Can a president who is, by any measure, far more forthright and lyrical than his predecessors about the pernicious effects of racism simultaneously promote and expand the racist policies of past administrations? This is the question vexing many in immigrants rights, Latino, civil rights and other circles following what feels to them like the contradictory messages about racial profiling coming from the Obama Administration in recent weeks.
On the one hand, many observers applauded Obama’s July 15th speech to the NAACP convention and last week’s statements about the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Some found reassurance in statements like the one Obama made about the Gates incident last week: “…what we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.”
But when they heard the crushing sound of new reports documenting the effects of the Obama Administration’s treatment of immigrants, the president’s MLK-like cadences on racial profiling rang hollow; A recently released report by Syracuse University concluded that “immigration enforcement under the Obama Administration is returning to the unusually high levels that were reached under President Bush.” Critics say that thousands of immigrants — and hundreds of U.S. citizens– continue to be prosecuted, jailed and deported by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in no small part because of racial profiling.
That was the case of Brian Lyttle. In one of the hundreds of cases involving U.S. citizens, 31 year-old Lyttle, a North Carolinian who has no Mexican ancestry, speaks no Spanish and suffers from mental illness, was deported by ICE to Mexico last April.
Another damning report released last week by the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University analyzed the immigration raids of homes and workplaces conducted by ICE.
According to the report, the raids, which have continued under the Obama Administration, have resulted in the kinds of Constitutional violations and routine racial profiling exemplified most clearly by the fact that “approximately 90 percent of the collateral arrest records reviewed, where ICE officers did not note any basis for seizing and questioning the individual, were of Latino men and women – though Latinos represented only 66% of target arrests.” Both citizens and non-citizens have been arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or what ICE calls “collateral arrests” – arrests of people who are with or near someone who was ICE’s original “target.”
Virtually all advocates agree that the legal and policy foundations for such practices were laid by both the Clinton and Bush administrations. the result has been the creation of what legal scholar Juliet Stumpf calls the “crimmigration” system. Stumpf and others continue to decry an immigration system that, they believe, leads to the disproportionate profiling and incarceration (Latinos are now the largest group in federal prisons) of mostly poor immigrants in much the same way that harsh drug laws have lead to the disproportionate profiling of blacks, Latinos and other poor people that help make the united states home to the world’s most massive prison system. Coming from the Obama administration, one that created great expectations of change, the continuation and expansion of programs that systematically violate rights are beginning to wear thin the goodwill of immigrant defenders like Maria Muentes of the New York-based Families for Freedom.
“The nice speeches on race clash with the fact immigration enforcement is actually up under Obama; The levels of those incarcerated for immigration-related offenses look like they did during the Bush Administration,” said Muentes, whose organization advocates on behalf of detained immigrants. “Obama’s speeches on racial profiling seem to leave out a lot of people,” she lamented. “They exclude many immigrants, people for whom every aspect of their life is subject to racial profiling; people who are stopped while riding trains, people persecuted at work, people stopped while driving and all those families whose homes are terrorized by raids,” said Muentes.
Most disturbing to Muentes and other immigrant rights and Latino activists, many of whom have been ardent Obama supporters, was a very low-key announcement made on a late Friday afternoon just days after the President’s NAACP speech on racial profiling- by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: that the Obama Administration would not just continue, but actually expand what advocates say is one of the fastest-growing, most troubling racial profiling programs of the federal government, the 287(G) program. The initiative, which essentially deputizes state and local law enforcement officials to act as enforcers of federal immigration law, has been strongly criticized by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and research institutes like Justice Strategies, which concluded that the Bush-era program is “driven more by racial animus than by concerns about public safety”.
Among the most demoralizing and irksome consequences of Obama Administration’s expansion of 287(G) is that the controversial program’s greatest benefactor, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, still has a federally sanctioned license to pursue and jail massive numbers of mostly Latino immigrants, as well as some citizens. Many law enforcement officials have also denounced 287(g) because it diverts policing resources from more traditional law enforcement functions. In 2008, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, noting that while Arpaio’s department was focused almost obsessively on locking up unauthorized immigrants 48,000 violent felons were at large in Maricopa County, moved to block a grant that helped fund the sheriff’s efforts.
More recently, anger at Obama’s expansion of 287(G) sparked an unprecedented and very direct denunciation by immigrant advocates from across the country, many of whom hadn’t previously criticized the Administration. A “Statement Condemning Obama Administration’s Expansion of DHS’s failed 287(g) Program” was signed by more than 25 groups from across the country including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Immigration Law Center and the Detention Watch Network.
Like many in the immigrants’ rights community who have generally been supportive of the Obama Administration, Jaqueline Esposito of the Detention Watch Network, one of the groups issuing the strongly-worded statement, finds her organization caught in the conflict between the spirit and the letter of policies promoting racial profiling.
“Detention Watch Network applauds the Obama Administration’s recent statements about racial profiling,” said Esposito. “But we are concerned because the Department of Homeland Security’s expansion of the 287(G) program is a direct contravention of the President’s statements. 287g has been widely criticized by government officials, immigrant rights advocates and many others, for undermining community safety and for racial profiling.”
For her part, Muentes fears that when it comes to racial profiling, Obama’s historic presidency may end up engendering hypocrisy of historic new proportions. “Some people thought that because he (Obama) is African American, it automatically means he will be more aware or critical of racial profiling against immigrants or others in the larger criminal justice system”, she continued. “That might not be the case.”