Onyango Obama, President Obama’s undocumented uncle, ducked deportation Tuesday, when a federal immigration judge allowed him to remain in the U.S. legally. Obama, 68, has been living in the U.S. for fifty years, but a 2011 drunk driving charge attracted the attention of immigration officials, who have been instructed by President Obama to prioritize criminal deportations. The president’s uncle is a stark example of the low-level, nonviolent offenders who have become the most common victims of the Obama administration’s deportation policies.
Like millions of undocumented immigrants who have spent most of their lives in the U.S., Obama has flown below the radar since his student visa expired in 1970, and most recently was working as a liquor store manager in Framingham, MA. Immigration Judge Leonard I. Shapiro ruled Obama could stay because he was “a gentleman, a good neighbor, paid his taxes, and met the criteria for legal permanent residency,” according to the Boston Globe.
However, countless others with similar upstanding histories have not been as lucky as Obama. Though immigration officials are supposed to focus resources on deporting violent criminals who pose a threat to public safety, 85 percent of deportees as of July 2013 had nothing to do with criminal activity. Of the criminal deportees, many were convicted of non-violent, low-level crimes like drunk driving, minor marijuana possession, or traffic violations. In fact, drunk driving is more likely to land an undocumented immigrant in deportation proceedings than homicide, rape, or aggravated assault, according to a recent study.
So why was Obama spared? Complaints of special treatment because of his famous surname have already cropped up, but another big factor may be his judge. Shapiro, a veteran immigration judge, has a record of forgiving rulings, including one that granted President Obama’s undocumented aunt, Zeituni Onyango, asylum in 2010. Under another judge, Obama may not have been so lucky. A report by the legal advocacy group Appleseed Network found that the single best predictor of an immigrant’s success or failure in immigration court was the identity of the judge who hears the case. Most immigration judges have no judicial experience at all, but come from long careers prosecuting immigrants for the Justice Department or for Homeland Security. This limited selection pool can have dire consequences for immigrants; one analysis found that a judge who used to work as an enforcer of immigration law is 24 percent less likely to rule in an immigrant’s favor.
House Republicans would eliminate even this game of chance by expanding the kinds of crimes that mandate deportation to include low-level offenses like using a fake ID or shoplifting. One drunk driving charge like Obama’s would result in mandatory detention, while a second DUI conviction, no matter how long ago it was, would also automatically boot the offender out of the country. If the House’s SAFE Act becomes law, judges will no longer be able to consider an immigrant’s family ties or community contributions. Even someone like Obama would never get the chance to make his case, no matter how famous his nephew is.