim and LGBTQ communities.
“We need to hold people to high standards,” said Unzueta. “We have to remember that Democrats have also pushed anti-immigrant policy. We have to remember the lessons we learned under Obama. The conversation about sanctuary cities is a popular response to that. We have seen that we need to deal with criminalization and police if we want true sanctuary in our cities and towns. We need to look beyond rhetoric and statements and look at how actual policies are affecting our communities.”