Whose Moral Stain? Hold Democrats Accountable on Immigration Too

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Of course, we need to hold Donald Trump and his Party accountable for the deep moral stain of his awful immigration policies.  But it doesn’t follow that we must, therefore, rally around the Democrats and work for a “blue wave” in the next election.  What Barack Obama and other Democrats did to immigrants is so reprehensible that ignoring it or acting like it wasn’t important is not an option.  Democrats must also be held accountable for their morally repugnant actions.

Yes, it really was that bad. My new report, Whose Moral Stain?  Obama’s Immigration Atrocities Led to Trump’sprovides a comprehensive review of Obama’s immigration record and how Democrats set the stage for Trump.  This article shares highlights from the report.

Obama’s Immigration Record

Rampant family separations. Over 152,000 children lost a parent to deportation in 2012 alone.  Each year similar numbers lost parents that way.

At the border, fathers were routinely separated from their children and spouses.  Mothers were generally allowed to keep their small children with them but older children, e.g. 11-year-olds, were often detained separately.  Small children traveling with aunts or other beloved guardians were taken away from them.

In 2011, an estimated 5100 children pulled from their parents by immigration officials were in foster care.  The numbers in other Obama years were likely similar.  It was extremely difficult for parents to comply with the reunification plans Child Protective Services (CPS) devises for children in foster care.  Distance and incarceration stymied participation in required programs and hearings.   Some parents faced the threat of permanent termination of parental rights.

Huge numbers of deportations. 

Obama deported over 3 million people.  That’s more than all presidents before him since 1890 combined.

He claimed to be ridding the country of dangerous criminals, thereby feeding a false racist narrative about immigrants.  In reality, the overwhelming majority of Obama’s “criminal” deportees were guilty of minor crimes like traffic violations, drug possession, and the like.  Immigration “crimes” were particularly dominant.  In other words, in a classic Catch 22, people denied legal options for immigrating were labeled as “criminals” for coming here the only way they could (illegally), and then that label was used to justify their expulsion.

Between 41% and 69% of Obama’s deportees each year had not been convicted of any crime.  Obama set a goal of deporting 400,000 people a year, and immigration agents were pressured to sweep up as many people as they could in order to meet that goal.

Obama expanded the tiny Secure Communities Program established by President Bush in October of 2008 to virtually every local law enforcement jurisdiction in the United States.  As a result, local officials everywhere provided ICE with fingerprints—including those of victims, witnesses and others not charged with offenses themselves—and then held undocumented people until ICE picked them up.

Under Obama, ICE also carried out traumatizing raids.  Armed agents pounded on doors in the wee hours of the morning, searched houses and whisked undocumented family members off to undisclosed locations.

Harsh treatment of refugees, including sending children and adults to their deaths. 

Obama labeled “recent arrivals” a top priority for deportation.  That put tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families who had fled extreme violence and poverty in Central America and Mexico in his crosshairs.

The conditions people fled were directly fueled byU.S. foreign policies implemented by both Democrats and Republicans.  Many survived rapes, other assaults, severe deprivation, and other trauma on their way to the U.S.

Obama used expedited procedures to rapidly expel recent arrivals, denying them lawyers and other basic due process rights.  “We have already added resources to expedite removal, without a hearing before an immigration judge, of adults who come…without children,” bragged Obama’s Homeland Security chief.  “Then there are adults who brought their children with them.  Again, our message to this group is simple:  We will send you back.”  Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that unaccompanied children who made it to the U.S. had to be sent back. “It may be safer [for them to stay in the U.S.] but that’s not the answer”, she said.   “We have to send a clear message,” Clinton explained.   “Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.”

Obama’s deportations sent people to their deaths.  At least 83 people deported between January 2014 and September 2015 were subsequently reported murdered.  Ten children deported from a New Mexico detention center on the same day as a visit there from the head of ICE, soon showed up dead in El Salvadoran morgues.

Inhumane incarcerations. 

Obama established a system of over 200 detention centers across the U.S., more than half of which are privately owned.  Many facilities are in remote locations far from legal services and detainees’ communities.

Each year hundreds of thousands of people were detained.  As of late 2016, 40,000 people were detained per day.

Substantial numbers of immigrants were incarcerated for very long periods of time.  None of 67 detainees interviewed during the Obama years at an Alabama detention facility had been detained for less than 2 months.  Three had been detained for 2 to 6 months, and five for 6 months to a year.  Twenty-five people had spent 1 to 2 years in detention; fifteen had spent 2 to 3 years; and twelve had spent 3 to 4 years.  Seven people had been detained for 4 years or more.

Numerous investigations have documented widespread abuse and neglect in Obama’s detention facilities. (See, for example,  this, thisthisthis, and this.)    For many, detention began with time in extremely cold cells they called “hieleras” (ice boxes) and/or in cages they called “perreras “(dog kennels).  At longer-term facilities excessive cold and heat were ongoing problems as were physical violence, sexual assault, verbal abuse, unhygienic conditions, lack of access to medical care (which was implicated in many detainee deaths), overcrowding, lack of privacy, lack of access to the outdoors, extended periods of solitary confinement, not being able to see loved ones, having lights shined into one’s room every 15 minutes all night, and being paid little or nothing for labor.

An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report details abuse of unaccompanied children in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody between 2009 and 2014.   “These records document a pattern of intimidation, harassment, physical abuse, refusal of medical services and improper deportation,” the report notes.  The federal government’s failure to protect the children and hold abusive officers accountable  “allowed a culture of impunity to flourish within CBP, subjecting immigrant children to conditions that are too often neglectful at best and sadistic at worst.”  (Emphasis added.)

Those who visited Obama’s family detention centers decried their “utter inhumanity” and compared them to Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.

Thousands of deaths at the border. 

As the result of support and leadership from Democrats and Republicans, there is a 650-mile wall along our southern border.  It funnels migrants into the most treacherous areas for entering the U.S.

Obama declared “securing our Southwest border” to be “a top priority”.  He poured billions of dollars into adding agents, deploying drones, and otherwise militarizing and beefing up border security.  In fiscal year 2012 alone, the Obama Administration spent about $18 billion on immigration enforcement programs, more than what was spent on the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and various other U.S. law enforcement agencies combined.

In the 2010s, the immigrant death toll skyrocketed even as the numbers of undocumented people heading north to the U.S. declined. According to Border Patrol statistics, 2975 people died trying to cross the border, during the Obama years.   This official number greatly understates the actual death toll.   La Coalición de Derechos Humanos opened over 1200 cases of people who were unaccounted for in 2015 alone.

“You just feel for them, they are young, in their 20s and 30s, even teenagers,” said Fire Chief Rene Lopez, Jr. referring to dead individuals he helped recover from the Rio Grande. “It used to be one a month. Now it’s one a week.”

Threats posed by nature were exacerbated by the military-like response of border patrol agents under Obama.  Practices like “chase and scatter” separated migrants from each other and led some to fall off cliffs.   Would-be immigrants were frequently shot to death.  Border personnel were also strongly implicated in destruction of water left for immigrants by charitable organizations and individuals.

There was strong evidence of widespread abuse of migrants by border patrol agents throughout the Obama years.   It ranged from deriding and verbally abusing immigrants to physically assaulting and even killing them.  Nonetheless meaningful reviews were not conducted, and effective reforms were not implemented.

Impoverishment and exploitation of those in the shadows.

Obama conducted “silent raids”on more than 2900 companies, forcing them to fire undocumented workers.  While long-time community members with families to feed lost their livelihoods, employers often brought in “guest workers”—immigrants with even fewer rights than those fired—to replace them.

Donald Trump wanted to deny undocumented immigrants access to social services.  But Bill Clinton beat him to it years earlier.

Obama approved highly toxic pesticides despite acute poisonings of immigrant farm workers and ongoing chronic exposures for them and their families.

Broken promises

As a candidate Barack Obama pledged to introduce legislation in his first year in office creating a pathway to citizenship.  The time to pass immigration reform was during Obama’s first two years when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.  But Obama went back on his word.  He squandered the opportunity he had to introduce and pass legislation.  He focused on border security and deportations instead.

Measures like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) singled out subgroups of immigrants for temporary deportation reprieves, without creating a pathway to citizenship for them.  To enjoy these reprieves people had to come out of the shadows, thereby making themselves vulnerable to future deportation under Obama or his successor, Donald Trump.

Supporting Democrats is Not A Good Way to Resist Trump

The conclusion we must draw is clear.   The righteous words of those condemning Republicans for the moral stain of Donald Trump’s immigration policies must be leveled against Democrats as well.  We cannot vote for or otherwise support Democrats. Doing so ignores violations of human rights that simply must not be ignored.  It rewards a Party that must instead be held accountable for its actions.

But there’s more.

We must reject Democrats because they enable Trump and other demagogues to ascend.

The disconnect between Obama’s compassionate-sounding words about immigrants and the abject cruelty of his immigration policies is typical of what goes on when Democrats are in power. On issues ranging from economics to war to environmental protection, what Democrats say is one thing, and what they do is another.

This politics of illusion fosters widespread disillusionment.   It leaves people feeling powerless and confused and without a roadmap forward to a just world.   This creates fertile ground for demagogues like Donald Trump, enabling them to foment bigotry and rise to power.

But it’s even worse than that.  Not only did Democrats help Trump get into office.  They also ensured that he has everything he needs to maximize the harm he does to immigrants.  Democrats gave Donald Trump.

Massive Infrastructures for doing harm:

+ Over 200 detention facilities across the U.S.

+ 650 miles of heavily militarized barricades along our southern border.

+ Invasive surveillance systems that can provide ICE with the fingerprints of literally millions of people each year.

Draconian laws and precedents:

+ Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996, which provided for expedited deportations, criminalized immigration offenses, authorized agreements giving local officials the power to enforce federal immigration law, and otherwise stacked the deck against immigrants.

+ Barack Obama fought a U.S. District Court ruling regarding detention of children and their parents. He successfully overturned a presumption that parents should be released when children are, thereby making it easier for Donald Trump to separate families.

+ Obama aggressively used the tools available to him against immigrants, flagrantly violated their rights, established huge budgets for immigration enforcement, and otherwise set the stage for Trump to continue violating human rights with impunity.

A well-established racist narrative about immigrants:

+ Immigrants commit less crime than native-born people, but Obama’s repeated statements about going after dangerous criminals combined with his huge deportation numbers implied otherwise.

+ Many describe Donald Trump as “decoding” the racist messages about immigrants that already prevailed because of the rhetoric and policies of Barack Obama and other Democrats.

+ Research shows that narratives portraying immigrants as lawbreakers make people less supportive of immigration legalization and more supportive of deportations.

Supporting Obama and the Democrats has consequences beyond those experienced during their time in office.    The precedents they set, the infrastructure they put in place, and the racist rhetoric they normalize are there for whoever comes into office next.  Trump can do so much harm, precisely because Obama and the Democrats served before him.

Is it worse for immigrants under Donald Trump than the Democrats?  Arguments can be made both ways on this question.  But let’s not waste time on comparisons.  The immigration records of both Democrats and Republicans are clearly unacceptable, and we must hold both accountable.  With injustice and abuse this reprehensible, we must demand more of ourselves than rallying around a political party because it’s the lesser evil.

What We Must Do

It is time to stand up for immigration justice, rejecting the policies of both Republicans and Democrats.   We must call for a swift pathway to citizenship for those currently living in the shadows in the U.S., and for those who long to come here.   We must insist upon foreign policies that don’t undermine sovereignty, freedom and economic security in other lands.

Concurrently, we must fight for universal free health care, universal free higher education, true environmental protection, an end to U.S. wars and their drain on public funds, and more.

In other words, we must demand what neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will give us.  We must move beyond those parties and their servitude to the wealthy few.

Some seek to divide working people, pitting citizens against non-citizens.  If we allow them to keep us apart, we lose our power.  The real problem we face is an economic system that lets decisions about human needs, including jobs, be made by the few based on what profits them most.  Those few—the owners of our major industries—make decisions that shape the destiny of humanity—a set-up that is inherently undemocratic.  They receive all the profits generated by our labor.

We can and must insist upon guaranteed good-paying jobs for all, including those new to our country. There is plenty of work to go around, and there are ample resources to make this happen.  We can and should hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, more caregivers to help the elderly, more engineers to produce solar panels, more biologists and laborers to restore degraded environments, more construction workers to repair bridges, more artists to beautify our communities, and so on and so forth.

The problem is one of distribution.  It is one of democracy.

Both Democrats and Republicans prop up an economic system based on profit-driven private control of our destiny.  But we can and must demand democracy instead.  To win, we must fight together for the rights of all working people, including the rights of immigrants.

The moral stain left by the oppressive policies of both Democrats and Republicans is deep—and it spreads far beyond the issue of immigration.  We must hold accountable all who implement morally repugnant policies.  It is time to build the movement we need, leaving the deadly diversion of the Democratic and Republican Parties behind.


Carol Dansereau is a long-time environmental attorney and organizer, and the author of What It Will Take. Rejecting Dead-ends and False Friends in the Fight for the Earth.