Obama promised to deport felons, not families—but that’s not what’s happening

At a protest on the US-Mexico border.
At a protest on the US-Mexico border.
Image: Reuters/Sandy Huffaker
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On Mar. 18, the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee launched an unusual press release: a GIF-laden listicle explaining how Republicans propose to increase immigration enforcement. “The problem is that when our immigration laws aren’t enforced, it encourages more illegal immigration and causes the system to implode. Not cool,” reads one caption.

(United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee)

The listicle touts a bill the committee approved this month that would defund president Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration in the United States, and would give more power to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for detaining and deporting immigrants. The legislation would give ICE the authority to arrest suspects of immigration violations regardless of flight risk—the likelihood a person will not show up to their immigration court date or go into hiding. It also calls for an additional 5,000 ICE deportation officers and to expedite deportations of immigrants convicted of crimes.

But ICE is already deporting more people than it should. In Nov. 2014, president Obama promised that only felons—not families—should fear deportation, and announced two programs called the expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). These aim to give temporary deportation relief and employment authorization to immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, as well as to parents of children with legal status.

As the father and grandfather of several US citizens, 48-year-old Pedro Rivera Martinez of Clarkton, Missouri, should benefit from DAPA. But today he is facing deportation. In May 2014, ICE agents came to Rivera’s home to arrest him. Their actions were based on a 1986 deportation order and a misdemeanor charge Rivera received for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border 26 years ago. Rivera’s lawyer Wesley Schooler made several appeals to stop the deportation, but all were denied. When Obama announced executive action in Nov. 2014, Schooler submitted a new stay request based on DAPA.

He hasn’t received an answer yet.

This is because the ongoing legal battles over the president’s executive action sidelined the programs that could potentially protect Rivera. In Feb. 2015, a Texas federal judge issued an injunction to temporarily halt DACA and DAPA, and a message on ICE’s detention reporting and information phone line confirms that the agency is not currently taking eligibility for deportation relief programs into account.

Obama has expressed confidence that the injunction will be eventually be overruled, noting that the Department of Homeland Security is still preparing for DACA and DAPA’s implementation. But from Oct. 2014 through Feb. 2015, the majority of ICE deportation orders continued to target people like Rivera—less than 11 percent of deportation orders filed in immigration courts were based on criminal activity, according to federal data from Syracuse University.

­“It’s families, not felons,” said Matthew Kolken, an immigration attorney in Buffalo, NY, who analyzes deportation trends, to Quartz. “The ‘felons not families’ narrative is in direct opposition to the statistics.”

ICE has also raised bond prices and even instituted no-bond policies at some detention centers, said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta, Ga.-based immigration attorney and the former national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, to Quartz. “What we’re missing here is the little bit of mercy that always must come with justice to make the laws just.”

In Rivera’s small town, a host of residents—from Clarkton’s mayor to the retired police chief—have written letters on his behalf. Signatures on a petition to stop the deportation refer to Rivera as “wonderful” and “an outstanding citizen of our community.” One petitioner wrote: “He’s done nothing to harm this country or its people, so why can’t he stay?”