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.

Why I Sat Down In the D.C. Mayor’s Office for One City, One License

DC Mayor Office Action

From Left to Right: Isabel Castillo, Roxana Bendezu, Prerna Lal, Lizbeth Mateo, Marybeth Onyeukwu

Last week, Mayor Vincent Gray of the District of Columbia, introduced a new bill to allow undocumented residents of the District to obtain driver’s licenses and ID cards. This legislation might represent a great step forward for equality and safety in D.C., except that Mayor Gray has decided to create a separate class of driver’s licenses to be given only to undocumented residents.

As an undocumented D.C. resident, I sat down in Mayor Gray’s Executive Office, along with some friends, to ask the Mayor to change his mind and issue the same license for all residents, rather than creating a two-tier system that would label, stigmatize and unfairly mark undocumented residents of the District, risking more violence and discrimination against us.

Because undocumented residents cannot currently obtain driver’s licenses and ID cards in the District where we live, work and attend school, we face a myriad of hardships and injury. We are routinely targeted for robbery, since we carry large sums of cash that we cannot keep in the bank. We are constantly denied housing since we cannot produce proper identification and documents. We risk trouble with law enforcement every time we drive our loved ones to the hospital during an emergency, or our U.S. citizen children to school. If we have legal problems, we can’t get and subsidized help for our Pace Law Firm bill. These problems, and many others, are unlikely to be ameliorated by a two-tier licensing system, because it exposes undocumented residents of the District to federal immigration enforcement efforts and creates a way to target us when we are in neighboring states that are not as generous to undocumented residents.

The Mayor’s Office stresses that the reason for the discriminatory two-tier licensing provision is the federal REAL ID Act of 2005, which sets forth certain standardized requirements for state driver’s licenses and ID cards to be accepted by the federal government for “official purposes.” These requirements include proof of legal status before a state or the District can issue driver’s licenses and ID cards to residents.

At first glance, this may seem to be a gigantic problem, but it is a rather tiny hurdle. First, the Mayor’s Office is interpreting the REAL ID regulations incorrectly. States do not need to comply with the REAL ID as it is not a federal mandate, but has an opt-out provision. States that issue licenses that are non-compliant only risk that the licenses would not be accepted for federal purposes such as at airports, and federal buildings.

Second, per the REAL ID regulations, D.C. is already not in compliance with the federal law. The narrow REAL ID regulations provide for driver’s licenses and ID cards for persons who have lawful status in the United States. However, the regulations render several categories of persons who are lawfully present but have no lawful status in the U.S. ineligible for licenses such as persons with withholding of removal, persons with an order of supervision, persons with a pending cancellation of removal application, and so on. D.C. currently provides licenses to these persons, in violation of the REAL ID regulations, without marking such licenses with a different label such as “not valid for federal purposes.”

Third, regardless of the myriad of exclusions imposed by the REAL ID, the law is not in effect and is unlikely to go into effect anytime soon. In fact, even the constitutionality of the REAL ID Act has not been litigated yet, which means that not only can the actual law wind up in court for many years, but that parts of it can be stuck down as unconstitutional. It belies common sense to implement licensing provisions to comply with a legislation that is not in effect, and that may not withstand constitutional inquiry.

And finally, D.C. has a long history of non-compliance with unjust federal laws and mandates. The D.C. Council was one of the first legislative bodies to renounce REAL ID and pass a resolution urging the repeal of the REAL ID. And just last year, D.C. Council passed a law to restrict the enforcement of the federal Secure Communities program in the District.

There are simple solutions that resolve any purported conflict between the proposed two-tier licensing system and the REAL ID Act. The D.C. Council can propose that until it is required to be in compliance with the REAL ID Act, everyone would be given the standard ID. Alternatively, every D.C. resident should get IDs that state “not valid for federal purposes” as the standard practice while those persons who need or require an ID valid for federal purposes can already obtain an enhanced ID under D.C. Code § 50-1401.03.

Since D.C. does not have home-rule, some critics in the Mayor’s Office and elsewhere have lamented that there is no point to passing such amended legislation as Congress would simply overturn it. This is, once again, hyperbolic and politically ignorant speculation. In fact, Congress won’t touch the legislation with a ten-foot pole for several reasons.

First, Congress has left untouched more controversial measures coming out of the D.C. Council that are not in line with federal law, such as restricting Secure Communities and providing for marriage equality. Second, Rep. Eleanor Norton (DC) and several Congressional staffers do not believe that Congress would act to overturn a D.C. transportation provision at time when a bipartisan group of Congresspersons are working on sweeping reforms to the immigration system. Third, Congress does not have to act in order for the licensing provision to become law. Congress would simply have to fail to overturn the bill within 30 legislative days, which is very likely, given their well-known aptitude at failing to pass legislation.

Separate is not now, and never has been, equal. It is time to treat all D.C. residents equally, and disband with the two-tier proposal that unfairly targets, stigmatizes and enables profiling of hard-working, undocumented D.C. residents. If we are indeed supposed to be one city, then we all deserve to have the same license.

For more info. on the One City, One License Campaign, please see DreamActivist D.C. and join our Coming Out of the Shadows Action on May 9th, 2013 at 3 PM, at Freedom Plaza.

Crossposted at Huffington Post

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San Francisco looks like heaven from the skies.

I’m leaving my home for a new one.

Home has always been a site of violence and repression but also one where I’m loved and cared for the most. I’m going to do my hardest to make sure that this new home will be new start for us.

Here’s to laying some new roots while the benevolent pro-family, pro-immigrant, pro-queer Obama Administration tries to uproot me from my multiple homes.

Embracing the Colonial

Shockingly, this isn’t a post about post-colonialism unless you read beyond the text and unearth a sub-text.

I’ve been in Washington D.C. for several days now thoroughly detesting the humid weather in this swampy city while checking out housing.

It was a daunting task — I’ve no official credit history even though I’ve never defaulted on a payment. I’ve no record of employment even though I am an entrepreneur with a limited liability company to my name. Getting an apartment on my name would have been next to impossible even though I could pay an advance of 6-months in rent. The other option was room-shares and I had nailed down several I needed to check out. Luckily (or unluckily), the housing counselor assigned me to on-campus housing, which had been unavailable prior to coming to D.C.

I jumped at the chance to live on campus although now I think about it, law school will feel all too much like high school or being a “freshman” in college.I’m not sure I necessarily want that “experience” but it’s fun to slip into another role and place where practically no one recognizes you. It’s a chance to re-invent myself and figure out what I really want outside the pressures of family drama and “movement-building.”

There’s no need to act like a martyr, step on the sacrificial pyre, and give myself stress about anything that does not directly concern my life.

Nearing the first week of DC living, I can say:

  • The French bistros and urban hipster places feel equally comfortable though we certainly need way more ethnic food.
  • I don’t particular know how I feel about the Foggy Bottom area where I’m residing but I do love the quaint Eastern Market, U-street, the gay-borhoods and Columbia Heights.
  • DC is still a particularly soul-less city for me with way too many kool-aid drinkers. I’m a critical thinker and deconstructionist. It’s like the worst fit for me, intellectually and politically. We know I’d rather be at UCLA if I could get the benefits of their David Epstein public interest program, but lets not start on that now.
  • The monsoon type rains are fantastic in the summer (and deserve a completely separate blog post)

Today I went shopping at the GW bookstore and bought myself some gear. I’m a GW Colonial working on my second graduate degree this Fall. It’s like living an alternative reality. But I plan to enjoy it while it lasts.

Go Colonials!

A Letter to Tam Tran. RIP

Someone told me to write a letter so this is my pathetic attempt at trying to conjure one up.

You are gone and I can’t even launch a campaign to bring you back. I am helping with the cause to get you posthumous citizenship though, which might infuriate you more. I am not quite sure. It just feels right.

You always promised to call back when I left a voicemail. But you didn’t call back this time.

I am angry. I fear my anger more than anything else. There’s this rage inside me threatening to explode every few hours and I am trying desperately to not do anyone any damage. That means I am turning my rage inwards and doing myself a lot of damage and destroying my own life. If you were around, you’d probably say that is very Asian of me and we’d laugh about it.

I am hurt. The people around me simply fail to understand precisely what I need. But maybe it is my fault since I’ve failed to articulate what I need or go looking for it in the wrong places.

I am heart-broken. I’ve never really lost anyone close to me. Even when I was brought here, I knew the people I left behind were still alive. But death is so final. And you were the last people that deserve it. I keep wishing that it was me instead of you that was taken from our beautiful community. Why doesn’t death come to those who don’t want to live?

We are told to remember the good times, the good lessons and let it move us forward. That pretty much involves every moment that I did get to spend with both of you whether it was in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles or Washington DC.

I also regret the fact that I never pushed you harder to actually use your Twitter account! No, you would actually rather live life.

Every moment we got to spend together was special. After all, we had a mutual admiration society. You were fascinated with everything I could do online while I looked up to you like any other starry-eyed kid. I’ll always be thankful for the entire weekend in San Francisco and the one night we got to spend in New York talking till the wee hours of the morning about anything and everything. I looked forward to joining you in academia, making the rounds at all those conferences where we didn’t seem to belong but something inside us propelled us to at least pay attention and hang around long enough to tolerate it.

In fact, I secretly enjoyed the idea of having a whole niche of former DREAM kids in academia, even though my academic interests have little to do with immigration policy. And we were supposed to write a book together, remember? All we have on our name is this one paper: Undocumented and Undaunted.

That would describe you quite aptly, leaving out the reserved part. We had quite a lot in common. People don’t realize how shy and reserved I am as a person–I just end up coming across as arrogant. We were thrust into the limelight as activists and were always reluctant to live up to some expectation of us that others had. But we did our best at trying to represent even as our hearts pulled us in other directions. We also did our best to live life and not let any obstacles affect our choices. I was actually putting my life back together after a decade of not living, complete with a job and girlfriend before this tragedy came out of nowhere blowing the facade away.

I am still struggling with making sense of life these past few years. You loved DreamActivist right down to the name while I’ve never gotten used to the fact that it might be seen as my biggest achievement. After all, it’s ironic and feels like a fluke at times–I don’t even want to live here! Quite often, I run from the movement and everything that is American, telling myself that this is not where I am supposed to be and not what I am supposed to do with my life. I run from the people who love and appreciate me the most, pushing them all away. And it wasn’t till I was getting ready to leave for Canada that I started to live and love again. I realized how deeply I had grown to like and appreciate things around me. It took a moment to sink in and I hated myself for it. At the same time, I realized that no matter how hard I try to erase it, I am an American.

The last thing you said to me was to go to George Washington Law school because between Canada and GW, the latter was closer to you and it meant I would hang around. I had made up my mind to come to DC. Now I don’t know. It happens to be the place where I first and last met you.

All I know at this moment in time is that even though you cannot reply, you will guide me as I continue my search for answers to questions I have long forgotten.

Love, Prerna.

P.S. You have my precious L Word Season 1 DVD set!

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