When people find out I work in the area of immigrants rights, I am often asked to provide my opinion or “sound bite” on US immigration policy. Usually the question is “Why should I care about US immigration policy?” or “Tell me what I need to know.” Depending on my mood, my response is either, “It’s complicated,” or I launch into a 30 minute tirade about the injustices of the US detention and deportation system. I have never actually been able to fulfill a request for a sound bite, but I think I may have an abbreviated answer.
The US immigration system, in particular the detention and deportation system, does not treat immigrants with humanity, dignity and respect. From the moment an individual encounters the US detention and deportation system, they are stripped of their identity. Their belongings, clothes, documents, money – literally everything they have – is taken from them. They often are transferred to prisons and prison-like facilities in remote and rural locations without being able to notify their families or loved ones. They are strip searched and given an “alien number” which will identify them until their removal from the United States. This 9 digit number replaces their name, their face, their nationality, their gender. Immigrant detainees are referred to by their “number” by prison guards, by government attorneys and by Immigration Judges.
This dehumanizing experience happens to approximately 400,000 individuals every year. Approximately 30,000 individuals are sitting in detention centers as you read this piece. These statistics of immigration deportation and detention are often quoted, but what is missing in the discussion is a recognition that every SINGLE one of these individuals in detention is a human being. Every single person in detention is connected to family or friends who are forced into crisis because of that detention and deportation. Every single person in detention is someone’s father, mother, brother, aunt, son, daughter, grandfather, etc. Every single detention and deportation sends ripple effects through the community as that family tries to figure out how to live without that person. The detention and deportation of an individual feels like a death sentence for families who literally may not see their loved one ever again. Every single detention and deportation leaves behind broken family members and devastated communities.
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I encountered one such story when I worked as a non-profit attorney providing legal services to immigrant detainees in the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas. “Pedro” had been apprehended by ICE because he was undocumented and had committed a traffic violation. He was from North Carolina and he had been transferred to South Texas after being arrested. He did not know where he was and was disoriented. Pedro had lived and worked in the United States for several years. He was married and had two children with Down syndrome. He and his wife worked several jobs to support their family and he explained that his wife already worked too much and did not know how she would be able to support the family without him. He was distraught. He asked, “Can’t I at least get a bond so I can attend to my financial affairs and say bye to my children?” I explained that the Immigration Judge denied everyone a bond and he was unlikely to get one. There was nothing he could do. There was nothing I could do. It just was. He looked at me with disbelief and I looked at him quite matter of factly because my job was to communicate the law. I had done my job, but I realized that his “disbelief” was actually the right emotion for such an absurd reality where immigrants are treated as less than human, deprived of dignity and unable to care for their loved ones. In this case, two children with Down syndrome and a wife who would no longer be able to provide for them. I often wonder what happened to that family. How did his wife react to the news that she would most likely never see him again? How did his children deal with the loss of their father? Were there community members who would be able to support the family? Did his family leave the United States in order to live with Pedro? Or did he try to illegally re-enter after deportation?
These are the questions that President Barack Obama should be considering when crafting a “humane deportation” policy. The emphasis should be on “humane” by restoring dignity to communities that have been under assault for years from invasive immigration enforcement policies. There should be consideration for families, communities, individuals, medical needs, children, etc. Instead, the President continues to emphasize distinctions between individuals with a “criminal” history and those without. There is nothing “humane” about this distinction, as evidenced by Pedro’s story. Because of his traffic violation, he would undoubtedly be placed in the “criminal” category without any regard to his humanity or the humanity of his family. The classification of immigrants as “criminals” does nothing more than further the dehumanization.
In every social justice movement, there comes a time when the oppressors realize the humanity of the oppressed and that is when change happens. This was true for slavery, the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and most recently, the fight for gay marriage. When we start considering all individuals as deserving of humanity, dignity and respect, we can reexamine and restructure law and policy to reflect this humanity. But until this crucial shift happens, we will continue to have unbalanced policy with unjust results. Until the US government and policymakers start seeing immigrants as human, real and meaningful reform will not happen. The time starts now. #not1more