On April 5th, on a national day of action against deportation, the New York Times editorial board took a stand against the record numbers of people deported under the Obama administration. The paper called on the President to extend deferred action protections to parents of Dreamers and citizen children, to end Secure Communities and other programs that enlist local law enforcement as immigration agents, and to end the immigration detention bed quota that results in over 30,000 immigrants locked up every day. The New York Times later followed up with a story called, “More Deportations Follow Minor Crimes, Records Show,” detailing that the majority of so-called “criminal aliens” deported by the Obama administration have committed nothing worse than immigration or traffic violations.
At the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), we agree that it is outrageous that the Obama administration has deported over two million people in six years, including many hundreds of thousands of people who have not committed “serious crimes.” We do, however, strongly object to the blanket statement that, in the words of the editorial, “Above all, [the Obama administration] should direct the nation’s vast immigration enforcement resources more forcefully against gangs, guns, violent criminals and other genuine threats.”
The Obama administration feels that it is under pressure from the right to show that it is “tough” on enforcing existing immigration laws, while at the same time it is under pressure from the left to stop separating families and putting children in foster care. It has responded by essentially saying it would deport only the “bad” immigrants – criminals and terrorists and the offensive category of “gang bangers.” If the administration has had trouble satisfying either camp, it is because the Obama administration’s hype around criminal immigrants is based on a political boogeyman. Immigrants are not a threat to society. Studies have shown that states with the highest influx of immigrants have the lowest rates of crime. Moreover, the administration’s three-tiered list of enforcement “priorities” based on the severity of criminal record must be understood in the context not only of the increasing criminalization of immigrants based on petty or migration-related activities, but also of the fact that we live in a highly criminalized society in general. According to the National Employment Law Center, over 65 million Americans have a criminal record, equivalent to one in four adults, and people of color bear the overwhelming brunt of heavy sentencing and incarceration. In fact, the Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse, a data repository and analysis center at Syracuse University, found that if the administration’s priorities were applied to U.S. citizens, the majority of the country would be deemed a priority for deportation.
Rethinking the priorities is not enough. We need to rethink the way in which we currently use the immigration system to doubly punish people who are not citizens, including long-time lawful permanent residents and refugees who have already been subject to the blunt force of the criminal justice system. Creating rigid enforcement priorities masks complex, diverse stories of real human struggle, redemption, and family. Consider Mout Iv, who was deported over ten years after completing his sentence and starting both a family and a business, tearing him away from the barber shop he had owned and nurtured. Or Lundy Khoy, who lives day to day with a final deportation order based on a drug charge from when she was 19. Both were brought to the U.S. as refugees from Cambodia when they were very young, and have known no other home but the United States. Our task must not be to divert the bloated and terrorizing immigration enforcement system more heavily onto the heads of people like Mout and Lundy, but to shift our analysis of how we value our neighbors and how we build strong, safe, prosperous communities.
The federal immigration system is not equipped to do the important work of maintaining safe, secure communities, and blurring immigration enforcement with criminal law enforcement only perpetuates false myths about immigrants and crime. We want law enforcement (not immigration enforcement) to fight crime, and to make our communities safer by building relationships and trust, eliminating racial profiling, and embracing evidence-based forms of restorative and community-based justice. We need to rethink the purpose of the prison system and its effectiveness in reducing crime, and invest in rehabilitation, treatment, and re-entry programs that strengthen our communities. We need to eliminate the immigration detention system, which is a counter-intuitive civil incarceration system that needlessly separates families and disrupts the workforce. And we need to dismantle the deportation machinery that has grown so explosively over the last twenty years. Only then will we begin to realize the promise that we have as a great nation of immigrants and stop deporting aspiring Americans who are valued and loved in their communities.
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Mari Quenemoen is the policy manager for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a national organization that advances the interests of Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans by empowering communities through advocacy, leadership development and capacity building. She works on promoting fair and humane deportation and detention policies for all immigrants.
The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) is a national organization that advances the interests of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans by empowering communities through advocacy, leadership development, and capacity building to create a socially just and equitable society. Find out more at www.searac.org.Fair Use Notice
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