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The US Is Criminalizing Immigrants and Punishing Them for Being Poor

Both parties are politicizing immigration for their gain.

Activist Kristian Hernandez stands in front of a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement building. (Photo: Kristian Hernandez)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now more than a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 108th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Kristian Hernandez, co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America-North Texas, as well as the vice president of the North Texas Dream Team. Hernandez discusses the way both Democrats and Republicans are politicizing immigration for their benefit, and explains why activists need to hold politicians accountable in the fight for a just immigration policy.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking the week after the deal to end the government shutdown resulted in Democrats not holding the line on the DREAM Act. To start with, tell us what you were thinking, what the folks you work with were thinking when the deal came down.

Kristian Hernandez: For a lot of us, especially those of us who have been in the movement for a really long time and had seen more and more disappointment out of the Democrats, it wasn’t entirely surprising. I think more of us hoped that holding down the line would take more than just three days. Really, we saw this just bowing down to the Republicans so quickly as kind of a precursor for a more ominous deal that would come from it. We were definitely proven right, as far as the Democrats showing their inability to really hold their own against the Republicans, to stand up for Dreamers. We have ended up in deeper water than we even initially expected to be.

Let’s get a little background on the DREAM Act, particularly the movement for it, which has just been massive and ongoing and involved a lot of civil disobedience for people who are at risk of deportation, and just the amount of work that has gone into fighting over this over the last few years.

DACA was really just a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

The DREAM Act was first introduced into Congress in 2001 by [Sen. Dick] Durbin and it has been an uphill battle ever since then. There has been a lot of effort from countless immigrant rights organizations to keep pushing for some type of legislation, for some type of relief.

A lot of these efforts, of course, culminated with enough pressure to have President Obama enact Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which kind of created a lot of complacency within the movement as far as, “Okay, this is some type of solution. They are reaching out to us.” But, … it was a two-year work permit … something that had to be reviewed, at $495 each time you are reviewing, and really didn’t … have too much weight when it came to interactions with ICE, interactions with law enforcement.

As we have seen, it was really just a Band-Aid on a bullet hole as far as doing anything for the movement. Even with those 800,000 that were eligible for DACA, there were a lot of people that were left out of that relief, and the fear that really gripped the community because of deportation possibilities … wasn’t taken away, because a lot of these Dreamers also have parents that are undocumented and other loved ones that are undocumented. In one respect, it was a great thing for people that were able to adapt, but for another, it created this stagnation within the movement of, “Well, okay, we won this,” but it really didn’t hit hard … we should have been fighting for more this entire time until the Trump administration came into power.

One of the things we are seeing in this moment is that on the one hand, the Obama administration deported a lot of people and, frankly, tried to do enforcement-first immigration policy to get Republicans on their side. We saw that not work. Now, Democrats don’t seem to have moved on from that strategy of “Give the Republicans everything they want and maybe they will give you something back.”

There is definitely a lot of powerlessness that comes from the Democrats, that they seem to be going off of this, “Well, we don’t have a majority here.” There are just a lot of excuses for why they can’t advance in the realm of immigration. They tend to, also, come back to it, especially during times like the primaries and during election season. They have this notion that their base is assuaged by this centrist viewpoint on immigration, when really, you are finding more and more people being maybe a lot more aware of the horrors that the immigration system is actually doing because people — especially during the Obama administration — may have gone with the damaging rhetoric of “felons not families,” but not realizing that when you have an administration that has very effectively criminalized communities of color, you are deporting a lot more people than felons.

ICE having even more power is probably the most frightening part.

You are deporting people that are caught up in that collateral web, and going forward from that, we know that the system works against our communities. Even going off of that really dangerous rhetoric of, “Well, we are only deporting criminals” is really this false lie. It is throwing one group of immigrants under the bus for the sake of another when a lot of us who have that deeper understanding that they are making us criminals on paper by putting us into this system that punishes you if you are poor. It punishes you twice over and makes you a criminal. There are a lot of false guilty pleas and really just a whole very complex way that the criminal justice system is intertwined with immigration.

It just makes it a very easy sell for the Democrats when we see how that is manifesting itself very differently in our communities.

And of course, now we are seeing explicitly in the Trump plan … that pitting one community against another just gave Trump some leverage to try to pass his really horrifying policy proposals.

Right now, with the news of the Trump administration having a “save the day” moment where it really showcased the ineptitude of the Democrats, and the administration has finally said, “Well, Congress couldn’t handle this, so let me do it.” All that it has really done is brought forward a plan that is only going to serve to alienate our border towns. It is going to appropriate billions of dollars, more so than were expected before, toward a wall that is pretty much useless. More money for [the Department of Homeland Security] as a cabinet position, for ICE, which is very dangerous because ICE has proven itself to be an institution completely lacking in accountability and transparency and seemingly having no type of procedure or process as far as who they detain. You have seen everything from children in hospitals to fathers who have been here for decades. So, ICE having even more power is probably the most frightening part of that.

But then, of course, you are seeing more money appropriated for immigration judges because they are trying to look at the backlog of the court system and trying to get people out as quickly as possible. They have added closing “catch and release,” which, for a lot of people seeking asylum, they kind of fall into that, especially unaccompanied minors. That is really the demographic that they are targeting with this language.

There are still cases now in immigration court where they have three-year-olds representing themselves.

Then, of course, they are lumping in this phrase “criminal aliens” alongside felons, so people get used to this idea that anyone that is classified as a “criminal alien” all of a sudden deserves to be deported. They’re using this rhetoric to justify a lot of deportations that are going to end up affecting people that might not fit into this idea of what the average American deems deportable.

Another thing they were talking about with this immigration plan was expedited removal for visa overstays — which, for a lot of people who aren’t aware of the immigration makeup, is a good chunk of people who had visas, they expired and they overstayed — that is going to be a huge group of people that are going to be affected by an expedited removal process, because it means that they don’t even get to justify or argue their case before a judge. They talk about immigration court reforms, as well. They didn’t go into much detail about what that looks like, but I can only think it is going to be something pretty horrible, considering that there are still cases now in immigration court where they have three-year-olds representing themselves.

They definitely have started using the rhetoric of “chain migration,” which, for those of us in the movement, we know as family reunification. They’re really trying to take away the humanity aspect of immigration, in general. Then they’re wanting to end the lottery system in favor of using those spots to take care of the backlog for people currently seeking visas. Not only does it seem like it is addressing a problem for the Republican base, but it is really just dwindling the number of people that are allowed to come into this country legally.

They are doing all of this, all of this horrible stuff, at the expense of, “Well, we are going to provide a path for citizenship, a 10- to 12-year path for citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers.” With the 800,000, it would obviously include a bigger group of people than in the original Dreamers as we know them that benefited through DACA, but it definitely comes with the concessions of “good moral character,” and we don’t know exactly what other types of stipulations would prompt criminalization.

In a country where the undocumented demographic is more than 11 million, having that come off as a solution for the sake of all that it is doing that is really just aggravating the already horrible aspects of the immigration system — is really just a big slap in the face.

The thing that I was seeing that Democrats were saying, Barbara Boxer said this somewhere, “Trump will give in because he doesn’t want photos of Dreamers being deported.” There are already horrifying photos and horrifying stories of people being deported — not just under this administration, of course, but they are certainly ratcheting up the horror in the last year. I wonder why they would think that it would be different now. That this would suddenly be the thing that makes Trump go, “Oh, I can’t do that now.” They are pulling people out of hospitals.

I am not sure exactly where the rationale comes from, because there are definitely instances … of maybe a more compassionate-seeming demographic being deported. You see people that most Democrats would exemplify as the “model immigrant,” “the model Dreamer” that are still being deported, that are still falling into this deportation machine, because at the end of the day, you are seeing this happen at the hands of ICE. They really don’t care about their image. They are very much concerned with just getting … people out of this country.

And you are starting to see a lot more pushback … toward allies who are doing their best to try to help mediate the situation, especially at the border. We had an instance just the other week of someone getting arrested for trying to leave water and food out for immigrants that were trying to cross the border. This is now considered abetting a fugitive or abetting criminal activity. That type of language is really dangerous for those of us who are in the movement, those of us who feel like the doors as far as what we can and can’t do are closing in on those of us who are really trying to ensure that our communities feel safe, that our communities are able to not just live and work, but to thrive.

The immigration system is working exactly the way that it is supposed to — profiting off of Black and Brown bodies.

That is showing up in every single facet. I think teachers probably notice it the most with students becoming more distracted. My sister is a teacher and her young students, elementary school age, are very much aware of the dangers of this current administration. They are afraid of being deported. It is such a horrible thing to have to explain to your children, this idea of having to completely leave this country that you have known, for no good reason. There is not really anything that they can use to justify this to their children.

It is creating this very dangerous web of lack of accountability completely by the Democrats, considering a lot of the machinery of this deportation machine, as we call it, was created under the Obama administration and he still, to my knowledge, holds the record for the largest number of people that were deported. We called him the “deporter in chief” for a reason. It is ridiculous of the Democrats to try to wipe their hands clean of the situation when really, they have set up the platform for Trump to really take it to that next level.

Looking at all of this … is horrifying…. The immigration movement, in general, is incredibly strong and has been incredibly resilient through all sorts of setbacks. What is next? This year is an election year. What do you think the next steps are?

That will be pretty interesting…. Before, there was more of a close relationship between a lot of immigrant groups and a lot of Democrats…. You are starting to see more of these immigrant ally types … within the Democratic Party really failing to stick up for Dreamers, failing to stick up for immigrants, in general. I think it is really going to depend on the political makeup of different states. I know here there is definitely going to be a lot more pressure on Democratic candidates to have a robust platform on immigration.

I think that is what is necessary … having a lot more accountability of your elected officials while they are running. At this point, we have seen that they have really been very ineffective against the Republicans. In Texas, for instance, we have [Republican Rep.] Joe Barton who is retiring, but he has been in Congress for decades. He has come out during a town hall of the people who are in the primary for the spot that he is no longer running for, and a lot of them had very cynical viewpoints on Dreamers and were kind of belittling DACA and belittling this group of people. Surprisingly, Barton was actually like, “Hey, no. You can’t do that.” You are starting to see this shift almost, at least locally, of Republicans wanting to appeal more to people who are sympathetic with immigrants, especially Dreamers.

I think that is really dangerous water to be in, especially in Texas, where we call ourselves a red state. Really, we are a non-voting state. It is really dangerous to see that Republicans are starting to cater to more of the apathetic base, or perhaps even the base of people that is really fed up with the Democrats. That is only going to build their power locally.

As an immigrant movement, I think there really needs to be a big, concerted effort into not only preventative things for our communities — as far as “know your rights” and having family preparedness workshops so people, if they do fall into deportation proceedings … are at least able to do it in a way that doesn’t affect the livelihood of their children or any type of assets they leave behind — but also in another way, locally, as far as making sure that people really understand what immigration policy really looks like, and the fact that it is working exactly as it is intended to.

We often see in the mainstream this idea of a broken immigration system, but it is working exactly the way that it is supposed to. It is working where it is profiting off of Black and Brown bodies constantly. I think as our groups that are really focused on building power within our communities, we really need to make that very clear that, one: this is how the system is working and, two: looking at who is abetting that system. Law enforcement plays a big role there. We are starting to see a lot more groups — particularly groups that are fighting against police brutality — a lot of groups within the Black population that are starting to come together with immigrant rights groups and really building that power together. I think that is going to be something that will really be able to elevate our movement to the next step.

How can people keep up with you and your work?

Our organization, the North Texas Dream Team, has a Facebook page. We are always posting on there. We are fundraising and trying to help as many people as possible before there is any type of movement around the appeals process right now. DSA North Texas is our other Facebook page. We are really hoping to solidify the role that DSA plays with other organizations in having more substantial solidarity and coalition work.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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