The following piece first appeared on the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project blog.
Last Thursday felt like time for a toast for America’s largest social movement, the folks fighting for immigrants' rights. With the news that the Obama administration would review many of its pending 300,000 deportation cases and allow some of those with no "criminal" record to stay, you could literally hear the cries of joy jumping out of Facebook updates, twitter feeds, cafecito spots (I live in Miami), college campuses, and even a detention center or two.
After over two years of pressuring the Obama administration to use its executive power to stop tearing apart immigrant families and communities; after hunger strikes, 1000 mile walks, and mass arrests, after multiple claims from the administration that it didn’t have that authority, after multiple cover-ups by the administration of how many people they were deporting that had done nothing wrong, it seems like the administration is finally listening. And while there are tears of joy, and sighs of relief, there is also plenty of healthy skepticism. After all, we have an administration that has cried (falsely), "we only deport dangerous criminals!" more than that boy who cried wolf. So the questions remain.
Who is going to be carrying out this new case-by-case review? Is it going to be the ICE agents whose union doesn’t want to use its discretionary power and calls this a "back door amnesty?" What is their incentive to review cases fairly?
And when the administration says that they will focus on "criminals", what do they mean? Isn’t immigration policy the same set of laws that famously calls people "aggravated felons" for things that are neither aggravated nor felonies? Isn’t ICE the same agency that deported thousands of suspected "terrorists" after 9/11 that were never really terrorists? And don’t ICE’s "worst of the worst" categories include a Baptist pastor with a 16 year old conviction from when he was homeless, a Gulf War Veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who was arrested for marijuana possession after his wife died, and a 36-year-old youth community worker who helps young people stay away from the mistakes he made as a 16 year old? If the administration is really turning over a new leaf, does that mean ICE is turning over a new leaf?
And then there is what the Obama administration still refuses to do. It still refuses to create enforceable standards for how it treats immigrants in detention so that they don’t die in custody. The administration still refuses to reign in the deputized powers it gives to bad sheriffs with long lists of civil rights complaints like the real-life Boss-Hog, Joe Arpaio. The administration still refuses to call off its "creepy" Secure Communities program, which is looking more and more like the first step of a science fiction-like national database that may one day include everyone.
But the administration is also failing to take the lead in pushing common sense legislation that will begin to fix the broken immigration system while everyone waits for the mythical grand compromise. For one, the best way to ensure the case-by-case reviews of immigration cases is done right is to give immigration judges back the discretion they need (and lost in 1996) instead of pushing ICE employees to exercise the discretion many of them seem to not want (that they gained over a decade ago).
But lets not rain on the parade. This is no doubt a victory. After all, it seems like there are only a few constituencies of non-millionaires that have gotten any significant demand from the administration: the LGBT movement, the Tea Party, and the immigrant rights movement to name a few. And the tie that binds these movements together (for better or worse) is that they fought like hell and refused to just "let the President do his job."
So let there be a toast. A toast to democracy-in-action and the thousands of squeaky wheels that provided the vehicle to demand more oil. A toast that remembers those families that new policies may never help, the ones that have already been separated and torn apart. And a toast to the hope that regular people are pushing the administration to finally have enough courage to make real change.
Yep, its time for a toast…but don’t drink the juice yet.