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.

You Cannot Live Here — Restrictive Housing Ordinances as the New Jim Crow

jimcrow_1918_10_04My latest paper is now available for download on SSRN.

“You Cannot Live Here — Restrictive Housing Ordinances as the New Jim Crow” is a cursory review of the hundreds of restrictive housing ordinances enacted in suburbs across the country after the failure of comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2006 and 2007. The paper is timely because Farmers Branch, a Dallas, Texas suburb, lost an en-banc appeal of the their restrictive housing ordinance at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last month. The restrictive housing ordinance in Farmer’s Branch requires all renters to verify their legal status with the city and authorizes the city’s building inspector to verify with the federal government whether occupants are lawfully present in the United States. After losing at the Fifth Circuit for a second time, the City Council of Farmers Branch voted 3-2, to pursue an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The thesis of this paper is simple. In a time when people do not like talking about race and racism, I contend that the proliferation of local anti-immigrant restrictive housing ordinances in predominantly white residential areas is motivated by racial animus towards Latinos, and parallels Jim Crow era racial zoning laws and sundown towns. Combing urban studies and immigration, I also contend that a great influx of Latino immigration has transformed how place and race is lived in America because Latino immigrants challenge the black/white binary that has long shaped U.S. race relations, and their continued migration to suburbs will likely play a transformative role in changing the urban/suburban landscape.

Lal, Prerna, You Cannot Live Here — Restrictive Housing Ordinances as the New Jim Crow (June 1, 2013). Available at SSRN:

How the GOP Can Win On Immigration Reform

Republicans are going to become increasingly irrelevant in national politics unless they do something about their waning support among the nation’s fastest growing voting bloc: Latinos.

Thus far, they have tamed down on extreme rhetoric considerably and many in the leadership ranks have come out in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is heralded as the savior of the right who can bring the GOP back from the dead. Condoleezza Rice, Henry Cisneros, Haley Barbour and Ed Rendell are set to form a bipartisan commission and seek consensus on immigration reform. In the House, Republicans seem open to the idea of residency for 11 million immigrants.

However, carelessly throwing their support behind a theoretical comprehensive immigration reform will not ensure that the Republicans can pick up some Latinos votes. Years of demagoguery on the issue has tarnished the Republican image among minorities and the credit for immigration reform will squarely go to the Democrats, namely, President Obama. Immigration reform will create millions of potential voters, most of whom will vote Democrat. And that is what has Republicans running away from the issue or opposing the creation of any special pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But elections are not entirely national. New data suggests that Republicans in the House will benefit more than Democrats by supporting some sort of immigration reform, if they can gain just a little traction from it.  With the passage of immigration reform, Democrats have more seats to lose in contentious districts and incumbent Democrats can no longer keep the issue on the agenda to aid their re-election campaigns. This research should have House Democrat strategists on the edge about the possibility of bipartisan compromise.

Democratic version of Look away!

Democratic version of Look away! (Photo credit: Norm Walsh).

However, the Republicans need to take advantage of immigration reform in a way that not just allows them to take back the House, but also win the Presidency. With 40 million new Latino voters by 2030, and more if immigration reform becomes a reality, the GOP does not have any way to escape the issue of immigration reform. They have to not only come to the bipartisan table created by the Democrats — the GOP has to own the issue. The GOP has to create their own table in a way that benefits them as well as exposes the hypocrisy clear in Democrat support for immigration reform.

For years, both political parties have played games with immigrants and the American public. President Obama has little issue with slurring undocumented immigrants as “illegal immigrants” and adopting a tough framework that criminalizes immigrants while hatching up record numbers of deportations. The “champion” of comprehensive immigration reform, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), actually insists on the label of “illegal aliens” as a prerequisite to advancing any sort of reform. After buying and selling a narrative that demonizes undocumented immigrants (and Latinos) by pushing the conversation to the right, it is hardly shocking that we have demagogues such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona on the right who have used the issue as a way to wield power and prestige.

This has left a tremendous power vacuum for a voice of reason on the issue that both President Obama and Senator Rubio are vying to fill. While Democrats in the Senate can push through a bipartisan bill, there is no such plan for the House due to lack of leadership on the issue. Instead, Rep. Luis Guiterrez (D-IL) is likely to re-introduce his last comprehensive immigration bill with minor changes, in the next few weeks, to try to move the conversation in the House.

As such, immigration legislation is likely to move only when the House leadership realizes it is in their best interest to lead on the issue. House Speaker Rep. John Boehner and Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor are hinting at piecemeal reform as a viable solution that would break up the mammoth comprehensive immigration bill into more manageable pieces. Such a move would bring up popular immigration bills like the DREAM Act and STEM for a vote, giving certain groups more victories, and momentum. Data suggests that this would also translate into providing the GOP with the bit of traction that they need to win back the House for years to come. And given that “comprehensive” is now the Democrat party-line, a piecemeal approach by the Republicans would leave the Democrats hapless in the Senate with the empty and meaningless rhetoric of “comprehensive immigration reform” while showing the public that the Republicans are not only willing to compromise on the issue, but willing to lead the way.

For the GOP then, the only way to lose is not to play.


La Raza Centro Legal


I am packing and moving and totally forgot about this piece of award I received a month ago. Thank you La Raza Centro Legal for the honor and for inviting me to a wonderful evening of food and drinks.

Check them out. They do wonderful work and as always, I’m not worthy of this.

One day, when I don’t need to think about how to afford law school and how to pay the bills, I may look back and embrace it all.

Machete — The First Latino Action Hero?

“There are laws. And then there’s what is right,” says Jessica Alba in Machete, the new Roberto Rodriguez flick that hit the cinemas this past weekend amidst much controversy.

As Roberto Rodriguez movies go, Machete is intentionally over the top, edgy, sharp (no pun intended), violent, gory and certainly not easy on the eyes. It’s probably not for the likes of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer who is already paranoid about beheadings in the desert.

Earlier this year, a leaked script pointed toward a race-based war theme in the movie, supposedly vilifying whites and promoting Latino mob violence against them. Machete is not so much about race, as it is about class. The crooks are the capitalists who want to benefit from cheap Mexican labor and denigrate undocumented immigrants to win elections, and they happen to be mostly white. Sorry Roberto Rodriguez, but didn’t you get the memo that a B-grade slasher flick is only appropriate when a white guy or girl goes around killing others? See The American, Kill Bill and so many other Hollywood A-grade flicks.

Machete, played by Danny Trejo, will drive the tea baggers crazy. He is an undocumented immigrant who cannot be deported. He crossed the border; the border did not cross him. He not only steals jobs that Americans want to do but gets the hot girls that should be reserved for American citizens. And heralded as the first Latino action super-hero, he shall never die. Move over Terminator. It’s the ultimate nativist nightmare.

Of course, far scarier than Machete are the white nationalists protesting the movie with their very real machetes. A movie uprising about  undocumented Latinos is so scary.

Machete does pose interesting questions about media representation. The movie ultimately falls into the same trap of Mexploitation that it sets out to criticize. Why are Latinos only depicted as “illegal” immigrants, pregnant teenage girls and welfare mothers, criminals and gangsters in Hollywood movies, and mostly always somehow pose a threat to the dominant culture? With Machete, Rodriguez does not change this picture, even though his approach is a parody on white fear-mongering. But there is some reconciliation in the fact that he does attempt to change the dominant narrative with a successful commercial movie about Latinos with Latino actors in the lead that has crossover appeal.

There are good movies. And then there are ones that should be watched for entertainment value. Machete falls in the latter.