In President Obama’s latest State of the Union address, the President cursorily paid lip service to an important, insidious problem in America: our failing immigration system and the uncertain futures of undocumented migrants. In only two sentences, Obama told Congress that immigration reform “means strong border security… [and] putting more boots on the southern border.”
He said that we need to create “a responsible pathway to earned citizenship” that is fair to documented immigrants and requires taxes, English proficiency, and penalties. He bragged about policies his administration enacted that “reduced illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.”
Obama’s boasting is not unfounded. In fact, the Obama administration has set a toxic new benchmark for the American presidency in its ruthless legal battle against undocumented immigrants, more than any other administration in our history. Even as the estimated population of undocumented immigrants in America is falling, the Obama administration is pursuing them at a higher rate than any other Commander in Chief.
Two programs in particular, Secure Communities and Streamlined Deportation, are indicative of the Obama administration’s expensive, cruel and unusual approach to immigration enforcement. I hope that describing these little-known programs will allow Mac students and other community members to see the legal realities of undocumented life that go unnoticed by mainstream media.
The Secure Communities program was created in 2008 by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). The program is ostensibly a collaboration between local and federal law enforcement.
Under SecCom, local police officers are given access to a national fingerprint database of undocumented immigrants. States which are enrolled in the SecCom program integrate this database into routine police work like traffic stops and collision reporting.
When the officer takes the fingerprints of a suspect, the data is sent to ICE’s servers to find a match. Within hours, the officer is notified of a suspect’s immigration status and is required to report undocumented immigrants to ICE. Even without criminal charge or conviction, ICE detains the person in one of America’s many semi-secret detainment facilities, home to reported violations of basic rights like denial of legal counsel, lack of a speedy trial, and inhumane living conditions. Migrants are then deported for why they were originally stopped in the first place— often a broken headlight or illegal U-turn.
The program is loathed by most everyone involved in the process. Law enforcement in California and Illinois have protested SecCom, claiming that it places an undue burden on police officers and only encourages migrant communities to avoid the police and fail to report violent crime. Judges point out that the current system cannot handle such a brutal program, as courts, prisons, and public defenders get bogged down with loads of new cases.
Every county in the state of Illinois voted to remove the program, only to be told by the Department of Homeland Security that SecCom is not something you can opt out of.
Streamlined Deportation, then, is the Obama administration’s answer to SecCom’s slow, arduous process of deportation. Under Streamline, the process for deporting immigrants who have just crossed the border becomes a lightning-fast gauntlet of a legal process. People who have illegally crossed the American border are picked up and detained by Customs and Border Protection, where they are often denied water, food, a shower, or even a change of clothes. The next day, the convicts are given 30 minute, “quasi-private” consultations by appointed lawyers who will handle up to 50 other such cases in a single day.
The convicts are put into groups of five and brought into special courthouses in shackles and dirty clothing. At the risk of more jail time and longer detainment, lawyers advise the defendants to plead guilty and waive their rights to trial. The defendants are encouraged only to answer questions with “sí” and “culpable.” After all five are convicted, they shuffle out of the courtroom and the next wave enters.
If lasting, progressive immigration reform is to happen, the Obama administration must come to terms with the reality of undocumented immigration in America. Undocumented immigrants provide billions of dollars to the national economy, working in our farms, cleaning our hotels, and laboring in our factories. Most of them have come to America because it is their last great hope; NAFTA and other neoliberal policies have drained the economies of Mexico and South American states.
The current hunting of undocumented immigrants is prohibitively expensive, dangerous, and shamelessly violates both the Constitution and global human rights laws. As a nation, we have an opportunity to break from the sordid traditions of immigration law and confront our problems with honesty and humility- or we can continue treating migrants like chattel.