Making amends for past wrongs

July 7, 2016 Adam Goodman
Patrick Poendl /
U.S.-Mexican Border

Of all the issues discussed during the 2016 presidential campaign, none has drawn more attention—or been more controversial—than immigration.

However, much of the discussion has been hyperbolic and devoid of historical context. Considerable attention has been given to presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration, proposal to end to birthright citizenship, promise to build a wall stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, and claim that he will deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Xenophobia is alive and well in 2016, and politically efficacious to boot.

Democrats have been quick to denounce Trump’s policies as logistically impossible and downright un-American. But restrictionist, enforcement-first immigration policies have long been bipartisan. In fact, Democrats may be more responsible than Republicans for the deportation and family separation of millions of people for more than 20 years. 

Today, around 700 miles of the “big, beautiful wall” Trump loves to talk about already exist. Construction began in earnest when President Bill Clinton launched Operation Gatekeeper in October 1994. Gatekeeper promoted a strategy of “prevention through deterrence” that resulted in the fortification of the San Diego-Tijuana border, the enhancement of surveillance technology, and an increase in the number of officers patrolling the line. Over the last 22 years, the number of Border Patrol agents has grown from around 4,000 to 21,000; nearly 90 percent of them are stationed on the U.S.-Mexico border. In historical perspective, the border has never been so “secure.” Yet, rather than stopping unauthorized migration, these policies have only made crossing more costly and, in an increasing number of cases, deadly.

When it comes to deportation, the current Democratic president does not fare much better. During his eight years in office, Barack Obama has overseen more than 2 million formal deportations (also known as “removals”), more than any other president in U.S. history. Immigrant activists and Latino civil rights organizations refer to him as the “Deporter-in-Chief.”

But the spike in removals can primarily be attributed to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. IIRIRA expanded the number of deportable offenses, called for the mandatory detention and removal of legal permanent residents convicted of “aggravated felonies” (an expansive category that could include offenses as minor as shoplifting), severely limited discretionary relief from deportation, and established bars on returning to the United States after being in the country without authorization. The 1996 Act has arguably done more harm to migrants and their families than any other piece of legislation in the last half century.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s progressive immigration policy proposals break sharply from the punitive policies implemented during Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s presidencies. She has also been quick to distance herself from Trump, calling for comprehensive reform that creates a pathway to citizenship, claiming that she’ll end family detention and close private detention centers, and promising to defend executive actions that provide protections to “Dreamers” and their parents. 

It remains unclear, however, whether Clinton’s proposals have any teeth. Immigration activists and advocates have called her out for flip-flopping on the issue. (Two examples they point to are Clinton’s past opposition to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and, more recently, a statement asserting that Central American children seeking asylum should be deported.) They see her current stance as anchored in little more than political opportunism, and remain skeptical with good reason. After all, they have heard this before: Obama made similar promises while on the campaign trail, but, in large part because of an obstructionist Republican-controlled House, he has failed to enact comprehensive or even piecemeal immigration reform.

Rhetoric is not the same as action, as millions of deported immigrants and their families are painfully aware, and lip service from Hillary Clinton is not going to cut it. If elected, she should follow through on her pledge to make comprehensive immigration reform her top priority. The Democratic Party is largely responsible for creating the country’s broken immigration system, and it should make every effort to fix it through legislative and executive action—even if Trump’s politics of fear and vacuous political grandstanding have the potential to keep Republicans out of the White House for decades to come.

Adam Goodman was a Miller Center fellow in 2014-2015. He will begin as Assistant Professor of History & Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago in August 2016.