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As Deportations Top 2 Million, Should Activists Push for Executive Order or Congressional Action?

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Protesters took to the streets in more than 60 cities on Saturday to call on President Obama to stop the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Some marked it as the date when the Obama administration likely reached its two millionth deportation. This comes as The New York Times reports that two-thirds of those deported under Obama had committed minor infractions, such as traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all. More than 5,000 children whose parents were removed from the country have ended up in foster care. But some activists say presidential action on deportations is not enough. They are focused instead on the passage of a bill in Congress that includes a path to citizenship. As Obama’s policies come under increasing scrutiny, we host a debate: Should the immigrant rights movement push Obama to take executive action to immediately stop deportations, or should the focus remain on pressuring Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill? We are joined by two guests: Pablo Alvarado, president of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, and David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Protesters took to the streets in more than 60 cities this weekend to call on President Obama to stop the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Speakers at a rally in Washington, D.C., marked Saturday as the date when the Obama administration likely reached its two millionth deportation.

PROTEST SPEAKER: We now know that two million people have been deported under the Obama administration. We’re saying that that’s enough, is enough of that. We are saying that we need to end the separation of our families. We need to say that we need to end the attack on our communities. And we’re not going to be silent, and we’re not going to stop marching, and we’re not going to stop participating in acts of civil disobedience, until Obama takes us seriously and uses his executive order to give our communities relief, because we know that we don’t need Congress for that.

AMY GOODMAN: This was President Obama in 2012.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I’ve also said is, if we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are 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. And that’s what we’ve done.

AMY GOODMAN: But that’s not what The New York Times has found. It reports two-thirds of those deported under President Obama had committed minor infractions such as traffic violations or had no criminal record at all. More than 5,000 children whose parents were removed from the country have ended up in foster care. Each day reform is delayed, an estimated 1,100 more people are deported. On Wednesday, Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez stopped by a vigil outside the White House where families with loved ones in detention began a hunger strike for their release. They include José Valdez, father of recent Democracy Now! guest Jaime Valdez.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But some veteran activists say presidential action on deportations is not enough. They’re focused instead on the passage of a bill in Congress that includes a path to citizenship. They include Eliseo Medina, who arrived on the National Mall Wednesday after a 30-state bus tour. This is Medina speaking on Democracy Now! just after he ended a 22-day hunger strike on the National Mall in December.

ELISEO MEDINA: We are already planning to take our fast from Washington out into every congressional district in the country, where we are going to be going to the congressmen’s district and having conversations with their constituents about why this immigration reform needs to be done as fast as possible. There is no option for us. We cannot continue to allow deportations and deaths in the desert. And so we will be pressing Congress to act, and we will also be asking the president to also take a look and act within his authority.

But, you know, at the end of the day, they will have to make a decision. Congress will have to make a decision whether they want to take a vote or not. If they decide not to, we know there’s an election coming in November of 2014 in which we get to vote—we, the people who care about this issue, and there’s millions and millions and millions of us. And we will be holding the Congress accountable for their actions or inactions as it pertains to immigration reform. If they won’t vote for us today, why should we vote for them tomorrow?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we host a debate on what the next step should be in the push for humane immigration reform. In Los Angeles, we’re joined by Pablo Alvarado. He’s president of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, calling for President Obama to take executive action to immediately stop deportations. And in Cleveland, we’re joined by David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He says there’s still a window of opportunity this year for Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that could slow deportations and much more.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go to Los Angeles. Pablo Alvarado, can you talk about why you want President Obama to issue an executive order and what it should say?

PABLO ALVARADO: Well, good morning. First of all, let me tell you that our country is going through the dilemma of whether to include or exclude the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are working very hard, raising families, toiling in the fields and the construction sites. And they are simply being denied equality. They’re being denied justice. Their humanity is not being recognized.

And what is worse is that instead of having a federal government that protects this vulnerable segment of our society, we have a government that systematically persecutes and deports them. Both parties are responsible for this reality. We understand that the Republicans have given us the politics of self-deportation. They have given us the Arizona-style laws. But at the other end, we understand that the president has built an incredible deportation machine. He has created and nationalized deportation programs that have ended up in the deportation of over two million people now.

This is changing. And the reason why it’s changing is because suffering is speaking. Last Saturday, there were a hundred events where affected communities came out and said, “This is enough. This is my story.” They have protested. They have marched. They have engaged in direct civil disobedience. And as a consequence, they have made sure that the end of deportation becomes Plan A. So the question is, now is—it’s not whether the president will act; it’s when will he do it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David Leopold, what about the issue right now of the prospects in the remaining months, before everyone starts gearing up for the November elections, of some kind of immigration reform coming out of Congress? And what might that immigration reform look like if it did come out?

DAVID LEOPOLD: Yeah, well, first of all, thanks for having me. And I wanted to point out that what we’re looking for here is, number one, a permanent solution to this humanitarian problem, this economic problem. It’s a problem that engulfs the whole country. And the only group that can fix it—the only group that can fix it—is Congress. And right now, unfortunately, the House of Representatives, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, has simply failed to do its job. Speaker Boehner, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, the leadership, they have completely thumbed their nose at the American people. The American people, by huge margins, in poll after poll, have expressed their will for immigration reform, which includes, by the way, a pathway to lawful compliance for the 11 million-plus undocumented noncitizens in the country. So, we need a permanent solution. We need a permanent solution. And my worry is that even if we had an executive process, in 2016 we don’t know who the president’s going to be. And I want a law that protects all Americans and keeps all American families together.

Now, in terms of where we are, I think we do have a window. I think we need to remember—a legislative window, still in 2014. And I think we need to remember that the Republican Party needs immigration reform for its own political existence, for its own long-term future. If they ever want to see the White House again, if they ever want to remain a majority—a dominant party or a major party, I should say, in this country, they’re going to have to get with political reality. This country cannot continue to function with an immigration system that cuts off our global competitiveness, that limits our employers from bringing in workers in shortage occupations, that keeps entrepreneurs and others who would build businesses here and create jobs for American workers out. This is—the 11 million are not the problem. They’re a tragic humanitarian crisis which is a symptom of the bigger problem, that’s a completely dysfunctional system, immigration system. And Congress, Speaker Boehner, they’re the ones who are really the deporters-in-chief. They’re the ones who are really not doing their job and need to fix this problem.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, David Leopold, you correctly focus on the obstacles in Congress, but don’t mention the whole issue of President Obama’s policies of deportation. For instance, The New York Times on Sunday said that the—”Mr. Obama is correct when he complains that long-term immigration repairs have been throttled in Congress.” But, they go on to say, “Mr. Obama has compounded this failure by clinging to a coldblooded strategy of ramped-up enforcement on the same people he has promised to help through legislation [that] he has failed to achieve.” What about the issue of the president saying one thing, but continuing these mass deportations?

DAVID LEOPOLD: Right, well, let’s look at this a bit in perspective. First of all, the deportation machine was not built by President Obama; it was built years before. And, in fact, these awful numbers began under the last administration. And I can remember back in 2008 when, under the Bush administration, we had military-type raids in places like Postville, Iowa, where they arrested and felonized—that is, convicted of felonies—nearly 400 Guatemalan workers who were here just to feed their families, and, in fact, devastated the economy of Postville, Iowa. So this terrible situation didn’t begin with President Obama.

Now, that said, I believe that the president and the administration does have a share—they have a shared responsibility with the Congress to make sure that American families are safe and American families are together. And why do I say American families? Because we can’t think of undocumented families as being all people without papers. You have—the reality of the situation is you have families where a mother or a father is undocumented and everybody else is a citizen or a lawful resident. So we have mixed families.

And I agree with—you know, I understand what you’re saying about The New York Times, and I thought that was a very well-thought-out editorial. And honestly, the paper—the article that came out Monday, that followed it, or Sunday night, written by Ginger Thompson, was an exposé on what’s really going on on the ground. And, in fact, most of the cases in that article are my cases, and so I know the situation personally as an attorney. I see it on the ground. I deal with it. Innocent people are being removed from this country right now. People who should not be included as priority removals, technically speaking, are included, that—in priority rules.

And there’s a lot of numbers—playing games with numbers, I believe, by the Department of Homeland Security. And I think that the Department of Homeland Security—in specific, Immigration and Customs Enforcement—ought to be following the directives that are coming out of Washington. There’s a disconnect, in my view, between what Washington, the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, puts on paper, through Morton memos, memos on prosecutorial discretion, telling people, as the president said, “Let’s focus on the worst of the worst, not the mothers. Let’s focus on the murderers, not the mothers.” There’s a disconnect, because what we find out here in the field, where the world really exists, is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the Morton memo or to other directives that they use smart enforcement.


DAVID LEOPOLD: And—I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that New York Times exposé is very important. As President Obama says we’re talking about the criminals, the gang bangers, the people who are wrecking communities being deported, the Times finds two-thirds of the people being deported, in fact, have committed either minor violations, like running a traffic light, or have committed no crime at all.


AMY GOODMAN: But I wanted to ask Pablo Alvarado about the comment of David Leopold, why he’s opposed to executive action, not only David Leopold, but the Bipartisan Policy Center, among the think tanks in Washington, who say reform efforts should focus on Congress. Theresa Cardinal Brown, the immigration policy director at the center, has said, “If the president were to take very strong executive action … he would be completely writing off immigration reform until 2016.” Pablo Alvarado?

PABLO ALVARADO: Well, the president obviously made a miscalculation. In his effort to build his enforcement credentials, he has become very aggressive in the enforcement of immigration law, with the idea that by being tough on immigrants he will persuade the extreme right-wing Republicans that are holding hostage this debate in the House of Representatives. Obviously, this debate is not moving forward at all. We have been relying on this strategy for almost 14 years. It’s time to try something new.

And we believe that if the president intervenes right now, it would actually improve the chances of immigration reform. If the president was to extend DACA to the fullest extent possible, suspend deportations, that would actually remove the fear of deportation for so many people who will actually engage in the political process and speak for themselves in this fight for immigration reform. If the president acts, it will send a very clear message to the Republicans. It will tell them, “Look, I am going to legalize people with or without you. If you don’t like it, come to the table of negotiations.” Throughout these years, the Republicans have said, “OK, we’ll give you legalization. Just give us the militarization of the border. Just give us E-Verify.” If the president acts, essentially, the president will be removing that bargaining chip off the table, and then we can have a rational debate with the Republicans.

Right now this debate is not moving forward whatsoever. Both parties are playing politics. And the only one who can actually infuse this debate and move it forward is the president. He can actually intervene and stop the deportations at this moment. President Obama is the one who nationalized the Secure Communities program. He could easily come and, with the stroke of a pen, say, “I’m not going to implement this program anymore.” President Obama already did DACA, the Deferred Childhood for—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that essentially prevented the deportation of many, many young people. That was good for the youth. That actually helped us towards immigration reform. What gets is farther away from immigration reform is the policies of deportation, is the criminalization. Giving people relief improves the chances.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Pablo Alvarado, in that vein, this issue of whether the president will act or not—let’s say he doesn’t act. Let’s say he decides that he doesn’t want to take the chance of hurting the Democratic Party in the November elections by creating a crisis. What will be the response of the immigrant rights movement? I mean, I think back to my prior life as a community organizer and as an activist. In August and September of this year, if there is no action, what do you see is the possibility for moving this forward? I mean, what about the possibility of a Freedom Summer, of tens of thousands of young Latinos moving into Washington, D.C., and creating a crisis of mass arrest? I mean, not just a few 500 or thousand, but 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 people filling the jails of Washington, D.C., and forcing the government to deal with this issue.

PABLO ALVARADO: Look, the pain is obviously unbearable. That’s why there are families doing a hunger strike in front of the president. The message—their message is very clear: Give us relief; start with our relatives. If the president doesn’t act, obviously, this crisis, this humanitarian crisis, will continue. The suffering will continue. And again, people are speaking for themselves, because what’s happened so far is that there are many people, there are many lawyers, there are many activists, there are many paid lobbyists in Washington, D.C., who are speaking for people—obviously, that’s not good to achieve political equality. Political equality is about citizenship, and citizenship is about people speaking for themselves. And that’s exactly what’s happening across the country. That’s why there were a hundred events last Saturday of affected communities telling their story. They are letting suffering speak. This will only escalate, if the president doesn’t act, because the pain is simply unbearable. And it’s unfortunate. Right now, there are these families in front of the White House. Believe me, if he doesn’t act, there will be more families that are going to come. There will be more acts of civil disobedience taking place. So the president has a choice right now: He can be the champion that he promised to be, or he can choose to continue to be the deporter-in-chief, because, at the end of the day, yes, we understand that Boehner is blocking the vote in the House of Representatives and that that party has been hijacked by extreme vigilantes. We understand that perfectly. But at the end of the day, Speaker Boehner is not the one who is supervising the deportations; it’s President Obama. And he has the power to act. He has the legal authority to act right now. And in our view, he has the moral obligation. The people who are outside the White House are actually building, are actually helping him to have the courage and to have the moral authority to act.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion, but we have to break. Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, speaking to us from Los Angeles, and David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, from Cleveland. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “La Bamba Rebelde,” performed by Las Cafeteras in our Democracy Now! studios. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Our guests right now are Pablo Alvarado—Pablo Alvarado is director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network—and David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Pablo, I wanted to follow up on what we were discussing before the break on where we go from here. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez of Chicago put out a statement a few days ago basically warning his colleagues that they had a limited amount of time to act on immigration reform, or the president would act himself. Now, that makes me get a sense that the president has already signaled to Luis Gutiérrez and some other leaders that he will take some kind of an action. But would you—what if the president decides to extend DACA to the—just to the parents of those DREAMers who are already covered by the act—in other words, some kind of a compromise measure of extending legalization, but not a full—I mean, not legalization, but extending a halt to deportations, but not a full extension to the entire community that would be affected? Would that satisfy you in terms of progress on the issue?

PABLO ALVARADO: No. We will not accept cosmetic changes. The intervention the president needs to make right now has to be immediate. It has to be as broad as possible. It has to include, and remove the fear of deportation for as many people as possible. The president can do that right now if he wanted to. And he can go beyond. He can—again, he can end the Secure Communities program. He can easily come out and say, at the bare minimum, “I’m not going to deport the people that are going to become direct beneficiaries under the Senate bill.” He could easily come out and say that. There is bipartisan support for that.

You know, there are other things that he can do. For instance, President Obama continues to collaborate with Sheriff Arpaio, knowing full well that Sheriff Arpaio has engaged in massive racial-profiling tactics. Sheriff Arpaio arrests our community, and President Obama comes and deports them. He could easily step in and say, “I’m not going to collaborate with that sheriff.” So, there are plenty of things that President Obama can do.

Obviously, we won’t accept changes that are just cosmetic, that are symbolic. I think we’re—this debate, there’s been too much symbolism. And at this point, the intervention has to be very, very meaningful and alleviate the suffering the people are going through. And I think that the community has spoken very clearly. For the first time, the Beltway organizations—the Beltway is listening to what people are saying. People are saying the path to citizenship starts with the end of deportations. For the first time, people are talking that way. People are taking their message from the people that are fighting on the ground and from people who are suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, as we wrap up, I wanted to bring in David Leopold. On Sunday, former Florida governor, possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Jeb Bush stood apart from many in his own party when he said people who illegally came to the United States do so out of an act of love for their families.

JEB BUSH: They cross the border because they have no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s kind of a—it’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that should be—there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t be—it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.

AMY GOODMAN: David Leopold, do you think the debate is changing? Do you have any hope, as you represent so many people on the ground who have not committed any crime and are being deported out of this country?

DAVID LEOPOLD: Yeah, look, I would just like to say—and I listened to Pablo for a long time here, and, you know, honestly, he doesn’t have an answer for what we do in January of 2017 if we have a new president who doesn’t agree with immigration reform, who doesn’t care about the 11 million. And so, not to focus on John Boehner and not to focus on the leadership in the House of Representatives is a huge, huge mistake. Nobody is saying that the president shouldn’t use his executive authority to protect American families. In fact, he’s done that. We’ve talked about DACA this morning. He has expanded—he’s expanded stateside waivers to promote family unity and so forth. Can he do more? Of course he can do more. Should he do more? Yes, he should do more. He should use his executive authority. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

And what we need to do is keep focused. If we do not focus on the problem here, which is the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, then in the end we’re all going to lose, because, in the end, we are not going to have the permanent immigration reform we all need. I understand there may be—there may be political calculations that we should not talk about the—we should not talk about permanent reform, that we should focus on the moment. And believe you me, you know, I spend day in and day out helping families that are getting destroyed and getting torn apart. And each one of these families, the only question that they ask me is “When are we going to get permanent reform? When are we going to get our rights? When are we going to get a chance to live in this country outside the shadows, live in this country with a future? When are we going to get a way to earn—earn our way to U.S. citizenship?”

So, executive action is very nice, and it is something that should be employed, something the president has employed and something that I hope he’ll think about during this review that the Department of Homeland Security is undergoing right now. I think there are a variety of things that can be looked at—increased—you know, giving—I think Pablo was correct talking about giving some sort of an expansion to people who would qualify under the Senate bill, immigration reform bill. It’s patently unfair to deport people who would qualify for reform. I agree with that. Perhaps looking at the way that certain waivers are granted, lowering standards, things like that. But we still need to focus on a permanent solution to this problem. And the only people who can do that right now are the House of Representatives. The Republican-controlled House is the problem. And John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, they’re the deporters-in-chief. If it weren’t for them, Pablo wouldn’t have the problem that he’s talking about this morning. I wouldn’t have clients out in Painesville who are freaking out about being deported tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: David Leopold, I want to thank you for being with us, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. And thank you also—speaking to us from Cleveland—Pablo Alvarado, speaking to us from Los Angeles, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. We certainly will continue to follow this issue, as we turn now to yet another issue.

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