A Nation of (Deported) Immigrants

A Nation of (Deported) Immigrants

Sometime in 2012, Valente Valenzuela and his younger brother Manuel will find out whether they will be deported from the United States. Valente, sixty-two, and Manuel, fifty-eight, were born in Mexico, but moved to the United States in 1955, and have lived here since. Their mother was a U.S. citizen, and their father became a naturalized citizen. According to the Valenzuelas’ attorney, the brothers, who are legal permanent residents, should have been granted citizenship upon moving to the United States as children, but were not. Each brother served in Vietnam: Valente is a decorated U.S. Army veteran, injured in combat and awarded a Bronze Star for his bravery; and Manuel is a former Marine. Both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which they say contributed to their respective run-ins with the law—Valente was involved in a misdemeanor domestic violence dispute eleven years ago, and Manuel was charged with misdemeanor resisting arrest twenty-five years ago. Yet, despite having served their country and paid their dues, the brothers received letters from the Department of Homeland Security (Manuel in 2005 and Valente in 2009) notifying them that they will face deportation hearings. If deported, the Valenzuelas will lose their veterans’ benefits, including counseling for their PTSD, and will be forced to leave the country they fought for and have called home for the last fifty-six years.

The Valenzuelas’ cases are not unique. The Obama administration removed more people during each of the last two years than in any other year in U.S. history. Despite the administration’s insistence that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is focusing its efforts on dangerous, violent criminals, both anecdotal and statistical evidence prove otherwise. In 2009, the number of removed individuals who had never been convicted of a crime was more than twice the number of those that had. In October 2010, ICE released its 2010 deportation statistics, celebrating the removal of a record 195,772 criminals. Although this represents a 52.5 percent increase from 2009, it should not overshadow the fact that non-criminals still made up more than half of the 392,862 removals. Moreover, some of the criminals removed were people like the Valenzuelas, who committed minor offenses years—or decades—ago.

How can the cases of Valente and Manuel Valenzuela and the hundreds of thousands of others like them be explained? An examination of the history of deportation and an analysis of recent immigration policies suggest some possible answers to this question and reveal that (1) an inadequate definition of deportation has obscured its magnitude, both past and present; (2) deportation has played an increasingly important, although underappreciated, role in U.S. immigration policy since 1950; and (3) a significant gap exists between the Obama administration’s official enforcement policy and the implementation of policy at the local level.


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