Opinion: A single deportation ruling spotlights the conflict between the legal and the just

Reinhardt wrote separately to express his anguish over the consequences for Ortiz’s family. (May 31, 2017)


A decision this week by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in an emotionally charged immigration case is a poignant reminder that making the correct legal call is not necessarily making a just call.

The case centers on the government’s efforts to deport back to Mexico a man named Andres Magana Ortiz, who entered the U.S. illegally in 1989 at age 15. A resident of Hawaii, Ortiz owns a coffee-farming business on the Big Island, is married to a U.S. citizen, and has three American-born children, one of whom will soon turn 21. Ortiz had two DUI arrests as a young adult but no legal issues in the past 14 years, the court noted.

Given Ortiz’s record, his tight community ties, his American wife and American-born children from a previous relationship, and that he has an active application for legal status based on his 2016 marriage, there are more reasons to let Ortiz remain than to kick him out. Yet because Ortiz is living in the country illegally, the government can do just that, the court said in a ruling that reads more like a lamentation.


“We are compelled to deny Mr. Magana Ortiz’s request for a stay of removal because we do not have the authority to grant it,” Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt wrote. “We are not, however, compelled to find the government’s action in this case fair or just.”

So what is lost with the removal of this one person? Well, according to the court records, his children — ages 12, 14 and 20 — will likely have to move out of the house in which they live under a barter arrangement Ortiz made with the landlord. If he’s not there to fulfill his end of it — the trade-off isn’t specified — then the barter falls apart (it’s unclear where their mother, also an undocumented immigrant, is living, but she faces the same risk of deportation).

Ortiz owns a coffee farm as well as a business in which he and his workers manage the crops of elderly or ailing coffee farmers, paying them a fee or a percentage of the crop. So deporting Ortiz will hurt not only his employees, but farm owners whose crops he manages as well.

Under the Obama administration, which supposedly was targeting undocumented people who posed a threat to public safety, people such as Ortiz should not have been targeted for removal, though clearly he was. President Trump has expanded the criteria for who Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents can deport to include pretty much anyone living in the U.S. without permission, despite Trump’s vow to go after the “bad hombres.”

This heartless policy is doing more damage than any possible good.

Ortiz’s removal of course, is only one case. But in the first few months of the Trump administration, arrests for immigration violations have jumped 38% under policies targeting the productive along with the dangerous (non-criminal arrests jumped 150%). In Indiana, a restaurant owner — married to an American (who voted for Trump) and with children who are U.S. citizens — has been deported. A 35-year-old Arizona mother was deported even though ICE had let her live there illegally since 2008. A Riverside man with an American wife and stepson was deported when he showed up for an interview to obtain a green card — lawful status.

On and on it goes.

Yes, the government has a right and a duty to determine who gets to enter and remain in the country, but it has failed at that job so miserably and for so long that it’s ludicrous now for Trump to start summarily rounding people up and kicking them out when they pose no risk and, in fact, are contributing members of their families and communities.

In fact, this heartless policy is doing more damage than any possible good. Children left without a parent, and spouses without a partner in an economy in which it takes two incomes to get by. Businesses losing workers. Neighborhoods living in fear of immigration agents, and victims — particularly of rape and domestic violence — swallowing their pain and not reporting crimes lest they, too, get kicked out.

The left and the right both know that the nation desperately needs comprehensive immigration reform, but the conservatives in Congress killed the last plan in 2013, and have done little to address the issue since. It’s a problem they like to complain about, but not do anything about. In fact, Republicans now control both chambers of Congress and the White House, but still they have no solution — and aren’t even talking about it, content to let Trump’s draconian deportations suffice as policy. That is an indefensible abrogation of their duties to legislate solutions to national problems.

The frustration isn’t the immigrant communities’ alone. Even federal judges are feeling it.

“We are unable to prevent Magana Ortiz’s removal, yet it is contrary to the values of this nation and its legal system,” Reinhardt wrote in the decision this week. “Indeed, the government’s decision to remove Magana Ortiz diminishes not only our country but our courts, which are supposedly dedicated to the pursuit of justice. Magana Ortiz and his family are in truth not the only victims. Among the others are judges who, forced to participate in such inhumane acts, suffer a loss of dignity and humanity as well. I concur as a judge, but as a citizen I do not.”

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