Mirta Ojito

When ‘la migra’ knocks on the door

Two million and counting. As records go, this is a shameful one, unless you happen to be part of the 45 percent of Americans who support the growing number of deportations of undocumented immigrants under President Obama.

The fact is the country is divided, with 45 percent saying deportation is “a good thing,” and an equal percentage saying it’s “a bad thing,” according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.

The other fact is that, regardless of how one feels about it, the number keeps going up. It is believed that sometime this month the Obama administration reached or will reach a new record: 2 million people deported.

That in itself wouldn’t necessarily be “a bad thing” if the systematic deportation of undocumented immigrants were the stated policy of the United States, the way to deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants that nobody seems to know what to do with. Congress certainly doesn’t.

But deportation is not very effective immigration policy. It is punitive, expensive and very bad for politics. Come Election Day, people have a tendency to remember the day la migra took Tio Pancho away. It’s also messy and definitely not family friendly.

According to estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, about 4 million U.S.-born children have at least one parent who is in the country illegally. When the authorities deport undocumented immigrants, they may well be deporting the father or mother of U.S. citizens who will have to remain here without their parents or follow them to an uncertain future in a land that isn’t theirs.

As a nation, we can’t continue to deport people without being honest about our intentions. To pretend that we are deporting only criminals while deporting people whose only crime is that they are in the country illegally is to make a mockery of the principles our nation stands for.

Granted, those who oppose the presence of undocumented immigrants would argue that the mockery began when immigrants overstayed tourist visits or swam across the Rio Grande. It’s hard to ask a nation for compassion when you broke the law first.

But, given that the law has been broken, we have few choices. One of them is to accept the fact that we contributed a great deal to the breaking of that law (by our unquenchable thirst for cheap labor and the minuscule number of visas we offer for low-skill laborers from the whole world, about 10,000 every year) and come up with a compassionate solution that benefits all.

Another, of course, is massive deportations.

A report released this month by the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council revealed that most of the people being deported are not dangerous criminals, as we have been led to believe. In fact, most have “committed relatively minor, nonviolent crimes or have no criminal histories at all,” the report concluded.

Two thirds of all deportees were apprehended at or near the border, while one third was stopped and detained from the “interior of the country.” Immigration lawyers say the arrests are happening everywhere: at bus and train stops, on the streets, in homes and in workplaces.

Under a federal program called Secure Communities, started under President Bush and expanded under President Obama, routine traffic stops often become the end of the line for those who are undocumented. The program provides federal immigration officials with immediate access to the fingerprints of anyone who is arrested for any reason — be it jumping a turnstile or selling drugs.

More than 40 percent of the immigrants deported from Maryland through Secure Communities have no criminal record, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun published Feb. 8. The same analysis revealed that 20 percent of all deportees nationwide have no criminal record. Every state is different, it found. In Texas, the rate is lower, 12 percent.

Had immigration reform become the law of land earlier this year, many of the immigrants who are deported daily would be allowed to stay and eventually become U.S. citizens. They are the sorts of people we like to brag about when we talk about what makes America strong: hard-working, family oriented and entrepreneurial.

I’m leaving out “God-fearing” — a favorite adjective of political pundits — because I think that undocumented immigrants are more afraid of the authorities these days than of God.

They should be. God seems to be on their side. During a private meeting at the Vatican on Thursday, Pope Francis told President Obama that he, too, supports immigration reform.