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The human cost of Obama’s delay on immigration action

A rally outside the White House in 2014. The White House hasn't agreed.
A rally outside the White House in 2014. The White House hasn't agreed.

This week, President Obama was widely expected to announce new executive action to protect millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation. But on Saturday, the White House said it would push any policy change back until after the November midterm elections.

One big question is what this delay will mean for the immigrants who might have benefitted from the change in deportation policies. There are at least 60 days between now and whenever Obama plans to announce his new policy. So what do those 60 days mean for immigrants' lives?

There are two ways to look at this: One of them is to calculate the total number of immigrants who will likely be deported between now and Election Day — and try to figure out how many of those might have qualified for protection (assuming Obama had stuck to his original schedule). The best estimate available comes to about 60,000 people — but it's hard to know for sure, because the administration and its critics have very different ideas about who's getting deported right now.

The other way to look at this is to think about how many immigrants will now be living under the threat of deportation for the next several weeks, instead of being able to apply for protection. Not every immigrant who worries about deportation is likely to get deported. But because the administration has never been fully transparent about which unauthorized immigrants it is and isn't deporting, not being a "likely" deportee isn't enough to make any immigrant feel fully safe. Only executive action will do that.

Here's a more detailed breakdown of the calculations involved.

How many immigrants will be deported between now and Election Day?

Immigration advocates have been saying that between September 5 (when the delay was announced) and Election Day on November 4, 70,000 immigrants in total will get deported. That's based on the pace of deportations during fiscal year 2012 — the highest rate in US history.

But it's slightly misleading to use that figure, since deportations actually fell slightly during fiscal year 2013 — which is the most recent year for which data's available. During FY 2013,1,010 immigrants were deported every day. So if deportations are continuing at the same pace this year, 60,600 immigrants will be deported in the 60 days between now and the election.

The problem is that we have no way of knowing if the pace of deportations is faster or slower this year than it was a year ago. Fiscal year 2014 ends on September 30, but the government doesn't typically release deportation statistics until late December. (Interestingly, the administration's now saying it will announce executive action at the end of 2014 — meaning it will come out around the same time as the year's deportation totals.)

To make matters even more complicated, the agencies responsible for deportation have had to divert billions of dollars to the child-migrant crisisat the border — and the administration's claimed that they could run out of money this fall. That could mean they end up deporting fewer immigrants than expected, although that's not clear. It's also possible they could continue to apprehend immigrants at their usual pace and put them through proceedings to deport later.

deportee shoes

A deportee boards a plane to his home country. (John Moore/Getty)

How many of those immigrants would have qualified for protection?

This is where things get even trickier — and it's the crux of the dispute between the Obama administration and immigration groups.

No one thinks that the Obama administration was ever planning to protect all 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US from deportation. At most, any executive action would protect a few million people — potentially including parents of US citizens; parents of the young immigrants who've already qualified for protection from deportation, via the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; and/or spouses of US citizens or permanent residents.

What's more, in all likelihood, immigrants would have to meet strict criteria to qualify for protection — such as having lived in the US for a certain number of years and having a clean criminal record. (These were some of the criteria in the earlier Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.)

So how much overlap is there between this group of people, and the group of immigrants who will likely be deported in the coming months? That question is at the heart of the longstanding disagreement between the White House and immigration advocates that's led to the current push for executive action.

According to the administration, the Department of Homeland Security is already using "prosecutorial discretion" so that resident, law-abiding unauthorized immigrants don't get deported.

Instead, the administration says, it's mainly deporting "high priority" immigrants — those who have committed crimes, have recently entered the country, or were deported and then came back. The number of immigrants who end up getting deported each year, be it 350,000 or 400,000, according to the administration, is just a reflection of how many immigrants deserved deportation.

Immigration advocates don't put much stock in the administration's priorities — or its ability to control who gets deported on the ground. They believe that the administration is setting targets for the number of deportations per year — and working backwards from there to determine which immigrants need to be deported. And they point out that it's very easy for a long-resident, law-abiding immigrant to be cast as an immigration "priority" — say, an immigrant who's convicted of driving without a license (since unauthorized immigrants can't get drivers' licenses).

If the administration is telling the truth about who they're deporting, then most of the immigrants who will be deported between now and the election wouldn't have qualified for relief from deportation anyway.

If the critics are correct, it's possible that the administration can just deport recent arrivals from Central America — rather than longtime residents — to meet its targets this fall. But critics feel that, if the administration's record is any guide, many of the immigrants who get marked as "priorities" and deported between now and November will be immigrants who, if they'd had the opportunity, could have applied for protection from deportation and gotten it.

Don’t deport my mom

So which side is right?

It's hard to tell — which is why so many immigration groups are pushing for executive action, to make it clear immigrants don't need to fear deportation.

During Obama's first term, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House ended up deporting a record number of immigrants in order to persuade America that they were being tough on immigration. They ended up deporting longtime residents, students, and hundreds of thousands of parents of US citizens — even as they tried to tell immigration advocates that, thanks to prosecutorial discretion, they weren't doing any of that.

In the past year or two, the administration has claimed that it's now finally implementing the priorities it's claimed to have had the whole time. The administration says that unauthorized immigrants living in the interior of the US today are safe from deportation, as long as they don't commit a crime. It's hard to tell how much of that is true, since they were saying the same things during Obama's first term. Immigration advocates remember that, and no longer believe the administration's reassurances. Latino voters as a whole are suspicious: a recent Latino Decisions poll shows that 71 percent believe Obama is still deporting immigrants without criminal records.

That's the reason advocates have been pushing so hard for executive action: They don't trust the administration not to deport immigrant family members, even if it says it won't.

Protesters with father signs

Why this dispute has led to the push for executive action

The only immigration policy change that advocates believe has worked is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Obama announced in 2012. What makes DACA different from the "prosecutorial discretion" policy, and the reason advocates trust it, is that it allows immigrants to apply for protection from deportation — rather than trusting the administration not to come after them.

In the two years since DACA was introduced, it's become clear that taking away the threat of deportation has made a huge difference to some immigrants' lives. (Read my feature on DACA to learn more about this.) And once immigrants and advocates saw the opportunities that DACA opened up, they've been pushing for other immigrants to get those same opportunities — especially because the administration was already saying that those other immigrants wouldn't be deported anyway.

The reason that Obama's delay of executive action is so devastating to the immigrant-rights advocates isn't that they know that 60,000 people will be deported instead of getting protected. They don't know that.

But they do know that millions of immigrants are going through their lives knowing that, at any time, they could be apprehended and put into deportation proceedings — and there would be very little they could do. That constant threat has been extended for another several weeks, at least. That's the real impact of the delay.