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How the Dems' Attempt at Immigration Reform Led to Major Expansion of Deportations

How a political strategy can lead to the exact opposite of its intentions.

On the night that Shahed Hossain left his family’s house in a Haltom City, Texas, to drive to Laredo, his mother, Habiba Hossain, cooked dinner—chicken and rice and okra picked from the garden. She piled her son’s plate high and watched him eat. Then, she took his Bangladeshi passport from a drawer and handed it to him, leaving his green card safely stored away. The 21-year-old had a penchant for losing things and a green card is not a thing to lose. She hurried him out the door and into the white utility van in the driveway where his boss waited.

“I’ll see him in a week,” she thought. Like every other time he’d set off for work trips all over Texas, she figured, her younger son would return to that house where he grew up with his brother and his parents and the dog.

But that night was the last time Shahed Hossain’s mother would see him free in United States, the last time she’d have a chance to worry he’d lose anything. Six days later, Hossain was locked up in a privately run immigration detention center near the U.S.-Mexico border. He spent more than a year there, a period he’s tried to forget, before he was shackled, loaded onto a plane and flown to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Hossain is Texas through and through. He walks with a swagger and speaks with a hint of drawl. He and his best friend passed middle school evenings scurrying down to the creek to catch turtles, and on high school weekends, when they weren’t working at the ice-cream drive-in, they’d escape the suburban lull to go Gar fishing on the river. He played freshmen year football and he dated a young woman named Erika Fierst, whose mother is an accountant at a major defense contractor. “Everything that I know and everything that I learned, I learned from Texas,” he says. “I love Texas.”

But Texas is far away now. Hossain finds himself living with his grandmother, passing solitary days raising carrier pigeons, growing an orchid garden and searching for work, mostly in vain. “I wanna be back home. This is my, what they say, motherland,” he says, leaning forward and laughing in a wooden chair near his small garden alcove. “Back to the motherland! But this is not my home. My home is over there. My home is in Goodnight Circle.” He looks down at his feet and pauses. “That was my street name.”

Hossain lived in the United States with his family for more than a decade, and had he carried his green card to Mexico that day, he would now be a citizen, like the rest of his family. Instead, a confused run-in with a border guard landed him with a charge that leads directly to deportation—one of a batch of laws Congress has written in recent years that have built a massive and indiscriminate deportation dragnet. Hossain was among 319,000 people deported in fiscal year 2007; last fiscal year, the Obama administration deported a record 393,000 people. The tracks are laid to expel at least that many this year.

When President Obama entered the White House, he promised to push a “comprehensive immigration reform” bill in his first year. Doing so, he apparently calculated, would require a compromise. To garner bi-partisan support for opening new paths to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., the president, congressional Democrats and key Beltway advocates came together around a troubling political strategy: They would endorse a hawkish buildup of deportation and border security in hopes of creating space for broader reforms. In a major speech on immigration this past July, the president outlined his approach, vowing to “improve our enforcement policy without having to wait for a new law.”

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