By Barney Jopson
November 14, 2016
As Donald Trump reaffirms his goal of expelling at least 2m unauthorised immigrants with criminal records, Hispanic groups and other critics argue that his stance is closer to President Barack Obama’s than usually thought.
Advocacy groups who criticise the president-elect’s plans as unjust and unworkable have also attacked Mr Obama as the “deporter-in-chief” for expelling more than 2.7m unauthorised immigrants during his first seven years in office. The current president’s policy on deportations ran in parallel to his effort to give others the right to remain legally in the US.
“Obama is the person who has deported more people than any president before him,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group that dubbed the White House’s current occupant the deportation president in 2014.
“If you listen to the debate it sounds like Obama has been at the border giving people green cards. It’s ludicrous, these alternative realities. The notion that Obama hasn’t been enforcing the law is an easy talking point to stir your base, unless you are suffering the consequences of his actions.”
Mr Trump vowed on Sunday to deport 2-3m people including “gang members [and] drug dealers” in the US illegally but appeared to step back from his campaign pledge to expel all of the US’s 11m unauthorised immigrants.
His promise to do in short order what took the Obama administration two terms has raised questions about the feasibility of his promises, given legal and practical impediments to throwing even hardened criminals out of the country quickly.
Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute, a research group, said Mr Trump’s ability to fulfil his pledge would be hindered by the constitution’s requirement to give deportees legal due process and by the limitations of the US’s enforcement apparatus.
“Our immigration court system is quite clogged. You would be adding another group to the clogged system,” he said, noting that there is already a backlog of 500,000 deportation cases.
“It would require a huge expansion of law enforcement personnel. But even after that it would require a huge expansion in the number of immigration judges and prosecutors. Putting such a system in place quickly would be a tall order,” Mr Chishti said.
In an interview with CBS on Sunday, Mr Trump — who campaigned on building a border wall and ordering mass deportations — identified immigration reform as one of his top three priorities alongside healthcare and changes to the tax system.
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably 2m, it could be even 3m, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” he said.
Independent analysts were baffled by the numbers the president-elect gave. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 820,000 of the US’s 11m unauthorised immigrants have a criminal conviction and that 300,000 are for felonies, the most serious crimes.
In 2012 the Department of Homeland Security estimated that there were 1.9m “removable” non-Americans with criminal convictions, but more than half of them were legally present with green cards or other forms of visa.
“The vast majority of the American public would agree that somebody who poses a national security threat or a threat to community well-being should not be released on to the street,” said Ms Martinez de Castro.
But she said Mr Trump had failed to provide specifics about who he would categorise as a criminal. “I’m assuming he’s casting a very broad dragnet,” she said.
To the dismay of immigrant advocates, a substantial number of the Obama administration’s deportations have involved people who committed minor infractions such as traffic violations or had no criminal record at all.
The Obama administration stepped up deportations in part to show Republicans that the border was secure as it tried to persuade Congress to pass a comprehensive package of immigration reforms.
But that legislative effort failed in 2013. A subsequent attempt to use Mr Obama’s executive powers to remove the deportation threat for some 4m unauthorised immigrants with no criminal records was stopped by the Supreme Court in June.
Mr Trump appeared to soften his stance on mass deportation towards the end of his campaign and said on Sunday that many illegal immigrants were “terrific people”. His comments also appeared to suggest he would focus on his controversial plans to build a wall between the US and Mexico before deciding the full extent of deportations.
“After the border is secured and after everything gets normalised, we’re going to make a determination on the people that you’re talking about,” he said in the interview.
He added the wall could include “some fencing” along the almost 2,000 mile long border.
Immigrant advocates note that Mr Trump’s close advisers include Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a hardline conservative who helped scupper a Senate immigration bill three years ago.
Opinion polls suggest that mass deportations are not even supported by a majority of Trump voters. The Pew Research Center found that only 32 per cent of Trump backers were in favour of an effort to deport unauthorised immigrants.
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