The number that will define President Barack Obama’s legacy on immigration is 2.5 million.
That’s the approximate number of deportations of undocumented immigrants carried out by his administration. No other U.S. president has as many deportations to his name.
Most of those 2.5 million weren’t killers, rapists, robbers or drug dealers. They were people who wanted to give their families better lives and came to this country illegally.
An about-face by the president came in November 2014. After telling activists for years that his hands were tied on immigration reform, and expelling undocumented immigrants at record pace, he announced a potentially far-reaching program to give temporary legal status to about 4 million undocumented immigrants. Those who would be covered were parents of American citizens and parents whose children had permanent legal residency in the U.S.
Obama also sought to expand a 2012 deferred action program for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as DACA.
Those 2014 orders are unlikely to get off the ground as Obama wraps up his second term. A 4-4 tie by the U.S. Supreme Court, announced Thursday, keeps in place an order blocking the implementation of those programs.
In February 2015, a district judge blocked the programs after Texas and 25 other states mounted a legal challenge. Months later, a divided three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s injunction. The Supreme Court tie leaves the ruling in place.
A protracted legal battle over the executive actions is expected to continue in federal court in Brownsville, Texas.
That 2014 attempt by Obama to patch a broken immigration system came too late.
He tried leaving comprehensive immigration reform in the hands of Congress. A bill passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013 included more money — billions — for border security and the legalization of about 11 million undocumented immigrants. The bill also provided an eventual path for citizenship. It went nowhere in the Republican-controlled House.
But as Obama pushed for Congress to pass reform, he was setting those records on deportations.
“One can easily guess that the administration was trying to placate people, members of Congress who wanted to see tougher enforcement as a prerequisite for legalization or immigration reform,” Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, told me. “We got the tougher enforcement. We didn’t get legislation for reform. If this was a strategic decision, the strategy failed.”
Republicans never came around to trust Obama. They spurned him. And activists for reform felt spurned by Obama, who had broken promises he made in 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Deportations and programs established by his administration to crack down on illegal immigration — the Secure Communities program comes to mind — devastated immigrant communities, including in Chicago.
To his credit, in 2012 Obama got DACA going for the Dreamers, those brought here illegally as children. That program is unaffected by the Supreme Court’s ruling and will continue through Obama’s presidency.
Talking to reporters Thursday, Obama said his administration will prioritize deportations. Expelling criminals will remain the top priority. Those who pose no criminal threat — those who are here to work hard to support families — should be lowest on the priority list.
We’ve heard this before. Let’s hope he means it this time.
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