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Immigration activists call on President Obama to halt deportations that separate families, while allowing corporations to profit from the criminalization and militarization of immigration policy

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: A group of demonstrators traveled from Arizona to the White House to make one demand: no more deportations.

These are the family members of deportees. And some, like 19-year-old Naira Zapata, are going one step further. She will only be drinking water until President Obama hears her plea to allow her husband to be reunited with his children.

NAIRA ZAPATA, HUNGER STRIKER PARTICIPANT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): [We are here] so Obama can hear us and he can see that being deported and separated from your family, it hurts, is wrong and unjust. We want him to feel the pain we are feeling now.

DESVARIEUX: But President Obama said that his administration is not interested in deporting folks like Naira’s husband.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: If we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gangbangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families.

DESVARIEUX: However, based on a New York Times government data analysis, they found that under President Obama two-thirds of the nearly 2 million deportation cases involve people who committed minor infractions like getting a traffic ticket or those who had no criminal record at all.

Naira said her husband is one of them and he’s a man of character who took care of his family.

ZAPATA: He is a hard worker, a good father, a good husband, and a good friend. If he wouldn’t be any of that, I wouldn’t be here fighting for him. I just want him to know that I miss him and I would do anything for him, and not only for him, but also to help other families that go through the same pain.

DESVARIEUX: President Obama has deported more than 2 million immigrants since he’s taken office, making him the U.S. president who has deported more people than any other U.S. president in history. Protestors today said that he could change all that with a simple executive order.

REYNA MONTOYA, ORGANIZER, ARIZONA DREAM ACT COALITION: So the president right now, like, I would tell him, you know, there’s no humane way to separate a family. To not have a three-year-old growing with his dad and then have a baby when–just come into this world, you know, seeing them. And right now, if he really wanted to, today he could stop all deportations and who can give deferred action for all.

DESVARIEUX: Arizona DREAM Act Coalition organizer Reyna Montoya came to the United States as an undocumented teenager. She’s been able to stay in the U.S. after President Obama signed an executive order deferring deportation for those brought to the United States as children, otherwise known as DREAMers. Reyna says that the president could expand that to include an even larger undocumented population. But the president said that would go too far.

OBAMA: But if we start broadening that, then essentially I would be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally. So that’s not an option.

DESVARIEUX: But another option would be for the president to adjust the current method of enforcing immigration policy. Author of the book The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration David Bacon said President Obama has the authority to stop law enforcement from trolling payrolls looking for undocumented workers.

DAVID BACON, PHOTOJOURNALIST: This is kind of a particularly brutal technique which is sort of euphemistically called self-deportation, because the object of it is to make life so unbearable and so unpleasant for people who are undocumented that people will simply leave the United States. Of course, what happens is that people don’t actually leave the United States. They wind up being driven into an economy in which people are forced to work at jobs that pay even less than minimum wage or which, you know, have, you know, other conditions which are illegal, simply because they’re being driven out of the jobs that they have which actually do provide a decent living. All these things are at the discretion of the president.

DESVARIEUX: Bacon also said the president has the discretion to stop treating those migrating to the United States as criminals.

BACON: The Department of Homeland Security goes into federal court, in Tucson, for instance, into a federal court called Operation Streamline. And in this courtroom every day, dozens and dozens of people who have simply walked across the border are sentenced to federal prison terms. That’s at prosecutorial discretion. He doesn’t have to do that. He can tell the Department of Justice to stop.

DESVARIEUX: With this considerable growth in convictions comes the growth of detention centers. As you can see, in 1981 there were 18 facilities in the entire U.S., with a daily population of 54 detainees. Jump to 2011, and you can see the number of facilities has gone up to 204, with a daily population of more than 32,000.

BACON: We have had an enormous growth in the United States in privately run detention centers for immigrants. That’s a euphemism. What we’re really talking about are prisons, federal prisons that are run by private corporations, in which people are in prison because they don’t have papers, basically. So this is, again, the criminalization of people who don’t have papers, being held as though they were criminals guilty of some crime.

The companies that run it, there are two big ones. One is called Corrections Corporation of America, and the other one is called the GEO corporation. They also run private prisons for prisoners in the criminal justice system. So these are for-profit corporations that are making hundreds of millions of dollars off of this incarceration system. And this is also the federal government contracting out the responsibility for housing deportees and detainees to these corporations.

DESVARIEUX: Both GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, are publicly traded companies. But last year, both companies were exempt from paying tens of millions in taxes because they switched their status to being a special trust.

Not surprisingly, these companies also spend millions on PACs and lobbying firms to advocate for influence on Capitol Hill. Most campaign contributions do go to Republicans, but there are Democrats who make their list as well.

BACON: These corporations act like pretty much any other corporation, and that is that they give campaign contributions to any elected official that will further their agenda. And their agenda is the expansion of this deportation system. For instance, they lobbied with the administration and with Congress to establish an actual quota of 34,000 beds in this system that had to be occupied by a prisoner, a detainee or a deportee prisoner, every day. So that basically expanded the system enormously. And, of course, you know, they give campaign contributions (I think that’s really a polite way of saying bribe elected officials) in order to support these bills which then turn around to make money for them by putting people into these inhuman and brutal conditions.

DESVARIEUX: These inhumane and brutal conditions are what President Obama said he’ll be reviewing. Last month, he ordered the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a system-wide review of the way it enforces the nation’s immigration laws.

Some see this push by Democrats as a way to hold on to the Hispanic community’s vote, with 71 percent of Hispanic voters voting for President Obama in the 2012 election, according the Pew Research Center.

But hunger striker José Valdez says the Hispanic community is not a pawn in this political game.

JOSÉ VALDEZ, DEMONSTRATOR: Republicans and Democrats are acting as if [the immigration reform debate] is a good occasion to play political games with our communities. But we are human beings, not pawns in a political game, especially when we have our families in prison.

This is a message that they will be taking to lawmakers on Capitol Hill as they continue their indefinite hunger strike, hoping to stop not just the deportation of their family members but the deportations of more than 1,100 people on a daily basis.

For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Jessica Desvarieux is a multimedia journalist who serves as the Capitol Hill correspondent for the Real News Network. Most recently, Jessica worked as a producer for the ABC Sunday morning program, This Week with Christianne Amanpour. Before moving to Washington DC, Jessica served as the Haiti corespondent for TIME Magazine and Previously, she was as an on-air reporter for New York tri-state cable outlet Regional News Network, where she worked before the 2010 earthquake struck her native country of Haiti. From March 2008 - September 2009, she lived in Egypt, where her work appeared in various media outlets like the Associated Press, Voice of America, and the International Herald Tribune - Daily News Egypt. She graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism with a Master of Science degree in journalism. She is proficient in French, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and has a working knowledge of Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. Follow her @Jessica_Reports.