Immigrants Feel Like Targets As Deportations Increase

Morning Edition spent a lot of time recently reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. President Obama has deported 2 million people from the U.S. But many say that number is misleading.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

NPR and MORNING EDITION recently spent a lot of time reporting on the U.S.-Mexico border. In the town of Mexicali, or Mexicali, on the border with California, I found a city of deportees - tens of thousands of people who'd been sent out of the U.S. and back to Mexico. The U.S. recently passed the two million - that's two million deportations since President Obama took office. It used to be that shelters along the border were full of people trying to go north. Now, they're full of people being sent south. This place is called the Hotel Emigrante. This guy, who didn't want to give his name, told a story of being deported.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: They caught him jaywalking in Los Angeles.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He took him to the county jail. He was there for a month. Then immigration picked him up and told him you cannot come back into the U.S. for 20 years.

MCEVERS: How long had you lived in the U.S.?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Eleven years.

MCEVERS: So, he just got caught trying to cross again.

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Yes.

MCEVERS: And then they deported him for life, they said?

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

MCEVERS: What's he going to do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He's going to go back. He's has his daughter there.

MCEVERS: How many kids?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: One daughter, one son.

MCEVERS: This story got us thinking: How did this happen? Why have there be so many deportations? And as one listener asked, is that 2 million number even accurate? We started with Hilda Solis, secretary of labor in Obama's first term. She says when Obama was first elected, people believed comprehensive immigration reform was not far off.

HILDA SOLIS: Latinos voted overwhelmingly for him - not just on that issue but yes, it was a primary issue for a lot of people.

MCEVERS: But then it became clear that Republicans and Democrats would not find common ground. Democrats wanted a pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million immigrants in the U.S., Solis says; Republicans wanted enforcement.

SOLIS: We knew that there was going to be difficulty in persuading Republican members of both the Senate and the House to move forward on just a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

MCEVERS: So the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency - or ICE - beefed up border patrols, and expanded a Bush-era program called Secure Communities. The idea was to fingerprint anyone who got picked up by police, then send those prints to the feds. If there was a hit, if someone was here illegally, they could be deported. The program led to charges of profiling; that anyone who looked foreign could be targeted. So,agents were then ordered to focus on so-called high-priority offenders: people who committed serious crimes. But in some jurisdictions, that's not how it worked. Doug Scott is the chief of police in Arlington, Va., just outside D.C.

DOUG SCOTT: We have between 8 and 10 percent African-American, about 15 to 16 percent Hispanic, and about 3 percent Asian.

MCEVERS: Around 2010, Chief Scott started hearing stories from this community.

SCOTT: People started to disappear from the community who may have been arrested on very low-level crimes.

MCEVERS: Things like driving without their lights on, improper use of a calling card. And then before they knew it, they were on the road to deportation.

SCOTT: When they started asking about it, you know, we would answer it by saying no, no, you must be mistaken. We were informed by officials that this program would focus on only the most serious offenders, but yet we were hearing a different story from the community.

MCEVERS: Scott says immigrants in his community started to feel like targets, and stopped talking to police. He and his colleagues confronted the feds and...

SCOTT: ICE came in and they basically said, you know, we're not going to apologize for doing our job.

MCEVERS: Scott says Arlington tried to opt out of the Secured Communities program. So did other jurisdictions around the country. A few - D.C., the state of California - have managed to opt out. But others, like Arlington, found they couldn't. What did eventually happen is, ICE was forced to clarify the Secured Communities program, which allowed places like Doug Scott's Arlington to decide who would be referred to the feds and who wouldn't.

SCOTT: We finally got a letter from ICE verifying, you know, what would happen and what a community could, in fact, do.

MCEVERS: For Scott, it was a kind of victory yet still, the U.S. is racking up hundreds of thousands of deportations a year. Brian Bennett is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times here in Washington, who covers immigration policy. He says while the number of deportations has gone up, it actually has gone down in certain places. He says that 2 million number is misleading.

BRIAN BENNETT: So what I found, when I looked at the numbers, was that two-thirds of them are people being deported from the border area. The actual number of people being deported from the interior of the United States has gone down every year since Obama came to office.

MCEVERS: So when people are calling him the deporter-in-chief and saying he's deporting so many people, you think that's some kind of distortion?

BENNETT: It gives the impression that immigration agents have been going into homes inside the United States on a more frequent basis, and that doesn't seem to be the case. Essentially, what the Obama administration has done is, they have decided to take more people who are apprehended close to the border, and put them into deportation proceedings.

MCEVERS: The president recently said that immigration officials are supposed to focus on deporting people who have committed serious crimes - you know, people who are considered to be a threat to the community. Is this who's getting deported?

BENNETT: When you look at the people being deported from the interior of the United States - not from the border regions, but from inside the United States - an increasing percentage of them have serious crimes on their record. When they came into office, the Obama administration officials wanted to do is say, OK, we have a lot of these immigration agents and Border Patrol; how can we focus them in a way that is not indiscriminately deporting people?

And so they decided, let's try to focus our agents on finding people with long criminal records or with prior deportations. They also decided, let's try to focus our efforts on deporting people who are recently crossing the border and the border region.

MCEVERS: You know, the New York Times recently reported that a vast majority of people being deported are still people who are charged with these minor infractions. I mean, I recently met a guy who was deported after jaywalking. I mean, how is it that this is still happening?

BENNETT: Some of those people who are brought to the attention of the immigration agents have prior deportations on their record. When they were fingerprinted, their name went into a federal database, and immigration officials were notified. They saw that this person had a prior deportation, and they became a priority for removal.

MCEVERS: Right. You're committing some small infraction but it's because you have this previous mark on your record that you could actually get deported?

BENNETT: That's right. And this is something that's President Obama has asked the new Homeland Security secretary, Jay Johnson, to take a look at the deportation procedures and see if there are ways to make it more humane and to prevent it from separating as many families. And one of the suggestions has been to take prior immigration violations out of the priority category for deportations.

MCEVERS: So, what a lot of pro-immigration reform activists are saying is that, you know, Obama does have the power to do a lot of this. I think for a long time he said, well, you know, Congress isn't enacting immigration reform. There's nothing I can do. How likely do you think it is that we will see some changes in this policy?

BENNETT: I think it's likely. I think it's likely we'll see some small administrative changes like the one I just mentioned where they decide to slow down or stop the deportations of people with immigration violations on their record and no other criminal violations on their record. It's also possible that the Obama administration will take a look at doing a very expansive program that allows people who are here undocumented to come and apply for a work visa and deferred action for young people who are brought to the United States illegally.

MCEVERS: Brian Bennett from the L.A. Times. Thanks so much.

BENNETT: Happy to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: This is NPR News.

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