(CNN)A distinguished federal judge who most Americans only know of as the target of Donald Trump’s bigotry when he was still a candidate for president has returned to the public spotlight — and not by choice.
Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a judge in the southern district of California, has been assigned to hear the case of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient who alleges that he was improperly deported by immigration authorities.
Juan Manuel Montes, 23, says that he was picked up and deported to Mexico in February, a claim that the Department of Homeland Security disputes. When Montes tried to reenter the US two days later, he was arrested by Border Patrol agents. DHS says he voided his DACA status by leaving the country; he says the leaving was involuntary.
Judge Curiel, whom, you’ll recall, Trump denigrated as a “Mexican” when Curiel presided over the lawsuit against Trump University, will now sort out this “he said/they said” immigration case.
The irony is rich and the circumstances of Montes’ case remain murky, but its outcome could indeed end up raising serious questions. If his claims about his deportation are validated, his case could have profound implications for the estimated 740,000 DACA grantees in the US as it helps clarify the Trump administration’s position on their fate.
These are the Dreamers, young people who were granted relief from deportation under a program put in place by President Barack Obama.
“We’re gonna show great heart,” on DACA, Trump asserted in a February news conference. And in an interview with Fox News this week Attorney General Jeff Sessions asserted, “DACA enrollees are not being targeted.” But he added “The policy is that if people are here unlawfully, they’re subject to being deported … We can’t promise people who are here unlawfully that they’re not going to be deported.”
We will see what unlawfully ends up meaning for DACA recipients as the administration proceeds with its confusing and ominous agenda on immigration — particularly what it means in the eyes of the attorney general, who has said “it would certainly be constitutional” to overturn the executive order that created DACA.
Sessions played up the false narrative of immigrants as criminals on his recent border visit. “This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” Sessions said, in Nogales, Arizona. “The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch and release practices of old are over.”
He urged federal prosecutors to focus on immigration related crimes, such as smuggling and trafficking, leaving out that this is already happening; immigration prosecutions actually made up more than half of all federal prosecutions for fiscal year 2016. But illegal border crossings are at a 40-year low and more Mexicans are leaving the US than coming here. This year alone has seen a significant dropoff in apprehensions by the Border Patrol along the southern border.
So if we are already enforcing our immigration laws, and our border is secure, why was Sessions making these pronouncement? The answer is simple — and disheartening.
By reinforcing President Trump’s claims that the US is awash in “bad hombres” — an immigration myth — he is setting the stage for a harsh crackdown on undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom are folks who come here to work and seek the American dream like generations of immigrants before them.
Consider that he proposes prosecuting people who are fleeing those same cartels that he denounces. Or that focusing on immigration offenses will divert resources away from other security efforts, such as anti-opioid measures, counterterrorism programs, and fighting cybercrime.
And let’s be clear: The cost of detaining more people at the border and then deporting them will of course be borne by taxpayers.
According to the National Immigration Forum, in 2014 it cost about $161 a day to detain an undocumented immigrant. Each deportation conducted by immigration authorities runs, on average, $10,854 per person. Sessions wants to increase deportations and detentions, so we will be paying even more money to lock up and remove undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding people.
Sessions: Trump’s immigration ban ‘not unreasonable’
There is no question that our country needs to enforce existing immigration law and protect our borders. We are already doing that, as the statistics on illegal arrivals at the southern border show. The sad reality, however, is that the proposed efforts by the Trump administration will move the country ever further away from addressing the pressing issue of immigration in a just society. They will not make America great again; they will make America cruel.
Those who maintain that all undocumented immigrants are criminals should recall that the majority opinion in US v. Arizona (2012) found that “as a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the US.”
Nor are mass deportations what most Americans want. March CNN polling shows that a majority of Americans (60%) think that our country’s top immigration priority should be developing a way to let the undocumented legalize their status. Only 26% say developing a plan to stop illegal border crossings should be the top priority and just 13% say deportation of those in the US illegally should be the first priority. In short, this is another losing issue for Trump — and Sessions — and they should heed the will of the country.
The good news in the case of the deported Dreamer is that Judge Curiel has a long and distinguished record of impartial decision-making. The bad news is that, thanks to Trump’s past bigotry — his suggestion that the Indiana-born Curiel could not be fair because of his heritage– some members of the public will also question Curiel’s integrity.
This is all the sorry result of cynical attempts to exploit the immigration issue: the Trump administration and Attorney General Sessions seem at best deeply misguided and at worst profoundly mean-spirited. Going after Dreamers — scapegoating and fear-mongering — is no substitute for a thoughtful immigration solution.
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