On my show, Open Source, I recently interviewed Dolores Huerta, perhaps the most important Latina woman of the 20th century. Near the end of the interview, I wanted to get her take on President Obama’s controversial deportation policy. Huerta, I found out, does not mince words.
“Obama miscalculated,” she told me flatly.
She went on to explain how the president adopted a punitive approach toward deportation intended to convince the Republican Party of his toughness on immigration enforcement. The hope was to bring the opposition on board for a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s immigration system. Instead, he got nothing in return.
Even after the setting a record pace for deportations, Republicans still said Obama “couldn’t be trusted” on the issue. As a result of this “miscalculation,” the president now faces an unexpected and complex challenge with the Hispanic community. Obama is under increasing pressure from Latino groups to act on his own to cut back the number of deportations, especially of people who have their families in the U.S.
Yes, the same man who in 2008 promised change while borrowing Cesar Chavez’s (and Dolores Huerta’s) famous line “yes we can” has now been dubbed the “deporter-in-chief.”
It can seem like an unfair turn of events, but Obama has earned it. After five years of brutally effective implementation, the president’s well-oiled deportation machine has now managed to remove and expel close to two million people. Numbers of that magnitude allow few subtleties.
Even less so when it comes to public perception, where nuances are few and far between these days. For the last five years, Hispanics in America have heard basically two story lines:
a) The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has failed to support any sort of comprehensive immigration reform and
b) Barack Obama is deporting Hispanics.
With some hindsight, the White House surely could have predicted that the latter narrative would prevail. A story that involves the persistent suffering of human beings will always prove more interesting (and thus, more politically damaging) than a story that follows boring political procedure.
So, be it by a stroke of luck or some sort of Machiavellian scheme, the Republicans – who are the real opponents of immigration reform – have receded to the background. Advocacy groups concentrate on denouncing Obama’s deportation policy rather than on keeping the pressure on the House GOP.
Truth be told, us Hispanic journalists have followed the same pattern. For the last few months, we have focused almost solely on the “deporter-in-chief” narrative, effectively granting the Republican Party a thoroughly undeserved respite. This is both morally understandable and journalistically justifiable. But, truth be told, it might not be completely fair. Or – dare I say it – balanced.
Fact is, the administration’s deportation machine has been improving its methods and acting with an increasing sense of discretion. As we all know, at the beginning of the Obama presidency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other agencies executed the administration’s policy indiscriminately. Obama’s political gamble resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants who had no prior criminal record.
In other words, the American government kicked thousands of people out of the country whose only formal sin had been coming here without papers. These were fathers and mothers, and young kids, of course, who had been brought to this country at a very early age (the now famous Dreamers).
This massive deportation system has caused, without any doubt, an unnecessary and shameful humanitarian crisis. No one in their right mind could cast doubt over whether this is a somber chapter in Barack Obama’s presidency.
But journalism demands rigor. And recent numbers show that this indiscriminate deportation policy has shifted towards a much more careful approach. In 2013, the total number of undocumented people with no criminal record and no prior immigration violations who were deported after being detained in the country’s interior was drastically reduced. In 2009, the number was close to 150,000; by 2013 the number became 10,336.
That’s why the question stands: have we been unfair to Obama? The answer, is mostly yes. Deporting 2 million people – most of whom don’t pose a danger to their communities – is a costly mistake. But it’s also true that any recent critique of the administration’s policy on deportation should allow for much needed nuances, especially in the light of recent developments.
There really is no point in denouncing a crisis without the capacity to identify progress when it becomes evident.
Editor's note: Univision's Enrique Acevedo argues that both Obama and the Republicans are to blame for the deportation crisis. Read here.