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A Complicated Administration

The Obama administration has a complicated mix of beneficial and harmful impacts on undocumented immigrants. When Obama was elected, the immigrant community had great hopes for real progress. We hoped he would champion the Dream Act that would give a path to citizenship to undocumented youth who were brought here as children, also known as the Dreamers. However, to immigrants and Dreamers, he is known for two things: deportations and DACA. In this first part of our view of the Obama administration, we will focus on the harmful impact of his administration’s policies. 

Detention Centers Expanded

A harmful policy that is often overlooked is the Obama administration’s expansion of jail-like detention for families seeking asylum. Under his administration, there was a $1 billion contract deal with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to build detention facilities for women and children arriving at the border. Before this detention-based process, asylum seekers could live anywhere in the country while they went through the legal asylum-seeking process. 

For context, it is important to understand the difference between immigrants and asylum seekers. Immigrants are pulled to the United States by the hope for more opportunities for financial gain and a better education for their children. On the other hand, refugees are pushed out of their countries, fleeing conditions that endanger their lives. Asylum seekers have the legal right in the United States to seek asylum, therefore they are not subject to deportation in the way that undocumented immigrants are. Yet those who arrived seeking asylum were detained as if they were criminals, and not people seeking humanitarian aid. 

Detaining asylum seekers was a rare practice and at the beginning of Obama’s time in office, there were less than 100 beds for family detention. But as more refugees arrived, the administration increased detention to deter more migrants from coming. This policy of deterring refugees and jailing them upon arrival set the precedent for the human rights’ violations we saw expanded during Trump’s administration. 

Deporter in Chief 

When Obama took office, his predecessor, George W. Bush had the highest deportation rate in U.S. history, having deported over 2 million people during his 8 years in office. However, Obama surpassed him as he deported over 3 million people in the same time span, roughly a million more than Bush.

Ivan Segura, who has advocated for Latinos in South Carolina for over 20 years, recalls that Obama’s immigration policies were supposed to be better for the community, but that was not the case. “We called Obama ‘The Deporter in Chief’ because he deported so many people.” 

Ivan Segura hablando enfrente de la Casa de Gobierno de Carolina del Sur en Columbia
Ivan Segura speaking at the State House in Columbia, SC

The increase of deportations was due to Obama expanding the Bush-era program ‘Secure Communities’ which under Bush allowed police departments to cooperate with federal agencies on deportations. Under Obama, that collaboration became mandatory in all states. The result of this change: a minor traffic stop or a car accident could lead to someone’s deportation. 

Marty Rosenbluth is an immigration attorney with Polanco Law Firm who has focused on deportation defense for the last 13 years. “My real criticism of the Obama administration is that they really said one thing and did another. Either they were incredibly dishonest or they were incredibly ignorant of what was actually going on in the field.” 

Marty Rosenbluth stands outdoors with his arms crossed and a sincere smile.
Marty stands arms crossed in front of Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.

“For the past 4 years, people have been asking me who was worse, Obama or Trump. It depends unders whose regime your loved one was deported. It doesn’t give family members any comfort if Trump was worse.” – Marty Rosenbluth

Marty recalls an outreach event in which a representative from the Obama administration was speaking about their immigration policy which supposedly only targeted convicted felons and not families for deportation. A community activist interrupted the speaker and asked the audience of roughly 350 people if they personally knew someone who was deported for driving without a license or another traffic incident and “every single hand in the audience went up.” Marty adds that “The woman did not skip a beat, did not recognize, did not acknowledge at all that everyone knew she was lying. We saw this time and time again.”

The hope we had for change under Obama faded quickly. Ivan expressed that there were positive changes for immigrants and people of color, including more opportunities in leadership and more diversity for our community in general. However absolutely nothing changed for the most marginalized immigrants. “The people in our community, that person who is at home, without papers, who drives in fear that one day they might get arrested and won’t come home, and his children won’t see him anymore… Those are the people that things did not change for.”

Ana Castellanos es una joven chicana que creció en Simpsonville, Carolina del Sur. En el 2018 se graduó de la Universidad de Winthrop donde obtuvo una Licenciatura en Ciencias Políticas y...