By Sarah Lazare
February 7, 2017
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 betweenthat 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.