Deportation Nation: Yes, Obama Can Pull the Brakes

Ju Hong was scared, even unsure, as to the consequences to him if he interrupted President Barack Obama during his stump speech on immigration in San Francisco earlier this week.

After all, he was put there by the White House, vetted, to make sure he was merely another prop while the President gave yet another boring speech on immigration.

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Hong, an undocumented graduate of U.C. Berkeley with a gutsy record of engaging in immigrant rights activism, has grown weary of speeches on immigration. With the House unlikely to pass comprehensive immigration reform, he represents the many immigrant justice seekers who are appalled at the nearly 2 million deportations under the Obama Administration even while the President is campaigning for immigration reform.

To be clear, deportations are not restricted to the Obama Administration. We are in the midst of a massive deportation episode, roots of which go back to 1882 exclusion of Chinese-­Americans, and perhaps, even the beginning of the nation. President Obama contends that while “we are a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws.” Yet, the discourse over who is included and excluded through immigration enforcement has long involved more than just concerns over the rule of law. The “huddled masses yearning to breathe freely” have been excluded from the United States long before they could reach our shores.

Yet, immigration prosecutions are at an all-time high. Under the Obama Administration, prosecution for mere unauthorized entry jumped 76 percent. The Obama Administration insists that it is targeting only serious criminals however, even that has turned out to be a lie as only 14 percent of ICE detainers are issued to serious offenders, and many of those targeted are minor drug and immigration offenders. Additionally, the Administration’s new Criminal Alien Removal Initiative (CARI) initiative emboldens Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to carry out raids in immigrant communities, at our schools, churches, and grocery stores. Meanwhile, legal non-citizens are locked up in immigration detention facilities at astronomical rates, and immigration reform would leave thousands languishing in detention without due process.

So when the President rolled into town with these numbers to, once again, blame the Republicans for not doing enough to pass immigration reform, Hong had had enough.

Respectfully waiting until the near-end of the speech, Hong asked, “Mr. President, please use your executive authority to halt [deportations]. We agree that we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but at the same time, you have the power to stop deportations.” Members in the audience joined Hong in chanting, “Yes, you can. Stop the deportations!”

Many media outlets called it heckling. Various pro-reform groups defended the President’s deportations against an undocumented person who has truly felt the horror of living under the present Administration’s insidious policies. I think it is more appropriate to call it an intervention. Hong and his supporters in the audience put the spotlight directly on the deportations under the Obama regime, and hence, changed the conversation from one about electoral politics and who to blame, to one about immigrant justice and getting relief for our communities.

To his credit, President Obama stopped Secret Service from tackling Hong to the floor, and instead, engaged the young brave man. However, the President lied when he replied, “Actually, I don’t [have the power to stop deportations], and that’s why we’re here.”

Although there is disagreement about the scope of the President’s authority to suspend enforcement, the vast majority of legal observers agree that the President has discretion to choose how to enforce the law. In other words, the President can suspend enforcement, but he can’t affirmatively grant benefits – such as visas or citizenship – to individuals who would not qualify for those benefits under existing law.

In fact, President Obama has taken executive action to suspend some deportations. His administration issued a directive through the Department of Homeland Security last summer to not deport young undocumented people such as Hong. The directive, popularly known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), provides that anyone who meets a limited criteria can obtain a work permit, and hence, get a driver’s license, state identification, and even advance parole to travel internationally in narrow situations. Even with Republican outcry, the Obama Administration successfully defend it in courts.

Now, President Obama is telling Hong that he doesn’t have the power to do the same for Hong’s parents and family members who don’t fall within the limited parameters of DACA. At the same time, the Obama Administration has quietly extended a similar immigration benefit, parole in place, for spouses of active and reserve U.S. armed forces. He can do much more such as order DHS attorneys to administratively close cases, scale down ICE enforcement raids, pardon unauthorized entry, and suspend deportations for anyone who could have qualified for relief under the most recent Senate immigration reform legislation. At this point, it is perhaps the only way forward for many immigrants who need relief now.

Hong has the support of the community behind him. He is now asking the President, a former constitutional lawyer, to explain his legal analysis for why his hands are tied when those very hands acted in a manner to spare Hong from deportation.

The President may or may not respond. Meanwhile 1100 persons continue to be deported daily.

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