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An Obama-Era White House Official Breaks Down the Current State of Immigration Policy

Former Department of Homeland Security official Peter Boogaard weighs in on immigration policy under Trump.
Protesters march outside a federal detention center holding migrant women on June 9th, 2018 in SeaTac, Washington.

Protesters march outside a federal detention center holding migrant women on June 9th, 2018 in SeaTac, Washington.

As President Donald Trump and his team have worked to systematically dismantle many Obama-era policies—especially those regarding immigration and border control—stories of government officials abusing migrant children, tearing families apart, and denying asylum for domestic abuse victims have come to dominate the immigration narrative. But how did the immigration process get to its current state?

Peter Boogaard, who worked on immigration policy under the Obama administration and now works for, a bipartisan political advocacy organization focused on immigration reform, has some ideas. Boogaard was formerly the White House and National Security Council spokesman and Department of Homeland Security deputy assistant secretary of public affairs.

Boogaard spoke with Pacific Standard about the legality of some of the Trump administration's new policies and the state of United States immigration today.


Compared to your time as an employee of the DHS and in Obama's White House, what are some of the most poignant changes you've seen in immigration policy under the Trump administration?

There have been enormous changes. Broadly, there's an inherent shift from President [Barack] Obama, who believed that immigrants and immigration were good for our country, to a president—and, notably, the officials that he has nominated and placed in positions across the government—who disagree with that perspective.

The two [changes] that have received the most attention are rescinding DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], prohibiting dreamers from living and working in the U.S., as well as rescinding and ending the temporary protective status programs. Collectively, those two programs accounted for more than a million individuals in the U.S. who were living here legally.

On the illegal immigration side, they shifted dramatically from a policy of focusing on arrest and removal of serious violent criminals to a policy of targeting any individual who is here without legal documentation.

What chain of events led Customs and Border Protection to its current position in which it "misplaces" children and adheres to a "zero tolerance" policy?

There's a whole host of different pieces in the story about missing children—which has been debunked—but it's tied up in policy changes that Trump enacted about a month ago. They have a "zero tolerance" policy of criminally prosecuting all individuals who come into contact with CBP, which means they are separating children under the age of 18 from their parents.

In 2014, there were stories of unaccompanied children going up to the border and a lot of processing issues that occurred with being able to transfer them to the least restrictive place possible. That resulted in images of children backing up in border patrol stations.

That was based off of a substantial increase in children coming up to the border. What is happening right now is that there isn't a substantive increase in the number of unaccompanied children coming to the border. Rather, the Trump administration's policy has created a man-made crisis at the border because they are essentially creating unaccompanied children.

What are some consequences of the "zero tolerance" approach to immigration policy?

There's a huge influx of new people [at the border] because of this policy that is causing huge downstream operational challenges. They're running out of space to house the parents, and then not being able to accommodate all the kids that are moved around the U.S. Then, you're seeing operational challenges where [the Department of] Health and Human Services (HHS) has so many people who are coming through their pipeline that they're not prepared to handle.

So that's what led to the story about the children being "missing." [HHS] placed them with people within the U.S., and they don't have the capacity to follow up to know where those children are. It's awful for all. It's just a combination of pieces in which either they had literally no understanding of what the terrible and horrific consequences would be of the policy that they enacted, or they lacked the foresight to plan for the collateral damage that that policy would create. Or, they didn't care and were willing to put children in pretty horrible situations just to achieve some sort of policy goal that, to be honest, doesn't really make much sense to me.

Setting aside all of the issues with the immigration process at the border now, is there any viable evidence of immigrants' negative impacts on U.S. communities? Why should the U.S. have such strict policies at the border?

There is absolutely zero correlation—in fact there's a negative correlation—between increased immigration in communities and increased crime. We're being condemned by the United Nations for human rights abuses. So from a broader perspective, we're trying to advocate for improved human rights in places like North Korea and Singapore and Russia, but at the same time our moral standing on these issues is undercut by our own policies that are putting children at enormous risk. There's no benefit to [our current immigration] process.

A recent study indicated that there is no correlation between using this approach [of strict immigration policy] and actually deterring future illegal immigration. So from a policy perspective, the outcome that they seem to be wanting is not being achieved.

Further, immigration is a civil violation, not a criminal one, and the Supreme Court has ruled that it is illegal to use detention as a deterrent for a civil violation. Intent is paramount: Individuals are allowed to be detained, but if they are detained as a deterrent, that is crossing that line.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.