The Nation: “The Deportation Machine Obama Built for President Trump”

by Joseph McKeown


While Obama’s executive actions announced in November 2014 were seen as a step forward for many immigrants (even though these actions have stalled in a variety of lawsuits) and his administration has crafted an image as being “smart” on deportation policy and advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, nevertheless Obama will leave his successor the “most sophisticated and well-funded human-expulsion machine in the history of the country.”

When President Obama took office in 2009 he inherited a burgeoning deportation apparatus from President Bush who had created the Office of Homeland Security in 2001 (which subsequently become the Department of Homeland Security) with the “War on Terror” in mind. Tom Ridge, then Director of the Office of Homeland Security, expanded his department to include an immigration enforcement plan that aimed for a “100% removal rate” of undocumented immigrants in the US, a vision encapsulated in a document titled “ENDGAME Office of Detention and Removal Strategic Plan.” With Obama in office, the Nation reports, this went on:

Instead of reversing that architecture and disavowing that plan, President Obama turbocharged it. To pay for the ballooning enforcement-first approach, the budget for immigration enforcement grew 300 percent from the resources given at the time of its founding under Bush to $18 billion annually, more than all other federal law-enforcement agencies’ budget combined.
Before the end of his first term in office, the Obama administration had taken a small program developed in George W. Bush’s last days that aimed to turn local police into “force multipliers” and expanded it by about 3,600 percent.

Two years after being elected, President Obama had doubled the number of people being prosecuted for unauthorized entry into the US by expanding Bush’s border-court system, Operation Streamline, which tries up to 70 people per day. What started out as an experiment in three jurisdictions in 2008 expanded to every single border sector except California by 2010, eventually sending 209,000 individuals, over a period of four years, to serve federal prison sentences for the sole reason of crossing the border without documentation. To implement the strategies of ENDGAME, DHS has become the largest law-enforcement agency in the country, with more than 48,000 personnel dedicated to immigration enforcement alone (up from 26,000 agents in 2002).

Although the Obama administration has promoted prosecutorial discretion to target immigrants who commit crimes and also provided resources for the temporary relief program and deferred action, it does not alter the massive deportation net the president has constructed.  

By April 2014, immigration authorities scanned a total of 32 million sets of fingerprints, a number three times the undocumented population and equivalent to 10 percent of the entire US population. In fiscal year 2012, the height of its deportation quota pursuit, ICE processed 9 million prints, matching 436,000 submitted by local law enforcement, and issued detainers (a practice largely abandoned now due to constitutional concerns) for over a quarter-million of those it identified.

Not all agree that Obama is a hardliner on immigration. “There’s no question that there’s been a record number of formal removals, no question that enforcement has not tailed off,” Marc Rosenblum, a deputy director at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, tells The Daily Beast. “But [Obama] is exercising a lot of discretion in the interior, a lot of people are coming across ICE’s radar and not being put through removal.”

In the end, what happens to this deportation machine is up to the next president. With the possibility of presumptive Repubilcan nomineee Donald Trump—who has repeatedly made far-reaching claims about deporting all undocumented immigrants—being elected as the next president, with this well-functioning deportation apparatus, the Nation believes he may have the necessary tools to beat Obama’s reputation as the “deporter-in-chief.”