Recently a dear friend of mine observed that immigrants who broke the law deserved to be deported. In her eyes, certain elements in her community - like a cousin of hers who was busted and sent packing back to the Caribbean by American authorities for selling drugs in Washington Heights - were blights on the reputations of upstanding, hardworking folk who had arrived from distant shores seeking a better life.
Ironically, my friend’s mother had lived and worked illegally in New York long enough to arrange for my friend and her sisters to establish residency here. While of course she never followed her cousin into the drug trade, a strict application of my friend’s moral formula to her own immediate family history would probably find her today back in the Caribbean, without the benefit of the Ivy League degrees, corporate resume and Brooklyn brownstone she now enjoys.
Permanent Exile As Punishment
Behold the good immigrant/bad immigrant paradox. Until recently, it was little more than one of the oldest and slipperiest myths to wash up on the shores of the New World; the idea - often supported by xenophobic, racist and class-based notions - that certain newcomers are poster children for the American dream, while all others are shifty predators who need to “go back where they came from.” Ironically, in a city whose identity is proudly synonymous with the Statue of Liberty and taking in the world’s “tired” and “poor”, it’s as if immigrants arrive under moral probation. One false move is proof that they are pathologically unfit for “democracy” and capitalist consumption.
Immigrant groups and sub-groups have been stereotyped and treated with a different set of standards ever since the Mayflower drifted in. But what is relatively new and gaining widespread social acceptance is the legal enshrinement, through mandatory detention and deportation practices, of the view that being an immigrant is itself separately punishable.
According to a small chorus of immigrant activists, New York communities are being destabilized while a second-class status is enforced by the federal government using the fear of permanent exile. In 1996, years before the Patriot Act I and II or the Office of Homeland Security were activated, a set of landmark immigration laws were put in place by the Clinton Administration that essentially stripped immigrants of some of their most basic rights. The Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act vastly expanded the grounds for deportation to include, roughly speaking, past convictions, an accumulation of relatively minor repeat offenses and almost anything that requires a year or more in jail. At the same time these laws created new conditions for mandatory detention and deportation and denied certain criminal aliens and even asylum seekers the right to appeal deportation orders.
Ripped From Their Families
Subhash Kateel and Aarti Shahani, staff organizers for Families for Freedom , an immigrant defense network of New Yorkers facing deportation, maintain that detention and deportation excessively injure thousands of households every year, ripping people from their families. One of these households belong to Carol and Linden McDonald, a Guyanese-born couple who have been married for ten years and have together raised a child in Bushwick. According to Families for Freedom, “Linden, who is a Rastafarian, was arrested with a joint. His lawyer told him to plead guilty without advising him that he could be deported. A day after Linden began his two-week sentence, Immigration came to him in Rikers. They marked him for deportation, and transferred him to a Louisiana jail.” Carol and her daughter have not seen Linden, a green card holder, since September 2003 and don’t know when they will ever see him again.
Reportedly, stories like this are common, in which defendants, unable to afford high-priced lawyers, enter into plea bargains unaware of the consequences of their actions because even judges are not required to disclose this information. Many of these cases cannot be appealed or reviewed by a federal court and detentions can last years. And once deported, there is no such thing as a second chance. Likewise, if you received, for instance, probation for an offense ten years ago, dutifully served your sentence, became a model citizen and then tried to go on a trip outside the country, you too could find yourself detained and deported.
In other words, even as a permanent resident, you face a form of double jeopardy; if you commit a crime not only do you pay your debt to society as determined by the criminal code, but then, strictly on the basis of being a immigrant, you are forever purged from society.
Carol McDonald, along with another woman facing a similar predicament with her husband, wrote an open letter to New York elected officials complaining that “Immigration agents are stationed at Rikers to screen non-citizensâ€¦and hand them off for deportationâ€¦Detention and deportation have ruined our livesâ€¦(Our husbands) used to help with everything â€“ pick up the kids from school, take them to the library, the park, McDonaldsâ€¦.We’re both terrified of people saying we are bad parents and taking our babies away.”
Deportation is, in effect, a life sentence. As Carol explains, “All our personal ambitions â€“ to get better jobs, make real careers â€“ are out the windowâ€¦In detention you make $1 a day for full time work. Back home in the Caribbean, no one will hire a US deportee.”
A Chilling Effect
The implications for New York are far-reaching. According to Families for Freedom, 15 percent of American families are “mixed status”, meaning that at least one parent is a non-citizen and one child a citizen. In New York City, according to the New York Immigration Coalition, two thirds of all families have an immigrant parent and an American-born child. Deportees lose their social security benefits and their family members are not allowed to collect them.
Families for Freedom goes on to argue that immigrants increasingly risk deportation “when they turn to public servants for help... They are afraid to turn to hospitals, schools, fire departments and police officers. For example US born domestic violence victims report their abusers in one out of two situations; immigrant victims report one out of four instances and undocumented immigrant victims in just one of seven instances.”
Commensurate with the Crime?
The website for the federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (chillingly referred to as “ICE”), proudly extols the virtues of deportation and the kinds of actions that have led to over a million people from 120 countries being deported between 1996 and 2002, with billions of dollars being spent to do so. These kinds of results are seemingly designed to help Americans feel they are safer, that the “war on terror” is being won at home. In the now famous memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller, Coleen Rowley, an FBI Special Agent and Minneapolis Chief Division Counsel, wrote “After 9/11, FBI Headquarters encouraged more and more detentions for what seem to be essentially PR purposes.”
There are other cynical observations to be made. For example, the Bush administration’s newly proposed Temporary Worker Program, which sets up a legalized employment system for newcomers and immigrants currently living in the U.S. without authorization, is an explicit acknowledgement that there exists, in Bush’s own words, a “massive” underground economy thriving on undocumented immigrant labor, an economy in which all Americans enjoy the benefits of illegal immigration. The Temporary Worker Program, while offering no paths to citizenship, reinforces the concept of immigration as an indentured servitude mill. If you were prone to conspiracy theories, you could reasonably conclude that the specter of deportation functions to keep America’s imported servant class in line and scared straight.
Despite these views, politically speaking, deportation abolitionism or advocating for the rights of immigrants with criminal convictions remains about as unpopular and quixotic as it gets. Even many of the individuals fighting deportation are quick to point out that “yes, many immigrants do need to be kicked out â€“ just not me.”
Criminal activity should be punished and the punishment should be commensurate with the crime. It’s also important to remember that behind the proud legacy of virtually every group of people that has arrived in this country over the last several hundred years, there has been a not so pretty tale of survival by any means necessary. Dust it off a bit and call it “entrepreneurial spirit”. Some refer to it as “pursuing the American dream”. The bottom line is immigrants are no more, no less, “bad” than those born on this soil. It’s time we had a social policy that can admit that.
Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of Talking Democracy Media, normally writes the community development topic page for Gotham Gazette.