President Obama deported more people than any of his immediate predecessors did—a record that is a stain on his legacy—but he did change course during his second term, to insure that ice prioritized the deportations of felons, not of law abiders. “After eight years of struggle, we ended up with a very substantial decline in deportations under the Obama Administration, and the key to that was the establishment of enforcement policies that began—not consistently, but more and more—to filter into the conduct of ice agents,” Deepak Bhargava, the president of the Center for Community Change, a nonprofit advocacy group that works in low-income areas, told me. “Essentially, what this Administration has done is undo the whole concept of prosecutorial discretion.” This has “empowered the worst rogue ice agents, who can act as they want.”
Rodriguez’s case has become a cause célèbre at M.I.T. The university arranged for an attorney to represent him pro bono. His union, S.E.I.U. Local 32BJ, has advocated for his release, and a public rally for his freedom attracted about a thousand people from the community. A judge has stayed his removal from Massachusetts, but his ultimate fate is uncertain. For one thing, it’s not clear whether, at today’s ice, having the support of an institution like M.I.T. is likely to help your case or hurt it. For another, Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, told me that the Trump Administration, pandering to nativists demanding that every undocumented resident of the United States be thrown out, has “done away with priorities altogether.” Day to day, from city to city, prosecutorial discretion at ice “is about the individual agent looking at the totality of circumstances and trying to decide whether to detain or deport” a person—a form of discretion similar to that exercised by police officers in their daily duties. Without clear guidelines, and in an atmosphere of hatred and demagoguery, there is now, Hincapié said, “such a level of chaos and fear.”
How bad could things get? Under Obama, the D.H.S. stepped up deportations as part of a political strategy to persuade Republicans that the Administration was serious about law enforcement, in the hope that this would produce a grand compromise on immigration reform—one that would create a path to citizenship for people like Rodriguez. It didn’t work out that way. At the end of Obama’s first term, the United States was deporting more than four hundred thousand people a year. By the end of his Presidency, the number was less than half that. Now Trump officials talk about deporting as many as eight million people.