President Barack Obama to leave White House with mixed immigration legacy

Jan 17, 2017, 2:00 PM
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at White House press secretary Josh Earnest's final da...

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at White House press secretary Josh Earnest's final daily press briefing, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

PHOENIX — When Barack Obama departs the White House for the final time of his presidency this week, he will leave behind a mixed legacy when it comes to immigration.

During his time in office, immigration became one of the most sensitive issues in the country. The arguments over the topic was dragged into the 2016 election, where President-elect Donald Trump promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

But for a majority of his presidency, Obama was stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to immigration. It seemed for every action he took, one side of the aisle applauded while the other yelled in outrage.

The divisiveness of the immigration issue stems from its complexity. It has ties not only to both foreign and domestic policy, but labor laws, human rights, crime … the list goes on and on.

We highlighted Obama’s most significant — and divisive — immigration moments below.

Most deportations

Obama deported more people than any other president in United States history.

As of 2015, more than 2.5 million people had been removed from the country since Obama took office.

The deportations were the result of several policies put in place by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with some instituted by Obama. The latter’s largest contribution was the creation of a system that provides FBI and local police fingerprint data to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In a 2014 executive action, Obama ordered ICE to focus on deporting criminals rather than families or those who did not have a criminal record.

“Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids,” he said when announcing the action. “We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.”

In 2015, ICE data showed 91 percent of those deported had been convicted of at least one crime.

While most of the debate over deportations raged along the southern border of the United States, data showed Obama removed people from all over the world.

Executive actions

Obama was no stranger to using executive actions to make changes in immigration policy — as mentioned above — but it was especially so when facing a Republican-controlled Congress.

In 2012, Obama unveiled his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that would protect millions of children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were young.

“This is not amnesty, this is not immunity,” Obama said at the time. He called the program a “stopgap measure” that would protect young immigrants from deportation while authorities focused on those with criminal records.

The aforementioned 2014 action not only urged ICE to target criminals, but also put further protections in place for millions of illegal immigrants and their children. The action also sought to make the citizenship process easier.

Several states, Arizona included, sued to block the 2014 action to no avail.

In 2016, Obama once again used executive actions to reshape the nation’s immigration policies. The latest action put even more protections for parents of children who are in the country legally and an expansion of the program that benefits people who were brought to this country as children.

The actions were struck down by a deadlock in the Supreme Court. Obama said the court’s ruling set the system back and “takes us further from the country we aspire to be.”


In the past eight years, the United States has undergone two immigration crises that only added fuel to the fire of debates.

One of the crises played out at bus stations and immigration centers across the Southwest, including some in Arizona. Hundreds of illegal immigrants — some of them children traveling by themselves — were dropped off at bus stations with no tickets after being processed by an overloaded immigration system.

Relief and pro-immigrant groups helped them get settled or to their final destination, but the practice raised eyebrows nationwide.

The second immigration crisis faced by the Obama administration was the Syrian civil war and the refugees it created. Obama called for both the U.S. and the world to do more to accept the nearly 500,000 people fleeing the violence.

“I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment,” he said.

However, he faced opposition from several states — including Arizona — that did not want to accept refugees after the 2015 terror attacks in Paris.

More than 10,000 Syrians have been resettled in the U.S.

Arizona’s impact

Arizona has been one of the main battlegrounds for Obama’s immigration policies.

However, the state became a national talking point when Senate Bill 1070 — a controversial measure that allowed police to check the immigration status of people stopped by police, among other things — was signed into law.

SB 1070 fueled protests across the country and a lawsuit was brought by the Obama administration.

“In the United States of America, no law-abiding person – be they an American citizen, a legal immigrant, or a visitor or tourist from Mexico – should (ever) be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like,” Obama said in 2010.

A majority of the law has since been overturned by courts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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President Barack Obama to leave White House with mixed immigration legacy