Donald Trump's bilious blather about immigrants reminds us—more often than most people need reminding—that words matter. But the Obama administration's recent wave of police-state raids on Central American women and children, whose only crime is poverty and a lack of proper paperwork, reminds us that actions matter too.
When it comes to getting tough on immigration, Republican candidates talk the talk, but Obama walks the walk. President Obama has deported more people than any U.S. president before him, and almost more than every other president combined from the 20th century.
Immigration-flow numbers are staggering in both directions. In 2014, it's estimated that more than 200,000 Central Americans tried to emigrate to the United States without documentation. But the Obama government has been deporting them as fast as it can.
Since coming to office in 2009, Obama's government has deported more than 2.5 million people—up 23% from the George W. Bush years. More shockingly, Obama is now on pace to deport more people than the sum of all 19 presidents who governed the United States from 1892-2000, according to government data.
And he's not done yet. With the clock ticking down his final months in office, Obama appears to be running up the score in an effort to protect his title as deporter-in-chief from future presidents. To pad the numbers, Homeland Security is now going after the lowest-hanging fruit: women and children who are seeking asylum from violence in Central America.
"This is the only time I remember enforcement raids on families of women and children who are fleeing some of the most violent places on the planet," says Royce Bernstein Murray, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center.
The families came to the U.S. looking for a hand, but they got the boot. Since Saturday, Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has netted at least 121 family members, primarily in Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina. No one knows how long the dragnet will continue. Homeland Security won't say, and rights activists fear it could be the start to a prolonged operation.
Most of the people detained during the past week are women and children from Central American, and all of them had pending deportation orders. But that doesn't mean these people have "exhausted appropriate legal remedies," as Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson said on Monday.
At the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, where all the families are being processed for repatriation, rights activists are finding that many of the Central American immigrants—most of whom don't speak English, and some of whom don't even speak Spanish—never had access to proper legal representation.
A group of immigration lawyers for the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project spent Tuesday interviewing eight Central American families in detention, and succeeded in getting emergency stays of deportation for half of them. The more families they talked to, the more people they found who had been screwed by the system.
“Our interviews revealed that these families have bona fide asylum claims, but were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to present them at their hearings in immigration court,” Katie Shepherd, Managing Attorney for the CARA Project, said in a statement. “It’s beyond shameful that these families, who risked everything to seek protection in the United States, were being forcibly returned to the violence and turmoil they fled in Central America.”
Many of the other immigrant families awaiting deportation are presumably in a similar situation—they just haven't had a chance to tell anyone about it.
"Some of the people in detention didn't get the opportunity to apply for asylum because they were confused about the process. And none of the people we talked to have filed appeals, because they don't know about the appeals process," said Lindsay Harris, of the American Immigration Council. "They're trying to comply with a legal system that they don't understand and which nobody has oriented them to."
The situation has also provoked the ire of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who earlier today fired off a heated letter to Obama and Johnson and ICE director Sarah Saldaña.
“Raids are not the answer. We cannot continue to employ inhumane tactics involving rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of immigrant families to address a crisis that requires compassion and humane solutions,” Sanders wrote in his Jan. 7 letter.
Both Sanders and fellow Democratic hopeful Martin O'Malley have called on the government to offer the Central American immigrants Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a status that has already allowed thousands of Hondurans and Salvadorans to remain lawfully in the United States after natural disasters in those countries.
Fearing an extended roundup is underway, the embassies of Guatemala and El Salvador have warned their nationals to not open their doors to anyone without a warrant. Some lawyers are taking that advice a step further by urging immigrants to not open their doors to any ICE official, even if they wave a warrant in front of the peephole.
That's because the Warrant of Removal that ICE agents are carrying is a simple administrative pick-up order, not the type of warrant that authorizes officers to kick down doors and enter private property without permission. So vampire rules apply: ICE agents can't get into a house unless invited in.
"ICE conducts civil immigration enforcement; a warrant is only issued in criminal cases," says ICE spokesman Bryan Cox.
Then again, there's only so long you can listen to government agents ringing your doorbell before you go insane. It's unrealistic to expect immigrants facing deportation to hide in their homes for the rest of their lives, and Homeland Security will eventually nab them when they step outside. But the waiting game is costly, slow and ineffective. Most ICE agents would rather make their apprehensions quickly and be done with it.
That's why some government agents are allegedly misrepresenting themselves at people's front doors in an attempt to fast-talk their way into people's living rooms and execute the pick-up order, according to immigration lawyers and rights activists involved in the cases.
I interviewed half a dozen immigration lawyers this week and they all told me similar tales of ICE agents using dirty tricks to get inside people's homes ,or lure them out into the yard. Some of the ICE officers allegedly posed as local police officers searching for a fictitious person of interest, while others told immigrants they are there to fix a malfunctioning ankle bracelet. One agent allegedly tried to lure his marks outside by pretending to have car troubles.
"This whole thing is unlawful, but it's hard to hold anyone to account,"says Mark Fleming, National Litigation Coordinator for the National Immigrant Justice Center. "The advantage that the government has is that the people they apprehend are fast-tracked for deportation."
"This is a rogue agency that's not following due process," echoed Olga Tomchin, a lawyer at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
Homeland Security declined to comment on the matter. "We don't discuss specific enforcement tactics or techniques as a matter of policy," Cox told Fusion.
Secretary Johnson insists Homeland Security is taking "a number of precautions" due to the "sensitive nature of taking into custody and removing families with children." But those precautions seem to be limited to deploying "female agents and medical personnel to take part in the operations," according to Johnson's statement on Monday.
Perhaps the most stomach-churning aspect about the whole Central American roundup is that Homeland Security is targeting a group of vulnerable people who tend to be compliant and trusting of authority. Many of the Central American women they've collared in the past week are people who turned themselves in to U.S. law enforcement voluntarily to plea for protection for their children.
These are people who were in regular contact with U.S. authorities, and kept current addresses on Homeland Security's database. In other words, they weren't hiding from the law, they were trying to get right by it. But they still got treated like criminals, pulled from their homes by men with guns.
Now they're getting sent back to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where they'll again be forced to hide in their homes as the victims of of failing institutions in both the United States and Central America.
For them, the nasty, xenophobic future that Trump promises is already here.
"The president is much more of a threat and danger to immigration communities than Donald Trump," says Tomchin, of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "Trump is just verbalizing what Obama is already doing."