Obama Is No BFF of Latino Immigrants or Civil Liberties

His Criminal Alien Removal Initiative is brutal and hypocritical.


roger jones / Foter / CC BY-NC

The administration this week appealed the block that a conservative Texas judge known for his hawkish views on immigration placed on President Obama's executive action handing deportation relief to 4.7 million undocumented aliens. This may make it look like the president is the second coming of MLK, valiantly striving to protect these oppressed immigrants from coldhearted Republicans. The reality, however, is that the president, who has deported over two million people, is perfectly happy to throw immigrants under the bus when it suits his political purposes.

There is no better example of this than a highly underreported but nasty little program called the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative (CARI) that the administration fathered in early 2012 to boost its sagging deportation numbers — and the president's re-election prospects that year.

As the name suggests, the original purpose of the program was to snag potentially dangerous illegal immigrants. But that wouldn't have been enough to meet DHS's annual 400,000 deportations target, which Congress prescribed and the president cheerfully accepted. Hence the program was transformed into a broad witch hunt against Latinos, especially in New Orleans, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents quietly joined forces with law enforcement officials in Jefferson Parish and other suburbs to launch a particularly noxious stop-and-fingerprint effort three years ago.

Here's how it worked: Local police and ICE agents in unmarked vans and plainclothes would park themselves outside grocery stores, apartment buildings, parks, neighborhoods and — on one occasion at least — even a Bible Study group in Latino-heavy areas, and confront whoever they wished, demanding to know their immigration status. They'd handcuff and detain them in the vans — without a warrant or formal charges or allowing them a phone call, much less legal representation — and forcibly fingerprint them with a high-tech mobile unit.

They'd then run the fingerprints through federal databases, a process that would sometimes take hours, during which detainees couldn't leave to pick up their children or get to their jobs. All those flagged as undocumented, even if they had lived basically crime free, would be dispatched immediately to detention facilities to await deportation. Once, authorities beat up a man till his knees bled through his pants — and then yelled at him when he tried to wrap his legs in toilet paper, according to a New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) report.

Such ICE raids — that agents jokingly referred to as "hunting" expeditions — terrorized the New Orleans Latino community, whose sweat and tears rebuilt the city after Hurricane Katrina. Families lived in mortal fear of being torn apart at any moment. Fathers and mothers, many with American children, became afraid to go out to work or get groceries.

By ICE's own admission, 75 percent of those caught in these dragnets were eventually released because they were either U.S. citizens or legal immigrants. Of the immigrants targeted for deportation, the NOWCRJ report found, few were serious criminals who fit the program's original criteria. Most were just undocumented workers with minor infractions — such as unpaid traffic tickets — or previous deportation orders against them.

CARI's harshness far exceeds even President Bush's notorious SECURE communities program (now rolled into the equally bad Priority Enforcement Program). SECURE requires local law enforcement authorities to send Uncle Sam the fingerprints of all arrestees — American, immigrants, white, black, Latino — for a run through federal databases. Those folks who can't get ICE clearance are supposed to be detained by local authorities till federal agents whisk them away for deportation, regardless of how trivial the original crime or whether they are even found guilty. Many communities are now refusing to acquiesce to such ICE-holds. However, as awful as SECURE is, it at least refrains from engaging in systematic racial profiling. Not so with CARI.

What's more, SECURE scans fingerprints only of those who are duly arrested. CARI, on the other hand, engages in pre-arrest fingerprinting without a warrant or probable cause, basically eviscerating the Fourth Amendment's protections against illegal searches and seizures.

Following massive protests by civil rights activists in New Orleans, ICE abandoned its indiscriminate raids last year. However, notes Fernando Lopez of NOWCRJ, that doesn't mean that Latinos are now free from ICE harassment. Agents still show up at Latino homes on the pretext of looking for some criminal immigrant and then question whoever is home about their immigration status. So long as these people refuse to answer, they are fine. If they do answer, maintains Lopez, then ICE can fingerprint them on the spot and take them away if their status doesn't check out. ICE calls these unfortunates "collaterals."

Although CARI has been most aggressively deployed in New Orleans, it is a nationwide program. It is not clear what kind of tactics it relies on elsewhere, but an American Civil Liberties Union investigation found that in North Carolina, ICE agents and local authorities collaborated to establish seatbelt "checkpoints" and detained Latino drivers for interrogation, even when they were wearing their seatbelts.

So why did President Obama, a constitutional lawyer and an alleged champion of social justice, initiate such a cruel program? Politics. He was having a hard time keeping his deportation numbers up in 2012 and he didn't want Republicans to call him soft on immigration in an election year.

Restrictionists have adopted Obama's monster child wholeheartedly, and want to give it extra funding. This means that eliminating this awful program anytime soon would be hard. And given that "amnesty" is already a four-letter word among Congressional Republicans, the only hope of putting undocumented workers out of CARI's reach would be through executive action to defer deportation and hand them temporary work permits.

President Obama has pushed just this — less to protect undocumented immigrants and more to protect Democratic chances in 2016 when a rising Latino population will make immigration an even bigger swing factor than in 2012.

But should the administration fail to persuade a higher court to overturn the judge's block on Obama's executive action, or on the off chance that this action is declared unconstitutional, Latinos will be stuck with CARI without any hope of relief, a far worse situation than before the president assumed office.

Should that happen, they should blame not just their restrictionist enemies — but also their cynical friend in the White House who has so cavalierly played politics with their fates.

A version of this column originally ran in The Week, where Dalmia writes a weekly column. You can find her archive here.