Immigration Advocates Challenge Obama's 'Felons Not Families' Policy Immigration advocates are trying to change the narrative about which immigrants living in the U.S. illegally deserve to stay. It's a challenge to the Obama administration's policy of deporting "felons, not families." Grassroots advocates are championing the case of Jose Alvarez — a convicted felon who's also a family man.

Immigration Advocates Challenge Obama's 'Felons Not Families' Policy

Immigration Advocates Challenge Obama's 'Felons Not Families' Policy

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Immigration advocates are trying to change the narrative about which immigrants living in the U.S. illegally deserve to stay. It's a challenge to the Obama administration's policy of deporting "felons, not families." Grassroots advocates are championing the case of Jose Alvarez — a convicted felon who's also a family man.


When it comes to immigration in this country, there's a lot of talk about good immigrants versus bad ones.


DONALD TRUMP: There are at least 2 million - 2 million; think of it - criminal aliens now inside of our country - 2 million people, criminal aliens.


That sort of rhetoric has fueled Donald Trump's candidacy. But Trump isn't the only politician to evoke this idea of bad immigrants. It's built into the Obama administration's priorities for deciding whom to deport.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And that's why we're going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security - felons, not families - criminals, not children.

SHAPIRO: Some immigrant advocates say that view is too simplistic. People who come to the U.S. illegally are not entirely good or bad, and immigrant advocates say policy needs to embrace that nuance. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to learn about one man whose case illustrates this dilemma.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: I recently walked across the border through the turnstiles that separate San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico. I went to Tijuana to meet a guy named Jose Alvarez. He picked me up at the border in an old pickup truck.

Hola. Como esta, Jose?


FLORIDO: Alvarez lived in the U.S. for almost 40 years, but he was deported to Tijuana earlier this year. And since then, activists, lawyers, even a congressman have been trying to get U.S. government to allow him back.

Now, at first, Jose Alvarez is not the kind of guy whose case you'd expect to get this much attention. He's not a so-called dreamer whose parents took him to the U.S. as a child. He didn't go to college. He's 54, and in fact he's got two felony drug convictions under his belt. And yet Alvarez has become a cause. Grass roots groups are using his case to try to change the narrative without which immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S.

After picking me up at the border, Alvarez drove me about 30 minutes to the farthest outskirts of Tijuana...

ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: ...To a hilly, unplanned part of the city where paved streets start turning into unpaved streets. He's staying in a house owned by a family member. Alvarez's wife and six kids, who are all U.S. citizens and live in the Los Angeles area - they come down to visit every couple of weeks.

Alvarez and I sat on the front patio, and once we started talking, it only took about a minute for him to be overcome by emotion when he started telling me about his family.

ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Alvarez says he's glad all of his children were born in California. He thinks they had a better life because of it. But his story is a little more complicated, and to understand why you need to hear these details.

Alvarez first came illegally to the U.S. in 1979. And seven years later - 1986 - this huge immigration law passed that gave amnesty to millions of immigrants, and Alvarez got legal. He got a green card, then he had a few kids. He worked in a dry cleaner. And then in 1995, he screwed up.

ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Alvarez says a guy he knew asked him to help him move some drugs, some crystal meth, and they got caught. Alvarez was convicted on two drug charges, and he spent more than three years in prison.

ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: When he got out in 1999, his green card was revoked, and he was deported. But he crossed the border back to the U.S. again almost immediately to reunite with his family, and since then, since 2000, he had a pretty normal life. He worked. He and his wife bought a house. One of his sons became a Marine.

And then this past February came the key moment. Alvarez got pulled over for a broken taillight, and to make a long story short, the officer learned that immigration officials wanted to talk to Alvarez. So the officer turned him over to them. And by the next morning, Alvarez had been deported. His family didn't even realize he was gone until he called from a payphone in Tijuana.

ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Alvarez says that, yes, he made a mistake a long time ago, but he says he's not a bad person. I'm a family man, he tells me. Still, this is where Alvarez runs out of luck. Remember President Obama saying we deport felons not families? Well, even though Alvarez has a family and served his time, the fact that he is a convicted felon and had been previously deported is what, in the eyes of the government, makes him a bad immigrant and therefore a priority for deportation. And this is the narrative that some immigration advocates are trying to change even if they can't change the law.

JONATHAN SOLORZANO: This is a person who day in and day out would bring home the daily bread, right?

FLORIDO: This is an activist named Jonathan Solorzano. He spoke at a press conference about Alvarez's case a few weeks ago outside of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's office in LA.

SOLORZANO: This is a person who cared for his family. This is a person who was a model citizen. And none of this mattered because of a 21-year-old conviction.

FLORIDO: While activists are making noise about Jose Alvarez's case, lawyers are also working on it.

JESSICA BANSEL: My name is Jessica Bansel.

FLORIDO: Bansel is representing Jose Alvarez. She works for a group called the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which is trying to get Alvarez back into the country. They know that Jose Alvarez is not the most sympathetic case. But actually that's exactly why they're taking it on. Jessica Bansel says it's about principle.

BANSEL: One of our main principles has always been that if you can fight for the people who are most marginalized, most at the edge, it's harder. But then when you win, it's really a broad victory. Like, if you win Jose Alvarez's case, you do win for a lot more people than if you win for the valedictorian of Harvard, right?

FLORIDO: Bansel putting together a case she hopes will convince the government to let Alvarez back in through something called humanitarian parole. Immigration officials decide those requests case by case. But they told me that under current policy, the fact remains that Alvarez's criminal and deportation history make him a top priority for deportation. So this broad effort by activists to stop deportation for people like Jose Alvarez - could it ever work?

THOMAS SAENZ: We can't have no standards.

FLORIDO: That's Thomas Saenz. He's president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the nation's most influential Latino civil rights groups. It helps set the agenda for immigration policy in Washington. And Saenz says that in principle, he mostly agrees with what grass roots activists want, but...

SAENZ: It's going to be largely dictated by the politics of what is possible in Congress. And I don't know whether we'll be able to get there.

FLORIDO: How far to push this issue has been a source of tension among advocates. Groups like the one supporting Jose Alvarez are more aggressive about pushing the line while Saenz's group and others like his are more focused on what's politically feasible.

SAENZ: We have to accept politically that there are certain patterns of conduct that do warrant restricting the right or ability to remain or to come here.

FLORIDO: Meaning you do have to draw a line somewhere, but where? Who's good, and who's bad? Who's deserving, and who should be deported? Advocacy groups will be debating this as they start a new push to reform immigration policy after a new president and Congress are sworn in next year. Adrian Florido, NPR News.


CORNISH: And you can hear more on this topic on NPR's podcast Code Switch.

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