New America Media: More Double Punishment for Immigrants with Convictions

By Michelle Fei — The Obama administration’s Aug. 18 announcement of a new policy that purports to suspend deportations against immigrants without criminal convictions has sprouted a range of reactions from immigrant rights advocates, from full-fledged celebration to wary suspicion.

I can appreciate why some advocates are praising the announcement. First, it does seem true that the national outcry over the failure of immigration reform and the expansion of the deportation program known as “Secure Communities” – which requires police to share fingerprint data of all arrestees with federal immigration authorities — has prompted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to respond with this “new” policy. It’s worth noting, however, that advocates have long sought to get ICE to actually exercise the discretionary powers it has always held. Second, fewer deportations is certainly a good thing. To the extent that this announcement can actually help the small percentage of people who could qualify for a temporary reprieve from deportation, I share the temporary sense of relief of these immigrants. No family should know the devastation of deportation.

But as a lead organizer of the coalition that got New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pull the state out of the Secure Communities program, I also have seen how much ICE employs divide-and-conquer tactics, engages in manipulative practices and flip-flops back and forth without ever acknowledging its previous position. A federal judge overseeing a public records lawsuit against ICE recently chided the agency for going “out of [its] way to mislead the public” about whether counties and states could opt out of the program; ICE itself has copped to having “a messaging problem.”

So I remain highly skeptical about the potential of this announcement. ICE’s failure to revise its removal quotas – 404,000 this year alone – can only mean that its deportation dragnet will remain just as active. How else can ICE and its private prison industry bedfellows keep detention centers filled?

Call me a cynic, but this move also seems more of a token of appeasement to win votes in the 2012 election than any meaningful shot at reform. Having failed to push through legislation that would allow for the legalization of undocumented youth – much less any other attempt at immigration reform – the administration is terrified of losing the support of Latinos and other groups. Perhaps by throwing a bone to important voting blocs, Obama thinks nobody will notice that ICE has so far kept silent about how this “policy” will be implemented. So far, none of us know how immigrants are supposed to now qualify for work permits or how ICE will conduct case reviews. Even more alarming, many immigrants now mistakenly think they can now get a green card by turning themselves in.

Finally, this announcement just isn’t what many of us have asked for. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. In New York, our coalition has vociferously called for the protection of all immigrants, not just those who can be deemed innocent or low priority. That’s why we continue to firmly object to the targeting of people with criminal convictions.

This position might fly in the face of conventional wisdom about who should and should not be deported. But we cannot accept that people with criminal convictions should be so easily tossed out of our country. They’ve already paid their dues in a criminal justice system that seldomly lives up to its promise of fairness and equality – particularly for those from low-income, ethnic, and immigrant communities.

They don’t deserve a harsh second punishment of permanent exile, particularly through a patently broken and unjust regime that often makes deportation a mandatory minimum and fails to afford immigrants a fair day in court.

Perhaps most importantly, people with criminal convictions still belong with their families and communities, no matter what.

Take, as just one example, a friend of mine who requested that his name not be used. In the fallout of last week’s announcement, he was detained on Monday and put on a plane to Guyana the next night. A long-time green card holder, he served as the primary caretaker for his mother, who has severe diabetes and who requires constant care. His entire family – all U.S. citizens – lives here in this country. He knows no life in Guyana.

But he has an armed robbery conviction from about 15 years ago. And so he was ICE’s first priority for deportation.

I’m pretty certain that, given its announcement, ICE felt that it had even less reason to listen to pleas to stop my friend’s deportation. In the weeks and months and years to come, more and more people like him will get thrown into the deportation machinery, as few object to – and many applaud – ICE’s new policy rather than question why our country so quickly resorts to deporting immigrants who make the same mistakes we all do.

That so many seem to regard the deportation of people with convictions as a desired goal angers and saddens me. But there are those of us who care about all people dealing with deportation, including those with criminal convictions. We care about them proudly and profoundly. And targeting people with convictions for deportation is something we can never be OK with.

For now, our only solace is to commit to continuing to fight hard alongside them and their families for a better future for us all.

Michelle Fei is co-director of the Immigrant Defense Project and member of the New York State Working Group Against Deportation. IMMIGRATION MATTERS features the views of immigration advocates and experts.

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