Based in the Bay Area, Ian covers sports, immigration, and Latin America. His work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Wired, and Slate, among others. Got a comment or a tip? Email him: igordon [at] motherjones [dot] com.
Protesters outside the White House watch President Obama announce his immigration executive actions in November 2014.
These days, President Obama can't win on immigration.
The Republican presidential candidates have been slamming his policies from the right for months. But the recent deportation raids on Central American mothers and children have opened up Obama to renewed criticisms from the left too: In last night's Iowa Brown & Black Forum, Univision's Jorge Ramos even asked presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, "Will you become the next deporter-in-chief?" (Clinton said no and told Ramos she didn't think the raids were "an appropriate tool to enforce the immigration laws.") And while the raids were meant to discourage the continuing surge of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the news from the border isn't good: According to new statistics released Tuesday by US Border and Customs Protection, the number of Central American kids and families apprehended there keeps rising sharply.
So what will Obama say about immigration in his final State of the Union address Tuesday night? He's mentioned it in all but his first SOTU, though we seem light-years away from his exhortations to Congress to "get it done"—"it" being the comprehensive immigration reform that has long eluded him. Here's what he's said and focused on, year by year:
"And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system, to secure our borders and enforce our laws and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation. In the end, it's our ideals, our values, that built America, values that allowed us to forge a nation made up of immigrants from every corner of the globe, values that drive our citizens still."
"One last point about education: Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.
"Let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation."
"Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws, and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort. And let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation."
"Let's also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hard-working students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren't yet American citizens. Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others came more recently, to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else. That doesn't make sense.
"I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That's why my administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That's why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office. The opponents of action are out of excuses. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now.
"But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let's at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away."
"Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, faith communities, they all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Now is the time to do it. Now is the time to get it done. [Applause.] Now is the time to get it done.
"Real reform means stronger border security, and we can build on the progress my administration has already made: putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.
"Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship, a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.
"Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away. And America will be better for it. Let's get it done."
"And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.
"In other words, we know what needs to be done. And as we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. So let's get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away. And America will be better for it. Let's get it done. [Applause.] Let's get it done."
"Finally, if we're serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement and fix our broken immigration system. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted, and I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams—to study, invent, contribute to our culture—they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let's get immigration reform done this year. [Applause.] Let's get it done. It's time."
"We can't put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street or refighting past battles on immigration when we've got to fix a broken system…"
"Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student and agree that no one benefits when a hard-working mom is snatched from her child and that it's possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. I've talked to Republicans and Democrats about that. That's something that we can share."
Honduran migrants caught by US border agents near McAllen, Texas, in July 2014
Last month, while conservatives went into panic mode over those eight Syrians who crossed the US-Mexico border shortly after the Paris attacks, the feds were scrambling to keep up with a more familiar sight in South Texas: the arrival of unaccompanied children and families from Central America.
See MoJo's full coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
In October and November, nearly 10,600 kids traveling by themselves were apprehended at the border, more than twice as many as during the same period in 2014—and roughly the same number apprehended at the height of last year's surge, in June 2014. Another 12,500 people traveling as families were caught, a 176 percent jump from October-November 2014. The vast majority came from Central America's so-called Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—which continues to be the site of extreme violence, poverty, and, lately, drought.
The spike in apprehensions was surprising for a couple of reasons: First, the numbers of both unaccompanied children and family unit apprehensions have dropped steadily over the past year, and second, the fall and winter months are often quiet ones at the border.
To get a better sense of what's going on right now, I spoke with Jennifer Podkul, a senior program officer at the Women's Refugee Commissionwho has been tracking the issue since 2011. Here's are five takeaways from our interview:
1. Things haven't changed much in Central America, but they have in Mexico. "All of our partners in Central America said the same number of kids and families are leaving—it's just who's getting to the border," Podkul says. "I think that's a result of Mexico really clamping down on enforcement and stopping La Bestia, and then the smugglers figuring out how to get around that and continuing the flow of people…I think that when there was an immediate clampdown on the Mexican side, it slowed the numbers of who was coming to our border. Or it's taking people a lot longer than it used to, so you may have somebody who has been en route for a very long time because they've been deported once or twice from Mexico already."
Honduran authorities "stop them and say, 'You don't have the necessary documents to leave the country. Turn around.' Well, turn around into what?"
2. The number of unaccompanied Honduran kids at the US border has dropped—and that's troubling. "Anything you read or see or talk to anyone about Honduras, it's only getting worse there. It's not getting better. But the numbers are going down. Honduras has spent a lot of time and money monitoring their own border and stopping kids from leaving Honduras, and I think we're seeing that now with the lower number of Honduran kids coming here. They're saying a child can't leave the country without permission from both parents—that's a child-protection mechanism. You don't want children leaving on their own, or without their parents knowing about it…They're stopping kids from leaving, but there's no plan for what to do with them. They stop them and say, 'You don't have the necessary documents to leave the country. Turn around.' Well, turn around into what? There's no child-protection system that's working that's really going to work for these kids."
3. Families are getting split up when they're picked up. "You have siblings who are getting separated, married couples that are getting separated, and that can be because just the mechanics of what happened during detention—one Border Patrol agent maybe got one person, one got another; they were separated by gender in the holding cells; they may have been separated by the coyotes and they crossed five minutes apart; one got apprehended and one didn't. What we're worried about is when they're coming into the system and they're getting maliciously separated or no one ever realizes that these people are together. And it's very important, because it might be that one person may be carrying all of the documents or all of the evidence for their legal case. Or one person's legal case really hinges on being the family member of somebody else, so they need to join the cases together."
4. The feds are opening more temporary facilities for kids. They're also letting them out quicker. "The Department of Health and Human Services wants to shelter up to 9,800 kids right now. They're at 8,400 since November. They have two camps that they've contracted with in Texas right now for up to 1,000 kids. And they have an agreement with the Department of Defense that they would put them on notice, so every 30 days they can request to have beds online in case they need them. But they haven't had to use any yet.
"I think you can make the direct comparison to the situation in Europe. There's nothing about the Swedish asylum process that is causing a surge of Syrians to flee Syria."
"What they also do simultaneously when they up their capacity is speed the process in which they reunify children—so they get children out of their custody more quickly, so they have more beds available for more kids who are coming. Initially, that looks really good, right? We don't want kids in detention; we think it's good to get them out. But with kids you have to be very careful, because there's a delicate balance between detaining them unnecessarily and turning them out to any adult who comes forward, saying, 'Yeah, I'll take that kid.'"
5. We can learn from what's been going on in Europe. "There's nothing about the Swedish asylum process that is causing a surge of Syrians to flee Syria. You have to look at what's happening in the home country and why people are leaving, and it has nothing to do with whether or not Sweden has a functioning asylum system that they can properly adjudicate cases. And even though we now have thousands of beds in family detention facilities, where somebody knows they're going to get locked in jail with their baby, they're still coming. That hasn't worked as a deterrent…
"Framing it in this comparison to the European context is generally helpful in that people will really start to see this as a true refugee situation. Because I feel like they don't. It's like, 'Migrants from Central America are economic migrants coming here to steal jobs, but Syrians are real refugees and Europe should take them.' Breaking down those barriers is helpful."
For the first time since Hugo Chávez and his socialist revolution took power in the late 1990s, the Venezuelan opposition scored a huge electoral victory Sunday. Early this morning, the national election board announced that the opposition coalition, known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD in Spanish), took home at least 99 seats in the 167-member National Assembly, with 22 seats still up for grabs.
As I wrote Friday, the vote was largely seen as a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro and the larger leftist movement known as chavismo. According to the Associated Press, a chastened Maduro blamed the loss on "the economic war" waged by the private sector but also told his supporters "to recognize in peace these results and reevaluate many political aspects of the revolution."
Those remaining 22 seats are crucial to what happens next. Should the opposition get to 112 seats—as MUD leader Henrique Capriles Radonski claimed it has—it would have a supermajority in the National Assembly. Last week I spoke with David Smilde, a Tulane University sociologist and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who explained how the extent of an opposition victory would affect what it does moving forward:
"If they just have a simple majority [84 seats], they'll be able to control the congress and control the agenda, and there will be conflict with the government. They say they're going to prioritize, for example, a bill for amnesty for the people they identify as political prisoners."
"If they get a three-fifths majority [101 seats], well then they can actually do no-confidence votes on the ministers and the vice president, and that would give them significantly more power. If you do two no-confidence votes, the person has to resign."
"If they get two-thirds, then they have even more power. They can call for a [presidential] recall referendum themselves, without a petition drive, which is the hard part."
(For more, including how a supermajority could affect Venezuela's Supreme Court, check out this roundup from WOLA's Geoff Ramsey.)
As Smilde told NPR's Morning Edition on Monday, "It's very likely that they would push for a recall referendum in 2016. And if they were able to get that recall referendum or to go to a vote, it's very likely that Maduro would be voted out as president."
On Sunday, Venezuelans will head to the polls for legislative elections that could upend the country's political calculus for the first time since socialist firebrand Hugo Chávez swept to power 17 years ago. Here's what you need to know heading into the weekend:
Pew Research Center
Chavismo might actually lose. For years, Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV in Spanish) has dominated all branches of government, constantly fighting off a fractious opposition that recently has united under the broad-spectrum banner of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD in Spanish). And even when Chávez died in March 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, was able to edge out MUD candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski with 50.6 percent of the vote. Currently, the PSUV holds 96 of 165 National Assembly seats, 20 of 23 governorships, and 242 of 337 mayoral spots.
Pew Research Center
At a Monday rally in Caracas, Maduro summed up his party's take on the opposition: "What is the plan of the rotten right-wing? End the social missions, end the pensions and send old people to work…Privatize education…Bring the International Monetary Fund here and give them our oil wealth." Still, even with a big jump in the past month, Maduro's popularity is hovering around 30 percent. Last year's violent protests—some 43 died over several months, and a Human Rights Watch report says it found "strong evidence of human rights violations committed by Venezuelan security forces"—have given way to a year of campaigning, but the problems that led to nationwide demonstrations have in some cases worsened: chronic food shortages and endless lines at the grocery store, a nonsensical currency policy, a spiraling GDP, rampant violence, weak oil production, and continued media repression. (Exacerbating all of this: Oil prices have dropped to $40 a barrel, down from $100 a barrel when the protests started.)
And so the opposition's campaign strategy has been…not to campaign. Not a whole lot, anyway. David Smilde, a sociologist at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, says the opposition campaign has been a minimalist agreement on candidates and basic, abstract messages—and that's about it. "The government is doing a great job of making them popular," he says.
Watch out for the ni-nis. Venezuela is notoriously divided between chavistas and the opposition. Smilde points out that roughly 30 percent of Venezuelans identify as chavistas and another 30 percent as opposition, but that 40 percent are known as ni-nis—ni chavista ni oposición, neither chavista nor opposition. Many observers see December 6 as the moment the ni-nis will finally break for the opposition. It could also be an opportunity for those chavistas fed up with Maduro—according to New York University's Alejandro Velasco, some chavistas see Maduro as weak, not truly revolutionary, and complicit in corruption—to send a signal that they expect a change, and soon.
The shooting death of an opposition politician won't be solved anytime soon. On November 25, a local Democratic Action party official named Luis Manuel Díaz was shot and killed at a rally in the town of Altagracia de Orituco, in the central plains state of Guárico. Another opposition leader blamed "armed PSUV gangs" for Díaz's death. The US State Department condemned the attack, and in a statement, an Amnesty International official said that "the killing of Luis Manuel Díaz provides a terrifying view of the state of human rights in Venezuela."
On Monday, three men were arrested in connection with the shooting. Reuters reported the government has claimed that Díaz was involved in a union-linked gang dispute, and his death was being used to score political points.
Hillary and Jeb have weighed in. Neither had nice things to say. On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that Maduro's government "has been doing all it can to rig these elections" and that she was outraged at Díaz's "cold-blooded assassination." On Wednesday, Jeb Bush took a shot at Clinton, saying in a statement, "Instead of standing up for democracy, free elections, and the rule of law in Venezuela, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have acquiesced to dictators like Chávez and Maduro whose regime of criminality, corruption, and narcotrafficking threatens Venezuela, the Western Hemisphere, and our own interests."
Opposition leader Leopoldo López is still in prison. López, the handsome, media-savvy, Harvard-educated former mayor of Chacao, an upscale Caracas municipality, made international headlines when he was jailed following a February 2014 protest that turned violent. A New York Times editorial called his subsequent trial "a travesty"; he was sentenced to nearly 14 years in jail in September on what NYU's Velasco calls "trumped" charges.
Pew Research Center
He's among the opposition's harshest critics of Maduro and chavismo, and a divisive figure; a US Embassy cable from 2009 includes the header "The Lopez 'Problem,'" with the following description: "He is often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry—but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organizer." (This Foreign Policy profile from July attempts to reconcile López's past with his present image.)
But the 44-year-old López's future, Velasco says, is tied to the election: Should the opposition win a majority in the National Assembly, leaders have said they will pass a law to grant amnesty to López and other political prisoners.
There are three possible outcomes to the election. According to Velasco, they are:
The opposition wins a simple majority in the National Assembly. Velasco says it would privilege the opposition's more moderate voices and enable the passage of necessary reforms, such as raising gas prices, eliminating some subsidies, and devaluing the bolívar to bring it closer to its black-market value.
The opposition wins a supermajority. Hardline voices like López and María Corina Machado would have more sway, and the opposition could call for Maduro to face a recall referendum.
Chavismo hangs on and continues to be the majority party: "the most harmful" situation, both politically and on the ground, according to Velasco.
"What's interesting in the case of Venezuela over the last 10 years," Velasco says, "is whenever there is the significant likelihood of stepping over a precipice—huge amounts of political violence, the complete collapse of the oil industry, whatever the most cataclysmic scenario is—Venezuelans have always found a way to step back from it."
Migrants walk along the tracks in Ixtepec, Mexico, in July 2014.
In September 2014, in an effort to keep more child migrants from risking the dangerous journey north, President Barack Obama approved a plan to let some Central American kids apply for refugee status without leaving their home countries. Now, more than a year later, only a tiny fraction of applicants have gotten approval to come to the United States.
Roughly 4,600 kids have applied to the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program. To be eligible, minors must be from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras, and they must have a parent living legally in the United States. However, just 90 applicants have been interviewed so far by the Department of Homeland Security, the final step before the government makes a refugee decision.
Of those, 11 have been conditionally approved for refugee resettlement in the United States. Another 76 have received humanitarian parole—a category, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, that is "used sparingly to bring an otherwise inadmissible alien into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency."
See MoJo's full coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
Meanwhile, another 35,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the US-Mexico border in the 2015 fiscal year, which ended in September, and tens of thousands more have been picked up in Mexico, where the government recently cracked down on Central American migrants at the request of the United States.
A State Department official who asked not to be named defended the program, noting that the small number of interviews is the result of a lengthy screening process that can take 18 to 24 months. "We all would like that to go faster," she said. Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit that helps find pro bono counsel for immigrant and refugee children, said that while the program is a start, "it hasn't, frankly, been a perfect system."
When the State Department rolled out the Central American Minors program in December, advocates were concerned that limiting it to kids with parents legally living in the United States made it too restrictive and would turn away truly endangered kids. That didn't stop Senate Republicans from blasting the program in an April judiciary committee hearing titled "Eroding the Law and Diverting Taxpayer Resources." Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions—one of Congress' loudest anti-immigration voices—stated that "rather than stop the new illegal immigration wave, it appears that the results, if not the objective of this program, is to capitulate to the illegality."
"Resettlement to the United States is a golden ticket."
To combat child trafficking, the Central American Minors program requires refugee applicants and their US-based family members to take DNA tests. Parents have up to six months to give a sample, and only after the tests confirm a parent-child relationship will DHS go ahead with interviewing the child in Central America. "We don't want our refugee family reunification program—and this CAM program is a variant of that—to be used for people to try to bring kids to the United States who aren't their own," the State Department official said, adding that "several hundred" applicants have submitted DNA samples to date. "Resettlement to the United States is a golden ticket."
Beyond that, Central American minors have found building successful refugee cases to be particularly tricky, even with help from attorneys working with organizations like Kids in Need of Defense. Many claim to be fleeing violence caused the region's powerful gangs. But the official said they often can't prove that they face persecution on account of a so-called protected ground, such as race, religion, social group, or nationality. It appears as though those kids are receiving humanitarian parole through the Central American Minors program. Yet this does not grant them any immigration benefits and is meant to be temporary.(That didn't stop Breitbart from blaring, "96 Percent of Interviewed Central American Minors Approved to Fly to U.S.")
As Young is quick to point out, the situation in Central America hasn't improved much from just a year and a half ago, when Obama called the surge of child migrants "an urgent humanitarian situation." Guatemala's president recently resigned at the center of a corruption scandal, El Salvador has endured renewed violence following the end of a gang truce, and Honduras' murder rate is still the worst in the world. And according to an upcoming report by social scientist Elizabeth Kennedy, 83 people deported by the United States in the past 21 months have been killed upon their return to El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.
"The idea that the 'crisis' is over makes me cringe a bit," Young said. "To me, it went from a boiling-over situation last year to a constant simmer. But it could start boiling over again at any time."