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Whatever Happened to Immigration Reform?

While a reform bill languishes in Congress, the continued deportation of undocumented immigrants has incited protests calling for a freeze.

by Alice Speri
Apr 10 2014, 6:30pm

Photo by Reuters

In short, it stalled.

After the Senate passed a historic immigration reform bill last June that would offer millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, adjust visa programs, and increase border security, the legislation moved to the House of Representatives — where it has languished, with little prospect of moving forward any time soon.

What has not stalled is the continued deportation of undocumented immigrants. More than three million have been shipped out of the country over the last decade, two million of them since President Barack Obama took office — a dubious accomplishment that has earned him the label “deporter-in-chief.”

As deportations spike and the promise of reform fades, immigrants and their advocates are shifting gears. Rather than lobby Congress for reform, they’ve taken to the streets to demand that Obama stop the deportations.

Immigration advocates campaigned across the nation under the hashtag #Not1More.

Last Saturday marked a nationwide “day of action,” with rallies calling for a deportation freeze. Many of them were organized on social media under the hashtags #2Million2Many and #Not1More, as well as its Spanish-language equivalent #Ni1Mas. Demonstrations continued earlier this week and activists have planned more of them over the coming days. On Thursday, coalitions of groups advocating for immigration reform and an end to deportations are gathering in protests across the country.

“The enforcement has become deeper and deeper,” Jennifer Piper, an organizing director at the American Friends Service Committee's immigrant rights program, said of the President's deportation record. “More and more immigrants and non-immigrants know someone who is in the process of being deported, and have become familiar with that process. This has awakened more and more resistance.”

Immigrant America: The high cost of deporting parents. Watch here.

The Obama administration is responsible for a four-fold increase in the removal of undocumented individuals for minor infractions, including traffic violations — a reality that advocates say is a far cry from the president’s promise not to go after non-criminals “who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families.”

On Sunday, an analysis by the New York Times of deportation records released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that despite the Obama administration’s claims to the contrary, it has removed hundreds of thousands of people from the country who pose no threat to public safety. These “offenders” make up nearly two thirds of all deportation cases. A separate report published on Tuesday by the Transactional RecordsAccess Clearinghouse at Syracuse University bolstered the revelation in the Times.

Smuggling bust uncovers over 100 migrants imprisoned in filthy stash house. Read more here.

The news did not surprise immigration advocates, who have claimed for years that the majority of deported individuals were non-threatening mothers, fathers, and people whose only crime was a lack of proper documentation.

“That’s something that we have been talking openly about and trying to call the administration out on for about three years now,” Piper said. “The vast majority of the people we work with have what we call ‘status offenses’ related to the fact that they are undocumented, like not having a drivers license, reentering the country after a deportation, using a fake social security number to work. These are all things that people are convicted of that are related to the fact that they have no avenue to get status.”

But while the deportation details might not have come as a surprise, the extent of the problem, coupled with a nearly ten-month stalemate over immigration reform, has frustrated families and advocates who are fighting deportation.

“Honestly, our communities are tired of waiting,” Steven Choi, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, told VICE News. “The optimal solution is to pass legislation that’s going to reform our immigration system, which is totally broken right now. But if that doesn’t look like it’s happening, we need to stop these deportations somehow.”

Frustrated with the stagnant pace of reform, immigration groups have been increasing pressure on Obama and his administration.

“The president needs to understand that he can act, and when he does act it’s beneficial to everyone,” Choi said, citing the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” memorandum that his administration composed 2012. The document instructed immigration authorities to exercise discretion when prosecuting individuals who entered the US illegally as children.

Protesters rallying against deportations called on President Obama to do more.

“We’re not going to wait for anything,” Choi added. “If immigration reform doesn’t move, people are just going to say, ‘You know what? It’s time for more action.’ ”

The recent protests reflect this new impetus. In Tacoma, Washington, about 750 detainees went on a hunger strike in March to protest US immigration laws and the conditions in a local detention facility where many were awaiting deportation. The strike was renewed later that month.

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) responded by placing the most vocal of the detainees in solitary confinement, provoking a lawsuit from the ACLU. ICE denied that the move was retaliation for the hunger strike, but released the detainees from solitary shortly after the ACLU filed suit.

On Tuesday, 11 immigration activists were arrested for blocking traffic near a detention center outside Chicago, while similar protests took place in Pennsylvania and Colorado.

Eleven immigration activists were arrested near a detention center outside of Chicago on Tuesday.

In Denver on Thursday, supporters will accompany Nicole, a 16 year-old undocumented girl from Peru, to her deportation hearing. About 50 other unaccompanied, undocumented minors are also due to appear in courts throughout the state today.

“They don’t have any rights to legal representation,” said Piper, who works with Nicole and other young undocumented immigrants. “They are treated exactly the same way as an immigrant who’s an adult.”

With an estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the country, hundreds of thousands of people like Nicole have no time to wait for immigration reform to be implemented, and their advocates are shifting the focus towards reducing enforcement and stopping deportations.

Video shows ecstatic African migrants fleeing into Europe. Read more here.

“A lot of groups whose base of support is really in the field are understandably saying, ‘We need to do what protects our communities right now, stop deportations right now, keep families together right now,’ ” Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, told VICE News. “There’s no doubt that as the possibility for a major, comprehensive piece of legislation moving through the House seems to weaken, there are some groups who have decided to put their power and muscle in trying to press for immediate relief for people. That’s a tactical call.”

But everyone understands that permanent reform needs to happen, Giovagnoli added.

“The only way we are going to get permanent change and relief for people is through legislation,” she said. “If tomorrow Boehner said, ‘We’re going to the floor with a House bill,’ believe me, all the people that are pushing for no deportations will also be saying 'Okay, let’s do something, let’s make this legislation work.’ ”

The chances of Congress taking the lead on that, however, are rather dim.

“There are still people in the House who think this doesn’t matter to them,” Giovagnoli said. “And there is also this really diehard component of the Republican Party being resistant to change and viewing immigration reform as something that benefits Obama and the Democrats, rather than seeing it as something that’s actually quite naturally bipartisan and benefits everyone.”

Immigration advocates have grown frustrated with both Congress and the administration, which have blamed each other for the failure to implement changes.

“The responsibility for deportations and increased enforcement lies at the feet of President Obama and his administration, but at the same time we’re not willing to let Congress off the hook,” Piper said.

The failed promise of immigration reform has galvanized the movement rather than discourage it. Immigrants are gaining the support of more allies as Americans become increasingly familiar with the struggles of their undocumented neighbors.

“There’s a major disconnect between what the public wants and what politicians, particularly in the House, think they want,” Giovagnoli said.

Choi agreed. “We’ve seen a real shift between people saying, ‘Keep them out, deport everybody’,” he said. “Most people understand that these people are not the enemy, and that they can help make America a stronger country, if we only let them. Elected officials need to understand that too.”

Immigration reform might have stalled, but activists aren’t giving up.

“There’s a bill in the House,” Choi said. “Just vote on it!”

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi