Immigration attorneys are criticizing the newly minted head of the Democratic National Committee for recent attacks on the Trump administration over a deportation, arguing he was silent on the issue during Obama’s presidency.
Tom Perez, the new DNC chair who was Obama’s labor secretary from 2013 to 2017, ripped into Trump on April 20 over a USA Today report about the deportation of a man who reportedly should have been shielded from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But immigration lawyers who spoke to The Daily Beast said the deportation at issue probably would have played out the same way if Barack Obama were president—and that Democratic political operatives, including Perez, were silent when DACA recipients were deported under his administration.
At issue is the deportation of Juan Manuel Montes, whose lawyers said he came to the U.S. illegally when he was 9. He received temporary protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Barack Obama rolled out in 2014, but was deported in February of this year.
There are two versions of the story of Montes’ deportation: his version, and DHS’s. Montes told USA Today that a Customs and Border Protection official approached him in Calexico, Calif. one evening in February, didn’t let him show him his DACA card, and then—three hours later—had him deported to Mexico. Montes said he was later mugged and beaten in Mexico, and that he then climbed over the border fence and back into the U.S. After climbing the fence, he said immigration agents caught him, questioned him, and deported him a second time.
DHS spokesman David Lapan said in a statement that the agency has no record of that first encounter Montes described, and only has records of his being arrested and then deported after climbing over the fence.
National Democrats, including Perez, have seized on Montes’ story to criticize Trump.
“Trump’s mass deportation force has taken Juan Manuel Montes. Trump and Republicans’ promise that no DREAMer would be targeted? Lies,” he tweeted a few hours after the story was published.
“This is an attack on all of us. Juan must be reunited with his family, and we all play a role in his safe return. Demand #JusticeForJuan,” he added.
But immigration attorneys who spoke to The Daily Beast said Montes’ deportation could also have happened under Obama, and wasn’t the result of a crackdown.
“Customs and Border Protection has always been above the law,” said Bryan Johnson, an immigration attorney based in Long Island, N.Y. who frequently defends children brought into the U.S. illegally.
“Democrats are going to jump on this and exploit it for all it’s worth regardless of the underlying merits, one way or another,” he said. “They might have a point, but at the same time they’re overplaying their hand. This isn’t evidence itself that Trump is going after DREAMers. Customs and Border Protection encountered him, so the original fact that he was deported outside the U.S. is not evidence of a change.”
And Matthew Kolken, an immigration attorney based in Buffalo, N.Y., said Montes could have been treated even more harshly than he was.
“Based on the statistics, 52 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions under Obama were for people who did just what that individual did, coming back to the U.S. without permission after being deported,” Kolken said. “It’s likely under Obama he would have been federally criminally prosecuted for unlawful reentry and then had his previous deportation order reinstated without ever getting the chance to go before an immigration judge.”
“I’m curious to know where his statements were when 3 million people were deported under the Obama administration,” he added of Perez. “It is as cynical as it is hypocritical.”
Obama put DACA in place to provide temporary protection from deportation and work permits to people brought to the U.S. illegally as children who didn’t otherwise break the law and who have jobs or are in school. Trump promised to rescind DACA during the presidential campaign, but he has yet to follow through on that promise. The program is still in place and still processing new DACA applications. And at a press conference on Feb. 16, Trump said the issue was “a very difficult thing for me as I love these kids.”
USA Today reported on April 19 that 365 people who had at one point received DACA protection were deported during Obama’s presidency, and that 43 people who had formerly been in the program were deported during Trump’s first month as president. The Daily Beast asked the DNC if there is any record of Perez or other prior DNC chairs characterizing the DACA deportations that happened under Obama as “an attack on all of us.” The DNC didn’t provide any examples.
Obama didn’t just deport hundreds of DACA recipients; Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained or deported more than 4,000 U.S. citizens in 2010, according to the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law. Deporting people who should be able to stay in the U.S.—as was with the case with Montes, assuming his version of the story is accurate—is nothing new.