When the cameras aren't rolling and the nation's not looking on, does the Obama administration abide by its own deportation policies?
The answer, undocumented immigrants have long said, is a definitive "no."
Last week two undocumented, DREAM Act-eligible immigrant activists presented themselves to immigration agents in Mobile, Alabama, and were subsequently put in detention and placed in deportation proceedings, to prove exactly that point.
"We want to reveal the truth and show [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] for what they really are, as a rogue agency which has no accountability while they separate families," Jonathan Perez, a 24-year-old activist from Los Angeles told Colorlines.com from the South Louisiana Correctional Center. Perez and 20-year-old Isaac Barrera had been transferred to the facility this week.
"[The Department of Homeland Security] continues to lie. Obama continues to lie. This is our way of exposing the truth," Perez said.
Perez and Barrera announced their detainment a day after 13 undocumented immigrant activists who organized a highly publicized civil disobedience action in the Alabama statehouse earlier this week were released. The actions were organized through DreamActivist.org, a network for immigrant youth activists. Activists were arrested yesterday after protesting Alabama's HB 56, the nation's harshest anti-immigrant state law in the very building where it was crafted. This group was comprised of activists with the identical profile as Perez and Barrera--young people who immigrated to the country as children and had no criminal convictions on their record.
In keeping with its public line to prioritize the removal of an expanding set of undocumented immigrants--those with serious criminal convictions as well as prior deportations on their record--the Obama administration has had a strict hands-off approach when it comes to undocumented immigrant youth and the civil disobedience actions they're by now well known for. There have been dozens of arrests in the last two years, but ICE has never prosecuted or moved to detain and deport any of these young people.
"ICE has not lodged detainers at this time," confirmed ICE spokesperson Temple Black. ICE did not respond to inquiries about why they chose this course of action.
Yet, away from the media spotlight, immigrant activists say the Obama administration has another agenda entirely. And that agenda's got a mandate to deport immigrants at a breakneck speed -- even if the folks they deport do not fall within the agency's own definition of those who are a high priority for removal. Since he's been in office Obama's deported nearly 400,000 people every year, far outpacing the deportation rate of every other president before him and every year toppling his own records. The enforcement strategy continues in the face of an congressional impasse over immigration reform.
"What we can do is to prioritize enforcement, since there are limited enforcement resources, and say, 'We're not going to go chasing after this young man or anybody else who's been acting responsibly and [who] would otherwise qualify for legal status if the DREAM Act passed," Obama said last month, NPR reported.
"ICE keeps on saying they don't deport DREAMers or low-level offenders but that same day [as the Tuesday action] we were transferred to this detention center," Perez said. "We have the paperwork. We're in deportation proceedings."
Barrera and Perez say they went separately into a Border Patrol office in Mobile, Alabama, last Thursday, Perez first and Barrera after. They expressed their disagreement with DHS policies, Perez said. When the staffers asked him, "Why does that matter to you?" He responded, "Because I'm undocumented."
He and Barrera say they were transferred immediately to a prison in Louisiana and on Tuesday were transferred to the detention center where they're in now.
As well-acquainted as Barrera and Perez with the nation's onerous immigration laws, they say this experience has been eye-opening for them, too.
"It's the small things. When it's time to eat they say, 'Everybody go chow.' It's kind of weird, it makes me feel like I'm an animal," Perez said of detention. "It feels a lot like elementary school, there's always someone telling you what to do and what you can't do."
The lesson, they believe, is that undocumented immigrants are safer when they come forward and organize instead of cowering in the shadows. It's there that ICE does most of its enforcement work, they say. It's there where it's impossible to hold them accountable.
"We need to stand up and eliminate the fear and fight the anti-immigrant laws that are terrorizing our communities," Barrera said over the phone.
"I want lawmakers to look at the face of the 'illegal,' as we're called. Get to know these people," Barrera said. "I love the trees, and the sky and animals and plants just like you do. I'm a human being too."