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Why We Need to Stop Stigmatizing Immigrants in the Fight for Universal Representation

The Constitution did not seek to carve out liberty for only those it deemed deserved the benefits that the US had to offer.

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury … nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”

“No person.” Not citizen, person. Unlike our current administration, the Constitution did not seek to carve out liberty for only those it deemed deserved the benefits that the US had to offer — or in other words, “good” immigrants.

Of course, those in power now seem hell-bent on differentiating between “good” and “bad” immigrants, not understanding — or perhaps not caring — that making that distinction is playing directly into the rhetoric of criminalizing and stigmatizing immigrants, rather than putting forth a different framework emphasizing the inherent dignity of all people.

It all builds into the mass hysteria surrounding the fear of the “other,” and calling immigrants “illegal” instead of “undocumented” is a perfect example of that; to call a human being “illegal” is to deny their very right to existence, to somehow claim that they are committing a crime against humanity just by living. Put simply, it’s stating that they are less “human” than those living here “legally,” by simple virtue of luck privilege, and opportunity. It’s the idea that they somehow deserve less than a “legal” immigrant, an idea pushed by not only the far right, but by those on the left who undermine the very values that claim to espouse.

For example, who is to say that an undocumented immigrant who jumped a traffic turnstile two years ago has LESS of a right to live in this country than a US citizen who robbed a bank? One is offered a chance at redemption, and the other is cruelly separated from his family and his home, all on the basis of his immigration status.

This brings us to the idea of the LA justice fund, which in theory, was created to provide immigrants facing deportation proceedings access to legal counsel. In Los Angeles County, more than two-thirds of people appearing in court for immigration hearings face a federal prosecutor and judge without any legal representation. In some cases, this even includes toddlers.

The idea behind this fund was that all non-citizens living in the Los Angeles illegally can be arrested and held for deportation, but they have a right to a full removal hearing before an immigration judge before they can be deported. At such a hearing, they will be able to rely on a lawyer’s assistance and can effectively argue that they have strong work and family ties here. And if a ruling happens to go against them, they can still appeal in the immigration courts and in federal court.

The fund’s goal was to ensure vital due process rights for all individuals and families held in deportation proceedings, including those held in immigration detention. That is, until elected officials proposed carve outs — or prioritizations — to the proposed $10 million fund, a pittance compared to New York City’s fund, which would eliminate those with a prior criminal history from being given said due process.

Such a decision would arbitrarily — and drastically — reduce the number of beneficiaries of the fund, and undercut the concept of due process for all, as embodied by international human rights law and the US constitution. Practically speaking, such a decision would exclude or sideline people who may have convictions, but who have also rehabilitated, have strong family and community ties and have contributed significantly to our society. It might also eliminate those undocumented immigrants who would have qualified for asylum, but were never given the opportunity to apply for such or chose not to because they either didn’t have the time or the resources to do so.

Keep in mind, approximately one third of immigrants facing deportation proceedings win their battle to stay in the United States when they have representation, which proves that the law is on their side. But the bigger problem at hand is that the concept of “criminals” is painted with such a broad brush. A man who ran a traffic light two years ago, a woman who served a DUI sentence in her teens and a convicted rapist all receive the same treatment — and only because they are “undocumented.” If they are “legal” residents or citizens, then they are governed by US laws. But if they are not, then they somehow become an exception to the rule?

The proposed carve outs, by the very nature of their existence, seek to widen the gap between immigrant and citizen. And moreover, they would inadvertently create a drag net that would trap innocent people in a broken system, because they are making exceptions to something that should be the rule. When you poke holes in a net that was not meant to have any holes, you are ensuring that people fall through the net.

The carve-outs would also separate families, amplify already harsh immigration policy, increase the burden placed on our communities, disproportionately affect mixed-status families, and compound the injustices that already exist in the criminal legal system.

No one is more beholden to the US ideal than immigrants; they love this country, they trust this country and they deserve to be treated better. They deserve to be treated with equality. And most importantly, they deserve to be given a second chance, and the same opportunity as everyone else at due process, one of the most fundamental rights enshrined into the foundations of our country. By creating carve outs for the justice fund, we are amplifying the message that you can only stay in this country if you are a “good” immigrant — and by doing that, we are undermining our justice system and the values that makes this country, this state and the city of LA truly great.

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

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