JUANA TOBAR SAYS she is waiting for a miracle from God. She’s the mother of four wonderful children and a grandmother of two young girls. Her husband, Carlos, a U.S. citizen, calls her the “glue of their family” and his soul mate. Juana has lived in North Carolina for more than 20 years and serves as an usher in her church, but in the coming weeks the Obama administration will be deciding whether or not to deport her back to Guatemala.
Juana’s case is not unusual. According to its own statistics, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deported approximately 400,000 immigrants per year since President Obama took office in 2009. In March, he’s set to reach the dubious marker of 2 million deportations, more than any other president. Many of us who work with immigrant communities are left asking: Why would a president—especially one who enthusiastically supports immigration reform that would give the undocumented a chance to stay in the country and earn citizenship—so aggressively deport the same immigrants who could be legalized through reform?
Our best guess is that when Obama entered office, his administration made a calculation that if they showed they were serious about enforcement, lawmakers would be more likely to come to the table and negotiate. That goodwill never materialized. Now, five years later, ICE is feeling increasing heat from immigrant advocates.
One of the key discrepancies between ICE and its critics is the question of who is being deported. In 2011, the administration issued a memo vowing to focus deportations on “convicted criminals,” a scary label until you realize how DHS defines the term. Immigrants commit crimes at much lower rates than the native born, so there are only so many serious criminals to find and deport. Thus, ICE has come to define “criminal” loosely, covering both violent felons and people who get a traffic ticket. A substantial number of those who are deported don’t count as “criminals” even under that definition. And many are the parents of U.S. citizens. In the first six months of 2011, for example, ICE deported nearly 50,000 parents of U.S. citizens—people like Juana Tobar.