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The ‘Big Mistake’

As a staunch defender of Obama’s legacy, Joe Biden certainly doesn’t want to be identified as one of those responsible for a policy that broke families apart. That won’t get him the Latino votes he needs.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is a news anchor on Univision.
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Former President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office. Crédito: Courtesy of the White House.

LAS VEGAS — Deportations won’t get you Latino votes. This is a lesson Democrats have to learn.

There are, at the moment, eight candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. Their challenge? To defeat President Donald Trump. To do that, they’ll need the trust and political support of the Latino community in the United States.

In order to receive that support, Democrats must promise to stop the deportation of millions of immigrants. This year’s candidates must distance themselves from the immigration policies of former President Barack Obama, no matter how popular he remains.

In 2014, Janet Murguía, president of UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), called Obama the “deporter in chief.” That made Obama uncomfortable; to this day, it still makes his former advisers, allies and supporters uneasy — including Joe Biden, the former vice president and current presidential candidate.

During a recent interview here, I asked Biden if he would apologize for the immense number of deportations carried out during the Obama administration. “I think it was a big mistake. [It] took too long to get it right,” he said, acknowledging the administration’s error publicly for the first time.

That would have been good enough for me. But then, to my surprise, Biden added: “You had the last two administrations deport twice as many people as we deported. … You had more people deported in the W. administration, Bush, and the Clinton administration.”

Following our conversation, Biden’s advisers sent me the document on which he had based his claims. I said I would check the data myself.

It turns out the numbers aren’t quite as straightforward as Biden suggests. Deportations in the U.S. fall into two distinct categories: “removals,” which refer to immigrants who are expelled following a court decision or some other legal process; and “returns,” which refer to people who are detained shortly after crossing the border and then sent back to their native countries within days or weeks, all without a formal court order.

According to figures from the Department of Homeland Security, Obama formally deported (i.e., “removed”) more people than any other U.S. president. Between 2009 and 2016, his administration deported slightly more than 3 million.

But if both deportation categories are combined — removals and returns — it is indeed true that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush sent away far more people than Obama: roughly 12 million and 10 million by Clinton and Bush respectively, versus 5 million by Obama.

Of course, Obama would rather be remembered within the Latino community for implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which has undoubtedly achieved some successes, assisting over 800,000 “Dreamers” — than for ordering mass deportations.

As a staunch defender of Obama’s legacy, Biden certainly doesn’t want to be identified as one of those responsible for a policy that broke families apart. That won’t get him the Latino votes he needs.

But the claim that Clinton and Bush deported more people overall than Obama isn’t a particularly good defense. Which president deported the most immigrants isn’t the central issue here.

The fact remains that, like his predecessors, Obama sent back millions of immigrants, most of whom did not have criminal records. Today, Biden recognizes this as a misstep. “It was too many,” he told me. “Whether it’s more than ever or not, it was a mistake.”

It was a mistake, and Democrats should learn from it.

Although Trump has deported fewer people than Obama, he has presented a clear anti-immigrant agenda. He has said that Mexicans are criminals and “rapists,” and has barred people from what he calls “shithole countries” from entering the United States.

Trump’s central strategy involves preventing new immigrants from coming to the United States in the first place. A controversial program coordinated with the Mexican government has forced tens of thousands of Central Americans, many of them children, to wait in northern Mexico for their U.S. asylum applications to be processed, which can take months or even years.

Democrats need to do something, and now. A thoughtful and humane immigration reform package is absolutely vital.

Whoever wins the White House in November must reject any immigration policy based on deportations, travel bans or fear. Most Latinos are in favor of legally accepting the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country. And the most politically progressive groups, such as United We Dream (the largest “Dreamer” organization in the U.S.), are trying to force the Democratic candidates to commit to halting deportations for people with no criminal records. What Clinton, Bush and Obama did must never happen again.

Had Obama fulfilled his promise to pass an immigration reform bill during his first year in office, America’s 10.5 million undocumented immigrants wouldn’t be living each day with the risk of deportation. Sadly, in 2009, when Obama had his best shot of passing such a bill — given the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress — he lacked the political will and the vision to push it forward. Instead, and without apparent justification, his administration decided to focus on deportation.

Biden’s acknowledgment that those deportations were a “big mistake” is a good start. What really matters now, however, is that Democrats avoid repeating that mistake.