Conservatives are zeroing in on Obama's immigration history to defend Trump, but experts say that's a 'tactic for distraction'

  • Some supporters of President Donald Trump are defending the use of tear gas at the border by pointing to immigration policies and practices under former President Barack Obama.
  • Several conservative-leaning outlets and media figures have zoomed in on an incident in 2013 – when Obama was in office – in which US Border Patrol agents used pepper spray against migrants who threw rocks at them.
  • Immigration lawyers and experts said such arguments are just a “tactic for distraction,” even if there are sound reasons to criticise Obama’s immigration policies.

Amid backlash over the use of tear gas against migrants at the US-Mexico border, some supporters of President Donald Trump and other conservatives on Monday defended the current administration by pointing to immigration policies and practices under former President Barack Obama.

Tear gas – also known as CS gas – is considered a chemical weapon and is banned in warfare by the vast majority of the world’s countries, including the US. But its use as a “riot-control agent” by law enforcement in a domestic capacity is still legal in the US and a number of other countries.

Trump on Monday said border authorities “had to use” tear gas against migrants the day before because “they were being rushed by some very tough people.” Images from Sunday’s incident showed women and children fleeing the gas in apparent terror.

Meanwhile, several conservative-leaning outlets and media figures have zoomed in on an incident in 2013 – when Obama was in office – in which US Border Patrol agents used pepper spray against migrants who threw rocks at them.

Some of the conservative critics pointed to an alleged double standard in terms of the mainstream response to the 2013 pepper spray incident compared with this past weekend’s clash at the border. Both incidents occurred at San Ysidro, the busiest port of entry along the US-Mexico border.

Piers Morgan, a friend and supporter of Trump, tweeted that “Obama pepper-sprayed them, Trump tear-gassed them. Why has there only been outrage over what Trump did?”

Trump has followed a similar line of defence, particularly in terms of his administration’s controversial family separation policy. Trump has repeatedly and falsely suggested this policy began under Obama.

Immigration lawyers and experts said such arguments are just a “tactic for distraction,” even if there are sound reasons to criticise Obama’s immigration policies beyond Trump’s inaccurate assertions.

‘This is not how adults should solve the country’s immigration problem’

“The Obama administration didn’t separate children from their mothers,” Mana Yegani, an immigration lawyer based in Houston, Texas, told INSIDER. “They did, however, have family detention centres where the mothers and children were kept and then released after some vetting.”

The detention centres under Obama did not have the “best conditions,” which led to lawsuits, Yegani said.

“But for the Trump administration to constantly use the previous administration’s policies as justification for what they are currently doing is just a tactic for distraction,” Yegani added.


Read more: Backlash erupts after the Trump administration fires tear gas at migrants in clash at the US-Mexico border

Yegani said the US immigration system is “broken” and needs and “new rules and regulations that meet the standards of our times.”

“It doesn’t matter whose administration is in charge. This is not how adults should solve the country’s immigration problem,” Yegani said.

Greg Siskind, an immigration lawyer based in Memphis, Tennessee, echoed these sentiments.

“It has been a problem for decades that border and immigration enforcement has sometimes been a force unto themselves,” Siskind told INSIDER, including under Obama.

But he added that immigration authorities have “definitely been emboldened” under Trump.

‘Trump is bad on immigration and Obama was bad’

Matthew Kolken, an immigration attorney based in Buffalo, New York, said the “biggest shift” between Obama and Trump on immigration is in their rhetoric.

“The Trump administration wants everyone to know that he’s harsh on immigrants,” Kolken told INSIDER. “Obama was the exact opposite. His rhetoric was very lofty, and favourable to immigration reform.”

But children still ended up in detention centres under Obama, Kolken said, and “harsh measures” were used at the Southern border.

“Is the Trump administration in practice worse than Obama? Yes, but we’re not talking about night and day, it’s shades of grey,” Kolken said. “The bottom line is that Trump is bad on immigration and Obama was bad. Neither one of them have done any favours to immigrant communities.”

Kolken said Obama’s dubious immigration practices were more under the radar because he wasn’t using the same “racist and xenophobic rhetoric” as Trump.

Obama “always said the right thing and Trump can’t ever say the right thing,” Kolken added.

Human rights experts seem to largely agree.

‘You have a chief executive that is explicitly condoning the abuse of migrants and asylum seekers’

Clara Long, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in immigration, said it’s important that the history of abuses in the immigration space perpetrated by the Obama administration are not forgotten.

Long said part of the problem under Obama was he “never got total control over Customs and Border Protection,” allowing for dubious practices at the border. There were also issues in terms of how immigration authorities treated families they detained.

“Yes, families were separated under Obama and their separations didn’t take into account the right to family unity,” Long said.

Long said there were far fewer separations under Obama than Trump and the policy was much different overall, but said “they did occur and we shouldn’t erase that history.”

Human rights abuses under Obama also don’t “excuse the damaging rhetoric from the top” on immigration in the present day, Long added.

“You have a chief executive that is explicitly condoning the abuse of migrants and asylum seekers,” Long said. “What’s happening now is haphazard, scattered-shot enforcement in terms of arresting whoever you can.”

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