The Slatest

Obama Said He Would Focus on Deporting Criminals. He’s Targeting Families Instead.

A man is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
A man is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents early on Oct. 14, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

A nationwide deportation campaign targeting families fleeing violence from Central America began this past weekend, sending immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—and their governments—scrambling to prepare for more.

This isn’t the first or the biggest ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, raid: George W. Bush’s administration is infamous for its raids on residential areas and workplaces, and Obama has deported 2 million undocumented immigrants during his time in office so far. But he has always emphasized that his administration would go after “criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families,” as he said during his second run for president. That statement was already tenuous at best when he made it: By 2012, only 14 percent of those deported by Obama had any criminal record, and out of those only 4 percent had an aggravated felon record, which includes crimes like rape, murder, theft, or nonviolent drug offenses, according to Immigration Court records. But the latest ICE raids show more clearly than ever how Obama’s deportations are actually targeting families with small children.

In June 2014, Obama called the current surge in Central American children and families crossing the border an “urgent humanitarian issue,” and even approved a plan to let those children apply for refugee status. The situation improved in late 2014 and early 2015, but then worsened again in the last couple of months: According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 10,500 Central American children crossed the Southwest border in October and November alone, due to a scorching drought and worsening violence in their home countries. Drug cartels and gangs like the Maras Salvatruchas and Barrio 18 have turned the region into a hotbed of violent crime, sexual assault and corruption. Out of the countries with the five highest murder rates in the world, Honduras is No. 1, El Salvador third, and Guatemala fourth.

Detention centers in the U.S. have been unprepared to deal with this wave: They are again overcrowded, filthy, and unhygienic. In July 2015, a federal judge deemed these centers unfit to house children and families and issued an order for those being held in them to be released in October. It was this order that prompted the decision to begin the current raids, officials familiar with the deliberations told the Washington Post when it first reported on the Department of Homeland Security’s plans to begin the raids. Instead of opening more centers, or improving conditions in those that already exist, DHS tasked ICE to deport families who entered the U.S. between May 2014 and December 2015, who had exhausted all legal measures to remain in the country and had been sent final notices to leave. DHS did not tell ICE to just go after the “criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community.”

Obama could focus his deportation efforts on those people, but instead, the raids currently under way target the most vulnerable: families, women with children, who have escaped drug and gang violence and persecution, who have crossed multiple borders risking, and sometimes surviving, sexual assault and attempted murder, atop a train aptly dubbed “The Beast.” Now they have to go back to their countries and face the violence and gruesome crime they were trying to escape in the first place.