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Mark Morgan, the new acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said on Tuesday that “interior enforcement” will be the agency’s “next challenge.” In other words, the Trump administration isn’t just focusing on preventing migrants from entering the U.S. — it’s also going to work even harder to deport those who are already here. “That will include families,” Morgan said, but he tried to dispel any worry, adding the deportations will be handled “with compassion and humanity.”
This isn’t the first time that line has been used. On the campaign trail in 2015, Donald Trump repeatedly said his deportation plan would be “totally humane.” Despite Trump’s grandstanding, “humane” isn't what most deportations look like. Immigrants in deportation proceedings are regularly locked up in detention centers unless they can afford to pay a bond that, in some states, can cost upwards of $10,000. Because of a growing backlog in cases, they’re often forced to wait months or years for their cases to be adjudicated. And when they are deported, they’re usually shipped back to their countries of origin with no money and no resources.
During Trump’s first year in office, arrests of immigrants already living in the U.S. in the U.S. shot up by 40 percent over the previous year — and arrests of immigrants with no criminal convictions more than doubled in that same period. Then, beginning in the summer of 2018, the administration began shifting resources to the Southern border to deal with an unprecedented number of migrants arriving from Central America.
These claims of “humane” immigration enforcement aren’t limited to the Trump era. For the past two decades, presidents on both sides of the aisle have promised to handle immigration with compassion — yet deportations have remained anything but.
Bill Clinton’s “humane and permanent solutions”
In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton met with the leaders of several Central American countries to discuss “humane and permanent solutions” to the growing number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., many of whom hailed from Guatemala and El Salvador. Three years earlier, though, Clinton signed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a draconian bill that laid the groundwork for the deportation infrastructure that’s in place today.
Clinton was by no means the first president to deport immigrants, but IIRAIRA expanded the crimes that made immigrants — even those with green cards and visas — eligible for deportation, while also fast-tracking the deportations of migrants who were apprehended within 100 miles of the border. The law also required the government to hold more immigrants in detention facilities and limited who qualified for amnesty.
And, as Vox pointed out, by further limiting the number of unauthorized immigrants who could eventually become citizens, IIRAIRA inadvertently caused the amount of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. to go from 5 million in 1996 to 12 million just 10 years later.
The consequences were far-reaching. “Overnight, people who had formed their lives here — came here legally or had adjusted to legal status, were working here, building their families, had ordinary lives in which they were on the PTA and everything else — suddenly, because of some conviction, weren't even allowed to go in front of a judge anymore,” Nancy Moravetz, a law professor at NYU told Vox. “They were just fast-tracked to deportation.”
George W. Bush’s “compassionate” immigration system
The Bush administration further formalized immigration enforcement in 2002 with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The department, which was established in response to the September 11 attacks, oversaw three new agencies: Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and ICE.
Like his predecessor, Bush was an immigration hard-liner. In a 2004 speech, he discussed the need to create an immigration system that “serves the American people” and protects American workers. This new system, he said, “will be compassionate.” But in reality, the Bush administration oversaw dozens of workplace raids across the country that led to the detention and eventual deportation of thousands of suspected unauthorized immigrants.
The Bush administration also worked with local law enforcement officers who acted as ICE deputies through a program called 287(g), which trains state and local police departments to process and, in some cases, detain people they suspect are in violation of U.S. immigration law. While proponents of the program say it gives immigration authorities access to migrants they might not otherwise be able to apprehend, critics have said the program enables racial profiling by encouraging police to target people who look “illegal.”
Barack Obama: The “Deporter in Chief”
In 2008, Barack Obama adopted the rallying cry of the farmworker rights movement — “Si se puede” — to appeal to Latino voters. Today, he may be best remembered for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the executive order that gave certain undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. as children a temporary reprieve from deportation. But in fact, his administration set a new record for deportations. Obama’s initial immigration policy was so punitive that immigrant advocates began calling him the “Deporter in Chief.”
During his second term, though, he began softening on immigration enforcement. In a closed-door meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Obama said he had asked then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to find ways to handle deportations “more humanely within the confines of law.” While deportations did slow down during Obama’s final two years in office, ICE deported between 315,000 and 409,000 people each year from 2008 to 2014. In total, more than 2.5 million people were deported during the Obama administration.
Cover: Guatemalans deported from the United States wait to register with the migration officials at the processing center at an Air Force base in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on Monday, Dec. 28, 2015. (Photographer: Nadia Sussman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)