One year ago, several undocumented youth and I stood behind President Barack Obama and interrupted his speech on immigration at the Betty Ong Center in San Francisco. I challenged the president to use his executive authority to stop separating families, since bills to enact comprehensive immigration reform have repeatedly stalled in Congress. During our brief exchange, the president said he did not have the power to stop deportations. That sparked a national debate on whether the president does indeed have the authority to end the record number of deportations under his administration.
After months of public debate, President Obama finally acknowledged that he does have the power to take executive action to stop deportations.
The disruption of the president’s speech created a buzz around the country, and many people had different reactions. Some people praised my heckling for sparking a public debate. Others thought I was out of line. Some argued that I was disrespectful and rude to the president for embarrassing him publicly.
Supporters of the president argued that I should have focused my wrath on Republicans in Congress. I certainly agree we need to criticize the Republicans, especially the party leadership who are threatening the president with impeachment to stop him from taking executive action. There's no doubt that Republicans have stalled immigration reform for years; they blocked the Dream Act and shamelessly advocate for anti-immigration policies. But in reality, it is the Obama administration, not Congress, which is to blame for implementing unjust deportation policies.
Some think I should have gone through the democratic process and contacted the president to set up an appointment with his staff to address concerns around immigration privately. But to date, the president has refused to invite an undocumented immigrant to meet with him in the White House. For years, I have conducted dozens of lobby visits, contacted elected officials, and placed hundreds of phone calls. I have participated in civil disobedience actions for immigrant rights, and have been arrested on three occasions. But unlike corporate leaders and Wall Street executives, undocumented immigrants have no access to the White House.
It’s been a year since my exchange with President Obama, and he has yet to take action on immigration. Instead, the president has presided over some 1,100 deportations every day. That's more than 2 million under his administration — the most deportations under any president in U.S. history. Obama's enforcement programs continue to devastate immigrant communities. Now, his administration is building new detention centers to incarcerate mothers and children seeking asylum in the U.S.
Earlier this year, President Obama made a promise that he would take executive action on immigration before the end of summer. However, when Democrats complained that this could hurt their campaigns, the president postponed his action until after the midterms. Although this delay was an attempt to help Democrats in key contested races, his inaction backfired on the party. Democrats were unable to mobilize their base, especially Latino and Asian voters who provided Obama with his margin of victory in 2012.
Now he has no excuses left. President Obama needs to take bold action to stop deportations now.
First, he should expand deferred action to the fullest extent of the law, to cover as many people as possible. Through deferred action, I had the opportunity to visit South Korea to reunite with my grandmother for the first time in more than 13 years. While I’m grateful to receive these benefits, it is devastating to see how my mother and my older sister do not have the same opportunity. Expanding deferred action would provide protection from deportation, keep families and communities together, and allow immigrants to fully contribute to this society and to live and work without fear.
Second, the President should end all programs that entangle local police with Immigration and Custom Enforcement, including Secure Communities, 287(g) agreements, and the Criminal Alien Program. This entanglement strips police protection from immigrants. When my family was victim of a burglary in our apartment, my mother refused to call the police for fear that we would be subjected to deportation.
The clock is ticking. In response to growing frustration, more and more undocumented youth and their parents are standing up to demand that the president use his executive action on immigration.
President Obama, do the right thing. Keep your promise. Stop the deportations.
Ju Hong is an undocumented immigrant who graduated from UC Berkeley. He is currently in a master’s program at San Francisco State University.