20 April 2014 ~ 1 Comment

Keynote Speech at Hampshire College: “Crimmigration – We Are All Criminals”

For a primer background, see “But We Are Criminals: Countering the Anti-Racial Justice Framework of Immigration Reform

I received a call from my friend Farzana yesterday. Farzana has been in the country since she was 5 years old. She is 35 now. She’s from Pakistan but she has basically lived here for most of her life. When she was about your age—she got in a little trouble. She sold some drugs to a cop for $15. But she cleaned up. She did her time and community service. She started working with at-risk youth, got married to a U.S. citizen, had three kids and put it all behind her.

Or so she thought.

Farzana called me yesterday because ICE agents had showed up at her door earlier this week, to arrest her. She was calling from a detention facility in New Jersey—scared and confused because she thought she had done her time, and she didn’t know why ICE was coming after her. It turns out that even though she was in the country lawfully as a green card holder, the $15 of meth that she had sold a cop some 15 years ago was coming back to haunt her. She was facing deportation to Pakistan—a country he had left as a five year old.

My name is Prerna. I’m a first-generation immigrant from Fiji. I’m also undocumented, and so I know a little about immigration law. That’s what brought Farzana to me and that’s why I am here today.

I’m sure we all know some of the repercussions of being undocumented.

We’re locked out of economic opportunities (no financial aid, no instate tuition in this state). We’re locked out of school (in states such as Georgia, South Carolina). We’re caged within the walls of America, detained by the invisible bars for unlawful presence and so we cannot live here and cannot leave here. Our existence is reduced to a limbo – existing illegally in America.

But what does it mean to be an undocumented person in America – an undocumented Asian-American or Pacific Islander? As an API undocumented person, I’m supposed to be a model minority, make the best of what America has to offer, achieve the American dream (whatever that means) and serve as a justification to incarcerate my black and brown brothers and sisters.

I refuse to do so.

All people of color are criminalized, albeit in different ways.

Low-income black people are more likely to be incarcerated in prisons for minor drug offenses. Low-income Latinos more likely to be incarcerated in detention centers built for immigrants for minor immigration offenses.

Black children are forced to grow up without parents who are incarcerated. Latino children are forced to grow up without parents who have been forcefully removed (deported) from the country.

I learned in high school – post 9-11, that my type of Asian is seen as A-rab and hence, a terrorist.

In essence, we are demonizing and criminalizing and entire generation of black and brown kids. This is not just a problem for our cities—it is not just a New York, Boston, Los Angeles problem. This is an American epidemic, a national crisis, where it has become acceptable for the state – through local police and federal immigration agents – to view people of color as a threat to society, first, as a cancer that needs to be removed, and as citizens, maybe last.

The last few years, we have seen an unhealthy marriage between our criminal justice system and immigration system. What do I mean by this? Crossing the border or remaining here unlawfully past our visas is actually an administrative violation much like getting a traffic ticket. Yet, if we turn on the news, we are told that undocumented immigrants are here to take our jobs, take advantage of our healthcare system, and take welfare benefits—basically that we are a threat to this country, and many times, a security problem.  This is ironic because we advertise America as a great country, as a land of immigrants, but complain when people actually buy the false advertisement and come here to work, to better their lives, to reunite with their loved ones.

To tackle this alleged threat of immigrants, states like Arizona and Alabama have tried to shift the nature of the “violation” from administrative to criminal. For instance, states such as Georgia and South Carolina banned higher education for undocumented students. Alabama took it further, compelling schools to check the immigration status of students and report the data to the state. And of course, Arizona has become famous for making unlawful presence in the state a crime. These state laws compel police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected may not be in the country legally, thereby implicating the criminal justice system in immigration enforcement.

But I don’t want you to leave this room thinking that it is something that only states are doing. The federal government has expanded this criminalization of immigrants. Under the Bush Administration, the Customs and Border Protection agents used to “catch and release” immigrants caught at the border. Under the Obama Administration, people caught within 100 miles of the border are no longer “caught and released.” Many of these people—who are here to work or reunite with their families—are given criminal convictions, and subjected to expedited removal, which is the act of deporting someone without due process of law. In fact, immigration convictions make up the majority of federal convictions. And we have a president who has deported more than 2 million people in the last six years, earning himself the title of “deporter-in-chief.”

Actually, the federal government has all of these euphemisms for the new penology of immigrants to try and hide or justify what they are really doing to our communities:

“Operation Streamline” – program that brings criminal charges against anyone trying to enter the country, and leaves people with criminal convictions. I’m not sure what exactly is being streamlined.

“Worksite enforcement action” – violent, sloppy raids of workplaces that puts U.S. companies out of business and workers out of jobs

“Voluntary departure” – When immigration agents force someone to agree to their own deportation. So much for voluntariness.

“Secure Communities” – Federal government program that removes hard-working migrants from our communities without due process of law, making us feel less secure

“Criminal Alien Removal Initiative (CARI)” – They should have just called this “stop and frisk” for Latinos. CARI is a program that was piloted in New Orleans – involves local police and ICE arresting, detaining and deporting people who appear to be Latino.

Basically, the list of euphemisms is long. The destruction of our communities at the hands of the state very real.

To address the situation at hand, some of our politicians in Washington D.C. are trying to enact some sort of immigration reform. These politicians promise that it will be different this time—that reform will stop the deportations and decrease the use of detention against people of color.  The two groups most targeted by immigration control law over the last century, Latinos and Asians, have increased in numbers and political power and so these politicians want to give us a peace offering.

But the proposals on the table are dominated by a focus on getting “right with the law” in order to get citizenship, and billions in funding for the same border and interior enforcement that is tearing our families apart. The same advocates trying to pass immigration reform in Washington D.C. are the same ones who talk about stopping unnecessary deportations as if some are deportations are necessary. These advocates tell us that “we are not criminals” even while ignoring the very real criminalization that we are undergoing as people of color. They talk about which groups of immigrants are “good” and which are “bad” and thus, divide up our communities. They tell us that citizenship will solve all our problems – ignoring that citizenship doesn’t mean much when you are brown or black in America.

In effect, immigration reform from Washington D.C. will leave thousands languishing in detention, facing deportation and continue to tear apart families and communities. So perhaps then, the lack of reform is a blessing in disguise. What we need is justice.

What does justice look like?

Justice requires intervention — when people put their bodies on the line to join campaigns that are about them, but often do not include them;

Justice looks like the simultaneous hunger-strikes in detention centers across the country;

The Not 1 More Deportation campaign, and the hunger strike in Washington D.C. led by the directly impacted to call on the President to stop deportations;

Justice requires that we organize to end policies like “Secure Communities” that divide up our communities into good and bad immigrants, and tear us apart;

Justice involves taking risks and pushing the boundaries – the infiltration of detention centers, the actions taken at the border by brave young people to reunite families;

Justice is no to legalization in exchange for more enforcement;

Justice requires that we stop saying “we are not criminals” and start working towards ending the ways in which we are all criminalized;

Justice requires that we build black-brown solidarity by recognizing how the state criminalizes our bodies, our people, and uniting in our fight against the prison industrial complex;

Justice is about treating everyone equally, regardless of whether we have papers or not – which means driver’s licenses, instate tuition, and health care, and jobs for undocumented immigrants without subjecting us to mass arrest and incarceration;

Justice is to forgive my friend Farzana’s prior transgression, and to fight for her to be able to stay in here with her family.

  • borogirl54

    Undocumented immigrants in Georgia are able to attend the 30 other universities and colleges but they have to pay out of state tuition. Undocumented students are unable to attend colleges in the University of Tennessee system.

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