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We must not sanitise Barack Obama’s legacy on mass deportation

BySilas Lehane

Jan 25, 2017

Amongst the maelstrom of hatred that President Trump describes as his ‘policy’, his approach to immigration and his pledge to ‘build a wall’ stand out as being decisively xenophobic. In light of his inauguration it is easy to look back on Obama’s time in office as a bastion of progressivism. It has been shocking for many to learn then, that Obama has deported 2.5 million people, more than any other president.

However, this shock should hardly be the case; the USA is a firmly anti-immigrant state, and Obama remains part of this trend. He has built on a series of policies developed since Bill Clinton’s administration that have systematically expanded the resources and effectiveness of government agencies seeking to catch and deport illegal immigrants.

Dubbed the ‘deporter-in-chief’ by immigration watchdogs, Obama claims that his policies target ‘felons, not families’, but this frequently ignores the circumstance of immigration and the severity of crime. In cases such as Giovanni Miranda’s, individuals are deported for minor crimes (drug possession) to dangerous environments (in Miranda’s case leading to his death). Obama’s legacy on immigration will be that Trump inherits, as The Nation notes, “the most sophisticated and well-funded human expulsion machine in the history of the country’’. His promise to deport three million people should not be taken likely.

The glasses with which we nostalgically reflect on the Obama era are rose-tinted, and mass deportation is far from his only troubling policy. Withdrawal from traditional armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has been replaced by a vast expansion of drone strikes – 10 times more than George W. Bush. For the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama has taken extensive military action. This has redefined the methods of a hegemonic power’s warfare and raised serious ethical questions, particularly when a US citizen living abroad was killed without trial. The power of the executive branch has expanded, and mass surveillance has become commonplace. Again, these are all tools passed over to the Trump regime.

From a removed and European perspective, we have drawn broad brush strokes over Obama’s leadership and painted him as an unmitigated hero, whilst his charisma and youthful appeal have brought an unparalleled amicability to the presidency. But to generalise in this manner is dangerous, and risks erasing the problems of his tenure. It is an injustice to both the victims of such policies, and to historical accuracy itself.

When David Cameron was awarded ‘ally of the year’ by Pink News, progressive voices rightly condemned the move, highlighting the soaring rates of LGBT+ homelessness under his premiership. Drawing a generalisation from the legislation of same-sex marriage was clearly wrong. In assessing a legacy, we must not indulge in simplicities and the comfort of seeing a figure in a one-sided manner. This is certainly not to say Obama was a complete disaster by any means. The expansion of healthcare, the Iran nuclear deal and his election in itself as the first black president all stand as significant achievements. But if we are to give an accurate assessment, we must recognise both the successes and the problematic tendencies within his administration.

Reconciling Obama’s deportation policies with his image otherwise, is not a case of leaving it a footnote, but recognising it as part of a whole, a critical failure to directly tackle an issue of rising American nativism and more wider reactionary trend. At a time where maintaining support for free movement and immigration is so crucial, Obama and his peers let those in need down. This may prove to one his worst and most lasting legacies.

Image Credit: White House Photostram

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