Twenty-year-old Alexis G. was deported in June to Mexico, a country he barely knows. He told Human Rights Watch researchers who interviewed him at a migrant reception center, “My parents brought me [to the United States], and I grew up in [there]. If I were to sing an anthem right now, it would be ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ I don’t know the Mexican anthem.” He is one of millions of people deeply integrated into American life whom President Donald Trump has turned into “priority targets” for deportation, even though they cannot be removed without devastating their American families, businesses, and communities. With Trump due to name a new secretary of Homeland Security to replace John Kelly, these cruel policies should face renewed scrutiny during his successor’s confirmation hearings.
Alexis, whose wife Maryjo was born in the US, had temporary protection from deportation under President Barack Obama’s program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but he said he couldn’t afford the $500 fee to renew it when it expired in 2016. After a scuffle involving his brothers at a small-town carnival in June, Alexis was arrested, handed over to immigration agents, and quickly deported. He told Human Rights Watch, “You feel like you don’t belong anywhere, you’re stuck in the middle… It hurts. Do I not count?”
Alexis isn’t a rapist or a killer, but President Donald Trump speaks as if he, along with the rest of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, is a threat to public safety. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants—an estimated 92.5 percent—have no criminal records, and studies have shown a correlation between higher levels of immigration and safer neighborhoods. Yet Trump and his supporters continue to argue that most unauthorized immigrants are actual or potential criminals.
Nations are entitled to police their borders and, absent certain narrow exceptions such as the duty to allow people to seek asylum if fleeing war or persecution, decide who can enter or stay in the country. A new arrival who has just crossed the border clandestinely has few arguments against deportation. But this should change the longer someone stays in the United States and the deeper the family and community ties that person has. A fair immigration system would consider these ties before ordering deportation, but US law generally ignores them, and Trump’s policies are taking this to new extremes.
For political, economic, and practical reasons, the US government has never tried to deport all undocumented immigrants. Indeed, the economy in important respects is built on their labor. Some build businesses that employ US citizens. Many contribute skills that the economy needs. Whole sectors of the US economy—agriculture, construction, meatpacking, hospitality—rely on undocumented immigrants.
Sixty percent of undocumented immigrants have been in the United States for a decade or more. In that time, they have built lives. One third of undocumented immigrants ages fifteen or older—four million people—live with a child who is a US citizen by birth. They are people like “Marco G.,” who has a US-born wife, Leah, and two US-born children—whose lives were threatened in Mexico when the only way they could be with him after he was deported was to move there. Or “Alberto Z.,” a mechanic and homeowner, who just wants to return to his life in America with his three US-citizen kids. Both described their plight to Human Rights Watch researchers after deportation to Mexico.
In recent years, the US government has tacitly recognized that these deep ties should be taken into account. The Obama administration, while vigorously deporting recent arrivals as well as violent criminals, let many long-term working immigrants stay, and adopted policies that explicitly treated these immigrants as low priorities for enforcement. As a result, many who were flagged for deportation were granted stays.
Various cities and states went even further. Many police departments, such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, eschewed all participation in immigration enforcement, fearing it would undermine public safety by scaring away victims and witnesses of crimes. Driver’s licenses and official identification cards were provided without regard to immigration status. More and more undocumented immigrants were able to lead normal lives.
Yes, these immigrants have broken immigration law, but does that mean they should be deported? The answer should depend in significant part on the ties they have established in the United States. The longer they have stayed and built their lives here, the more their families include US citizens, then the more deportation seems too high a price for them to pay. When people become Americans in everything but legal status, when their families and communities are all here, when they support and become part of America, the system should find a way to reflect that.
Instead, US immigration law authorizes uprooting people from the lives they have built, from the country that has become their home, even separating US-citizen children from their parents. Past administrations have to varying degrees sought to limit some of the worst excesses of that law, but Trump seems bent on unleashing its full force on as many people as possible. His drastically expanded deportation agenda is so aggressive it has even drawn public criticism from a veteran immigration agent, no fan of the Obama administration, who told a New Yorker reporter that it had resulted in agents displaying “contempt that I’ve never seen so rampant towards the aliens.”
Many of these same issues arise when lawful immigrants, such as people with green cards making them lawful permanent residents, are deported due to a minor crime, as occurs for thousands of people each year. Often they have gone on to lead lawful, productive lives since committing the crime, only to be suddenly kicked out of the country for a long-ago misdeed. The problem has arisen through encounters with law enforcement authorities as minor as a traffic stop, or when an immigrant seeks to become a naturalized citizen or returns from lawful travel abroad.
Sometimes, for a serious violent crime, deportation may be the right thing, even for people with family and other ties to this country. But America is wrong to deport undocumented immigrants, or a legal immigrant who has transgressed the law, without at least giving them an opportunity to make the case for staying to an immigration judge. No law currently mandates such a hearing, but fairness requires it.
Trump should recognize this, rather than playing to xenophobia with his appalling rhetoric. Congress also bears responsibility for its abject failure to reform a system that everyone agrees is broken. It should require a hearing before deportation—or better yet, find a way to regularize the status of people who deserve legal recognition.
Few quarrel with the importance of policing America’s borders. But undocumented immigrants who have built American lives virtually indistinguishable from their US-citizen spouses, children, and neighbors deserve an approach to immigration that weighs those ties in the balance. It may be politically convenient to dump on undocumented immigrants, but it is time we began to treat them with decency.
Kenneth Roth is the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. (March 2017)