Our VoiceImmigration

‘Felons, not families’ criminalizes and divides communities


Lindsay Schubiner • Apr 08, 2015
 

Two weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported Iowa Pastor Max Villatoro despite public efforts from hundreds of community members and advocates to keep him in the country. Pastor Villatoro was detained and deported as part of ICE’s Operation Cross Check, which according to ICE targeted only undocumented immigrants who pose the greatest risk to public safety.

Painting entire immigrant communities as criminal has long been a strategy the nativist movement has used to foment anti-immigrant sentiment even though immigration is largely a civil matter.

ICE officials would have us believe this operation was in line with President Obama’s commitment to deport only felons, and not families. Yet under U.S. immigration law, many non-violent or insignificant misdemeanors are considered “aggravated felonies” and carry particularly serious immigration consequences. Aggravated felonies include offenses as minor as filing a false tax return or failing to appear in court.

Even so, nearly half of the people arrested in this recent raid were those whose most serious crime was a misdemeanor, revealing ICE headquarters claims about targeting “the worst of the worst” to be disingenuous at best.

Felons, Not Families

This distinction between the Administration’s words and its deeds sheds light on a deeper issue. The Obama Administration’s “felons, not families” immigration enforcement framework is fundamentally informed by—and is in some ways a direct response to—an idea that has deep roots in the anti-immigrant movement. In fact, the Administration’s choice of this framework can, in part, be attributed to the anti-immigrant movement’s success at fabricating the myth of the “criminal immigrant,” founded on racialized stereotypes and fueled by xenophobia and fear. Painting entire immigrant communities as criminal has long been a strategy the nativist movement has used to foment anti-immigrant sentiment even though immigration is largely a civil matter.

Nativist Marilyn DeYoung, a board member of the anti-immigrant population control organization Californians for Population Stabilization, illustrates this xenophobia on video: “A baby can join a gang and then commit a crime, a baby can drop out of school and become a criminal, a baby grows up… The DREAM Act is dangerous…”

By only partially pushing back against this nativist argument, those who use the “felons, not families” framework create a false dichotomy between the “good immigrant” and the “bad immigrant,” all based on a platform of anti-Black racism and the reification of Black criminality.

“‘Felons, not families’ is inherently anti-Black. Black criminality is a re-formulation of Black slaveability. Look no further than the 13th amendment of the Constitution. Black people are forever read as property, first as property of private owners and now as property of the State via the prison industrial complex,” said Marybeth Onyeukwu, board member of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “Furthermore, ‘felons, not families’ has huge ramifications for the Black immigrant community. Black immigrants are detained and deported primarily through contact with the criminal legal system.”

“Deportees after the executive action are not just victims to an unjust immigration system but also of an unjust criminal system, one that has historically abused people of color and was built for many like him to enter but for very few to ever get out.”

The nativist strategy of criminalization and the Obama Administration’s incorporation of it into its policies is perhaps one reason why one of Pastor Villatoro’s supporters described him as, “not the kind of person who should be a priority for deportation from our country. He is not a criminal.” Another supporter said, “I think Max is the perfect example of somebody President Obama has said should not be deported,” implicitly also defining him as “not a criminal.”

Certainly, Pastor Villatoro is not the type of serious criminal that President Obama has pledged to focus resources on deporting. His DUI conviction was several decades old. Since then, Pastor Villatoro has built deep roots in his community in the U.S. and is needed by his family.

“The Administration fails to recognize that most people who have non-violent criminal histories, be them significant misdemeanors or felonies, do in fact have families and are integral members of their communities,” said Rev. Noel Andersen, National Grassroots Coordinator at Church World Service. “Unfortunately, under ICE’s current practice such as ‘Operation Crosscheck’ in which Pastor Max and many like him were swept up in home raids, immigrants who have changed their lives for years on end, or those who have been deported and re-entered unlawfully with the intention of family reunification, are forever marked and targeted by ICE for deportation.”

Andersen added, “We also must recognize the racial bias within the justice system, that statistically police practice stop and frisk policies in low income neighborhoods of color, not in white affluent areas.”

Erika Almirón from Juntos, a Philadephia-based organization, described the system that led to one arrest from Operation Cross Check, “Deportees after the executive action are not just victims to an unjust immigration system but also of an unjust criminal system, one that has historically abused people of color and was built for many like him to enter but for very few to ever get out.”

Confronting Criminalization

Unfortunately, nativist and anti-Black talking points have penetrated even the immigrant rights movement.

Rather than working toward a deeper structural analysis, we have too often directly rebutted the anti-immigrant movement’s arguments on a case-by-case basis, thereby conceding their point overall and further criminalizing Black communities—especially Black immigrants. We marginalize and exclude stories of individuals with everyday criminal convictions from immigration advocacy efforts, even though these individuals most need our continued advocacy.

As immigrants working within their communities, especially Black communities, were the first to point out, ending the criminalization of communities of color should be our goal. Too often, advocates cherry-pick which immigrants fit the Administration’s priorities for deportation and which immigrants don’t, instead of working toward dismantling the criminal alien paradigm.

Rather than working toward a deeper structural analysis, we have too often directly rebutted the anti-immigrant movement’s arguments on a case-by-case basis, thereby conceding their point overall and further criminalizing Black communities—especially Black immigrants.

“I have witnessed some major immigrant movement leaders use ‘felons not families’ as justification for the deportation of some people and not others. This is wrong on many levels — strategically as well as ethically. No one should be subjected to the permanent banishment from loved ones and community,” Onyeukwu continued. “We need a new framework, an abolitionist framework, that says no prisons, no detention centers and no deportations. And the first step to achieving our goal is to change our language. No one is expendable including the formerly and currently incarcerated and convicted.”

As our history shows us, the real crime is the continued criminalization of communities of color and the system of mass incarceration. This system disproportionately punishes and divides Black, Latino, Arab, and Asian communities, as thought leaders from these communities have demonstrated time and again. The criminal justice system also disproportionately targets non-citizens, who are more likely to be convicted and sentenced for crimes than their U.S. citizen counterparts, regardless of their race.

“When Rahm Emanuel was an adviser to President Clinton he merged Nixon’s tough on crime politics with immigration policy to lay the groundwork for the mass incarceration and mass deportation of recent decades. The War on Crime, War on Terror, and War of Attrition have come together to justify profiling and racialized policing against Black, Muslim and Arab, and migrant communities as national security imperatives,” said B. Loewe of #Not1More.

“Instead of challenging criminalization, advocates seeking a grand compromise in Congress have sometimes seen it as a necessary trade-off to win legalization. What we’re seeing now is the legacy of advocating for the exceptions instead of the whole of a community. The Administration is attempting to stigmatize it’s victims as ‘felons not families’ but what recent cases are exposing is, guess what, so-called ‘felons’ have families too.”

Immigrants are part of our communities, and even those with felonies are mothers, fathers, best friends, sons, daughters, and community members who deserve to be reunited with their loved ones. Dividing our communities through incarceration, detention, and deportation will not make us safer, but building strong communities will.

Lindsay Schubiner is the Senior Program Manager at the Center for New Community.

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