Eight years ago, I began writing a book about immigration. I wanted to explain, in very simple terms, the way that U.S. immigration laws worked, how they failed to work, how they hurt people, and what needed to change. Some people asked my why I would work on such a book, when “everything is going to change next year with immigration reform.”
Every year since then, I’ve heard the same promises, felt the same hope rising and then destroyed, the same anger at promises unfulfilled. Our antiquated and brutal immigration policies still separate families, create decades-long lines, and deprive immigrants of income, security and fair treatment.
As the annual May 1 marches for immigration reform kick off, let’s take a look at what has changed over the past eight years, sometimes for better but mostly for worse. These changes include:
- Dreamers — This is one of the few bright spots — the young people known as “Dreamers,” who arrived here as children, were given temporary protection against deportation in 2012. President Obama issued an order for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provided a two-year protection against deportation for many immigrants who arrived here as children. That two years is up this year, so many of the “Dreamers” are preparing to apply for a two-year renewal. They still can’t become legal permanent residents, and therefore can’t apply for citizenship.
- Increased deportations — As reported in the New York Times, deportations “rose sharply in the final years of the Bush administration, and have remained high under President Obama.” The number of deportations climbed to an all-time high in 2012, decreasing only slightly in 2013. Although the president said that deportations would target criminals, that has not been the case. Most have no criminal records or only minor records, such as traffic violations. Most are deported without a full hearing.
- Inhumane detention — Many immigrants are held in jails with hardened criminals. The Star Tribune recently reported the story of an 18-year-old high school student held in a Minnesota jail on immigration charges, was repeatedly sexually assaulted by his cellmate, a registered sex offender.
- Making citizenship harder — changes in 2007 made the written test harder and greatly increased the fees for citizenship applications.
The Republicans in Congress are still blocking comprehensive immigration reform. It won’t happen this year.
President Obama cannot change immigration laws, but he can change enforcement policies. As the New York Times pointed out in an April 6 editorial, there are a lot of things the president could do:
“These immigrants, known as Dreamers, are a sympathetic group, and Mr. Obama’s move to protect them was timely and wise. But millions of other unauthorized immigrants are just as vulnerable and no less worthy. There is no good reason not to extend similar relief to the Dreamers’ parents, or to the parents of citizen children and others who pose no threat and should likewise be allowed to live and work here while efforts to pass reform continue.”
The president can also order the Border Patrol and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to change the priorities on deportation. He can order them to “direct the nation’s vast immigration enforcement resources more forcefully against gangs, guns, violent criminals and other genuine threats,” and to stop bothering with immigrants who get traffic tickets.
He also can end what the Times accurately describes as “quota-based enforcement driven by the urge to fill more than 30,000 detention beds every day.” There is no moral justification for jailing people in order to enrich private prison operators.
Comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue, but Congress is not going to act any time soon. Given that sad reality, it’s time to demand that the president take what action he can.