Obama uncle deportation hearing is a teachable moment on immigration reform

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Onyango Obama leaves the JFK federal building after his arraignment on immigration charges. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Onyango Obama leaves the JFK federal building after his arraignment on immigration charges. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In America, they will deport you even if your last name is Obama.

While the president’s detractors, xenophobes that they are, always tell him to go back to Kenya, they may very well get their way with one of his kin.  Welcome to a teachable moment for African-Americans on immigration and the need for immigration reform.

Onyango Obama—the uncle of the president and the half-brother of the chief executive’s late father— faces a deportation hearing Tuesday.  Now in his late sixties, Obama’s uncle has lived in the U.S. since he was a teenager, when he was a student from Kenya.  He was ordered deported in 1986, 1989 and 1992 after he failed to renew his papers to allow him to remain in the country.  And he was placed in the spotlight with an unwanted arrest following a 2011 DUI arrest in Framingham, Massachusetts.

“Everybody wants to stay in America,” said Obama’s lawyer, Scott Bratton. “Hopefully, on Dec. 3, the case will be over.”

Mr. Obama has lived in America for most of his life, like so many undocumented immigrants who have made a life here and are Americans but for their immigration status.  Whether his family ties to the most important man in the nation will make a difference in his case is anyone’s guess.  Nevertheless, for now he is a face of the nation’s broken immigration system, in which 11.5 million immigrants are branded “illegal aliens” so as to criminalize and marginalize them.

Under President Obama, thousands of undocumented people are facing deportation at record numbers—410,000 people last year, nearly 2 million since he took office.  In 2001, when Bush was in office, only 116,000 were deported.  Moreover, thousands of undocumented parents are deported each year, 205,000 parents last year alone, leaving their U.S.-citizen children behind. 

Breaking up families makes for bad policy.  That’s a cruel, unjust and inhumane policy, and no good can come from it.  African-Americans know something about that.  After all, family means a great deal to black folks, because we know what it is like to have our family snatched from us.  Under slavery, our ancestors were forever separated from their families and communities, becoming forced immigrants with no rights, in a land thousands of miles away.  And on the plantation, they were sold at will to another owner, their kin never to be seen again.  Once cannot measure the damage this dislocation creates, and yet it is happening today.   

Some have attempted to drive a wedge between immigrants—typically Latino immigrants from Mexico— and African-Americans, claiming the former are taking jobs away from the latter.  In reality, Latino immigrants and African-Americans serve complementary roles in the economy.  In a similar way, white workers were taught that blacks were their enemy, a reality which kept poor whites poor and their labor superfluous while blacks remained as slaves.  The zero-sum, racial division game later stifled efforts by black and white workers to organize in the labor movement and improve the living standards of all Americans.

Meanwhile, last week in San Francisco, the immigration battle came to Obama when a heckler yelled to the president that “You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country.” The man, Ju Hong, is an outspoken immigrant rights activist, and an undocumented immigrant from South Korea.

“Actually, I don’t,” Obama responded.  “And that’s why we’re here.”  But as the president, he has the bully pulpit, and can use his executive power to reflect particular values in deportation policy.  There are signs of hope.  For example, the Department of Homeland Security has halted deportations of children and spouses of active duty military personnel, reservists and veterans.  But critics and supporters alike believe Obama can and should do more.

In the nation’s capital, immigration activists have been engaged in a hunger strike on the National Mall for over 20 days, an effort to convince the House of Representatives to pass immigration reform legislation that already passed in the Senate.  And Obama visited the “Fast For Families” hunger strikers, thanking them for their “sacrifice and dedication.”   

With his uncle’s deportation hearing this week, the fight over immigration reform is hitting close to home for President Obama.  For African-Americans–who have a history of being separated from their loved ones by unjust policies, criminalized, racially profiled and treated as “illegal aliens” in the land of their birth–this is certainly a teachable moment.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove