While progress on immigration reform lags in Congress, the problems of our broken immigration system remain. Sometime in late February or early March, the Obama administration is expected to carry out its 2 millionth deportation since President Obama took office. This staggering number of individuals deported over five years represents the same number of deportations during the entire eight years of the Bush administration—at a cost of nearly $5,000 for each deportation.
Many immigration activists marked the tragic milestone with an act of civil disobedience on President’s Day in front of the White House. At the event, organized by the United Methodist Church and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, approximately 30 religious leaders, immigrants and supporters were arrested.
The problem of deportations is an incredibly serious one. The current system raises significant humanitarian concerns. One key issue is the detention bed mandate, in which Congress specifies the number of beds that must be filled by immigrant detainees every night in its annual appropriations bill. For 2013, that number was 34,000. That puts undue pressure on law enforcement to round up the undocumented, and has contributed to the inflated number of deportations. As NPR succinctly put it, “Imagine your city council telling the police department how many people it had to keep in jail each night. That’s effectively what Congress has told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with a policy known as the ‘detention bed mandate.’”
The Obama Administration has done some work to slow deportations. In June 2012, President Obama signed a memo creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Under the program, some undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. as children are eligible to remain in the country, pending a renewal of their applications and the continued extension of the program. The program, in the short term, has changed the lives of many undocumented youth, but it nonetheless leaves them in a longer-term state of uncertainty. It also ignores the vital question of family unity. Many activists are calling for DACA to be extended to the relatives of these youth, and others.
Ultimately, of course, the issue is Congress. As President Obama explained, “If in fact I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so. But we are also a nation of laws.” Legal authorities differ on the authority of the President to stop or slow deportations in the absence of Congressional action. But there is no question that there are some things that can be done, short of comprehensive immigration reform, that would ensure that our country’s security policies live up to our humanitarian values.
The Obama Administration must ensure that immigrant detention facilities are safe, clean and humane, for instance–and it could also consider extending DACA by directing authorities to prioritize the deportation of dangerous criminals, not families and hard workers who have built lives in this country. As Jews concerned with the moral implications of our nation’s broken immigration system, we should insist that deportations be carried out in a more measured and humane manner.