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Black Immigrants’ Lives Matter: Disrupting the Dialogue on Immigrant Detention

The developing discourse on immigrant detention undermines the political vision of prison abolition.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout; Adapted: Statue of Liberty via Shutterstock)

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As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow, many activists within the mainstream immigrant rights movement are beginning to acknowledge how their embrace of the refrain “immigrants are not criminals” and their framing of immigration as a “new civil rights movement” have created a damaging immigration narrative that is largely predicated on anti-Blackness. However, recent attempts to discuss immigration in a way that is inclusive of the Black immigrant experience have continued to allow for the erasure of Black immigrants and collusion with the criminal legal system.

There have been calls not to just decrease but to abolish immigrant detention. This is a clear nod to the prison abolition movement. On its face, employing the language of abolition presents a departure from the conservative and assimilationist tone that has dominated the conversation around immigration for years. Still, the emerging rationale for dismantling the immigrant detention system threatens to undermine the political vision of prison abolition.

The call to abolish immigration detention did not come out of a historical vacuum. It drew on the political labor of the many activists and organizers who have been fighting to make prison abolition a reality for decades. As long as prisons have been in existence, there has been opposition to them, with particular momentum growing in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s, the prison abolition movement grew into a strategy and a goal in response to the rapid expansion of incarceration that has primarily affected poor communities of color. It is within the political context of the 1990s that calls to end immigrant detention and deportations surfaced, adding to the overall aim of ending the carceral state – including the police, prisons and government surveillance.

Some advocates aim to separate out “innocent” immigrants from “criminal” immigrants.

Historically mainstream immigrant rights leaders have chosen to make concessions to right-wing ideology and to embrace anti-Black rhetoric due to a cynical belief that immigration policy cannot be overhauled without doing so. In 2013, Frank Sharry, executive director for Reform Immigration for America, published this statement in The Washington Post: “In 2005, with the rise of the Minutemen and fresh attention from Capitol Hill, many in the Republican Party started to turn immigration into a wedge issue. They demonized hardworking immigrants as criminals and moochers.” Advocates like Sharry use terms such as “criminals” and “moochers” as racially coded words for Black, a phenomenon that began during the “tough on crime” era under the Reagan administration. These advocates aim to separate out “innocent” immigrants from “criminal” immigrants, thus excluding and discarding Black immigrants, who are disproportionately targeted by the police and criminal legal system.

The debate around the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 also exemplified the typical attitude found among mainstream immigrant rights activists. The highly contested Senate bill included multiple provisions that would have increased funding for both border and interior enforcement, cementing the immigrant detention system as an integral element of the prison system. During this time there was consistent reassurance that the proposed legislation would not benefit “criminals,” creating a hard line between “deserving” and “undeserving” immigrants. Many saw the legislation as a necessary evil in order to provide relief to millions of undocumented immigrants. More recently, President Obama has adopted a “felons, not families” framework in his administration’s immigration policy. Secure Communities has been replaced with the Priority Enforcement Program, which is a collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and the federal government to specifically apprehend immigrants with criminal convictions.

If we are committed to seeing liberation for all people, we can no longer apply this narrow-minded organizing strategy toward ending immigrant detention and deportations. In response, I offer the following recommendations for a migrant justice movement that truly desires to center Black lives.

Challenge the current discourse on criminality. One thing that must change immediately is the common refrain that immigration violations are civil infractions and not criminal ones. For nonimmigrants, or those that entered the country with inspection, or those with a pending application before US Citizenship and Immigration Services, their immigration violations are seen as administrative issues. No “crime” has been committed. In other words, the concern is whether they will show up before a judge for a hearing. In these cases, the argument is over whether these immigrants should be detained or “treated like criminals” while they are waiting to have their cases heard before an immigration judge.

The attempt to portray immigration violations as only a civil matter rather than as criminal infractions is mostly false because entering the country without authorization is a federal misdemeanor and re-entry after deportation is a federal felony. More perniciously, this particular argument negates the impact of the criminal legal system on Black immigrants. Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino and African immigrants experience higher level of deportations through criminal apprehensions, resulting in a removal rate five times their representation in the country.

Black immigrants continue to experience racial profiling by the police and discriminatory sentencing.

The most comprehensive breakdown of immigrant apprehensions by federal program shows that 48 percent of immigrants apprehended are screened through the Criminal Alien Program, while 19 percent of immigrant apprehensions are processed through Customs and Border Patrol and 12 percent are processed through local coordination programs. In other words, the majority of immigrant apprehensions happen through local jails and state and federal prisons, not at the border or through local enforcement programs such as 287(g).

This is significant because the Criminal Alien Program is hardly, if ever, discussed among immigrant rights activists. The number becomes even more important when you look at the racial makeup of the prison population. Although Black people make up 13 percent of the US population, Black prisoners make up nearly 40 percent of the incarcerated population and are incarcerated five times more than white people. The number increases for noncitizens.

One aspect of the Criminal Alien Program allows US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to begin removal proceedings of immigrants in local, state and federal prisons. Clearly, immigrants who have been criminalized for additional reasons (beyond their immigration status) make up a substantial portion of those who are detained.

Recognize that immigration enforcement policies and the criminal legal system mutually inform each other and are inextricably linked. It is critical for migrant justice activists to treat the issues of incarceration, detention and deportation as one systemic problem. The expansion of immigrant detention did not occur in a vacuum, but rather coincided with the growth of the prison system. Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and other “crime bills,” the criminal legal and immigration systems became entangled. Mandatory detention of immigrants with criminal convictions, expansion of aggravated felonies, mandatory minimums, and increased funding for local police and prisons astronomically increased the prison population. Many Black immigrants who were legal permanent residents retroactively lost legal permanent residency after serving time in prison. Black immigrants continue to experience racial profiling by the police, compounded criminal charges and discriminatory sentencing, increasing their chances of later being detained and deported. In other words, overzealous prosecutors often pressure Black defendants into accepting a plea deal that includes a criminal conviction rather than go to trial and face stiffer penalties. This dynamic has devastating impacts on immigrants whose public defenders do not explain the potential immigration consequences of accepting a plea deal.

Migrant justice activists must stop legitimizing incarceration as an appropriate solution.

Reject the cost-benefit analysis as a basis to end immigrant detention. Emphasizing the financial expense of immigrant detention leads to its only logical conclusion – create cost-effective immigrant detention centers. Prison abolition does not call for less expensive or less restrictive alternatives to prison, but rather for an end to the need for prisons altogether. Abolition is a commitment to finding substantive solutions to societal problems. It also should be noted that while 62 percent of immigrant detention centers are operated by for-profit corporations such as Corrections Corporations of America and the GEO Group, most jails and prisons are still under the purview of local municipalities and the federal government – and jail or prison is where most Black immigrants begin their journey into the immigrant detention system. Framing the issue of immigrant detention as a phenomenon mostly driven by profit tells an incomplete story and obscures the realities of Black immigrants.

Develop a continuum of alternatives to immigrant detention and deportations by addressing economic and foreign policies as the root causes of migration. Free trade agreements and structural adjustment programs have contributed to high levels of global economic inequality and unprecedented global migration. Structural adjustment programs force neoliberal policies onto countries with significant amounts of debt. Furthermore, policies such as the “war on drugs” fuel massive migration and do particular harm to Black communities in the United States. As long as the root causes of migration continue to be overlooked, the plight of all migrants will be invisible – especially that of Black migrants.

As calls to abolish immigrant detention and to end deportations continue, it is important for organizers not to betray the original intent of abolition. Migrant justice activists must stop legitimizing incarceration as an appropriate solution in their attempt to distinguish immigration issues as primarily a civil matter. Many mainstream immigrant rights activists have fallen into the trap of engaging in racist portrayals of other immigrants in an attempt to distance themselves from criminality – and in the process they have alienated those most in need of protection. The Black Lives Matter movement demands a deeper structural analysis that contends with the criminalization of all our communities.

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