President-Elect Donald Trump, in his first broadcast interview since winning last Tuesday's election, spoke of his plan to deport as many as three million undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions shortly after taking office. Local legal experts say that's unlikely to happen, given an existing backlog of deportation cases.
Trump, in his remarks to journalist Leslie Stahl during an interview broadcast Sunday by the CBS television program "60 Minutes," suggested he would seek to deport or incarcerate undocumented immigrants with ties to criminal activities including drug trafficking and gangs. He estimated there may be two million such cases, perhaps three million.
He'd also like to begin the deportations shortly after his inauguration in January. Attorneys in Buffalo that WBFO spoke with do not believe Trump's lofty goals are feasible.
"That's not going to happen overnight," said William Reich of Serotte Reich Wilson in Buffalo. "But at the same time, those who are hardened criminals will find it difficult to stay here, even if they're married to U.S. citizens or even if they have U.S. citizen children. There are certain barriers to those who have serious criminal convictions."
Barriers, perhaps, but they still a right to a deportation hearing. Sophie Feal, who directs the immigration program at the Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, says attempting to move on millions more cases, in addition to acting on existing backlogged cases, would only further stall an already strained system.
"Mr. Trump would have to change our immigration laws, which of course requires Congress to be involved in that. It's not something he can do unilaterally," Feal said. "They'd have to throw a lot more money at the immigration courts to be able to take on the amount of mass deportations. And he'd also, if he wanted to mass deport people, have to recognize that the United State Supreme Court has, for decades, said that immigrants facing removal from the United States have due process."
It's not the cases involving undocumented immigrants with criminal records that concern local legal experts. They worry more about the potential cases against non-citizens who have been allowed to stay and have, in many cases, become productive neighbors. Feal looks to the example of young people allowed to stay under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
"Those are the young people who could prove they had entered the United States before their 16th birthday, graduated from high school in the United States, or served in the U.S. military and, by virtue of an executive order, were given a reprieve from deportation and a work authorization," Feal said. "That could be taken away, and I think right now most immigration lawyers are most fearful for that population."
Reich, meanwhile, does not believe undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions are in immediate danger of deportation. But he told WBFO the immigration system is "broken" and in need of work. That, he added, will take time. If changes to the system are made, Reich says we'd get a better look at Trump's real attitude toward immigrants.
So what does Reich want to see?
"I want to see, first of all, dealing with the people who are already here. People who are paying taxes, people who are willing to learn the culture and our language, and people who will come out of the shadows so we don't have people skipping school, we don't have people afraid to go to hospitals," Reich said. "We can provide some kind of a route to citizenship for those who are already here and then secure the borders so, in the future, we have some control about who comes in, in an orderly fashion, and who leaves. So when we know we do have a deportation order, those people have definitely left the country."
Feal points out that the immigration issue, over the years, hasn't been as clear-cut as many think.
"Ronald Reagan was the one who gave us amnesty," she said. "He was in power when we passed amnesty and allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to get permanent residency."
She added that President Bill Clinton, in 1996, signed legislation that made it more difficult for many to stay in the U.S. And she stated that the United States has deported or detained a record number of undocumented immigrants under the Obama Administration.
She also suggested Trump's estimated count of people with criminal records who are in the United States illegally is exaggerated. She puts the number of such cases below one million people.