Despite controversies over border walls, separated families and the Muslim travel ban, immigrants are still striving for American citizenship. We Are Witnesses: Becoming an American is a series from The Marshall Project that tells their stories and the stories of those trying to help and hinder them.
by Jarred Bean
“It wasn’t enough to be a neutral observer.”
This was the epiphany Lee Wang had as she sat in an immigration courtroom while reporting on immigration detention facilities in Louisiana. The impartiality of her chosen career in journalism wasn’t allowing her to directly tackle the humanitarian issue unfolding before her, and she decided to shift gears and become an immigration lawyer instead.
Now working for the Immigrant Defense Project in New York City, Lee wants people to realize that the targeting of immigrants in the United States extends far beyond the confines of the border.
“A lot of the calls that we get are from long-time green card holders - people who came here as babies,” she says in The Marshall Project video. “The immigration system can take someone who has spent their entire life in the United States, maybe made one mistake, paid for it, served their time, and then years later (immigration authorities) can drag them into the deportation system and essentially separate them from their families forever.”
The broad authority that immigration authorities have to target immigrants with little to no discretion can be traced back to two bills signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
“Those two laws intertwined the criminal justice systems and immigration in a way that we had never seen before,” Wang says. “They added dozens of new categories of crimes that could get someone deported. All of a sudden, a conviction for something such as theft could subject you to mandatory deportation.
"They literally ... can generate lists and lists of people with old criminal convictions and just systematically go after them.”
“But that legal architecture wasn’t really used until after 9/11, where there is obviously a lot of concern about national security. The Department of Homeland Security was created, and ICE was a part of that. ICE is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and ICE was given the ability to access our criminal justice databases. They literally, you know, can generate lists and lists of people with old criminal convictions and just systematically go after them.”
This targeting continued under President Barack Obama, whose administration gambled they could pass comprehensive immigration reform if they demonstrated they were tough on undocumented immigration. Their gamble failed to pay off due to republican obstruction, and only towards the end of his first term did he work to limit the discretion of immigration officials in detaining immigrants. As a result, more people were deported under his presidency than in either Clinton or Bush’s tenures.
"He is using this broad brush to dehumanize immigrants and just make it easier to get rid of them.”
“That being said, you know,” Wang continues in the video, “the Obama administration did not go after anyone and everyone. What’s happened under the Trump administration is ‘the law is what the law is’ and the Trump administration is going to enforce it to the fullest extent possible. He is using this broad brush to dehumanize immigrants and just make it easier to get rid of them.”
Attempts to constrain immigration officials were effectively nixed by the Trump administration, as Trump sought to synch his xenophobic and dehumanizing rhetoric with the most punitive and draconian policies his team could muster. Any semblance of prioritization was abandoned as indiscriminate detentions skyrocketed, even including crime victims and medical patients in their wave of arrests, and this culture of fear and cruelty dovetailed with other patterns of humanitarian abuse including the Muslim ban, the illegal child separation efforts, and the effective embargo of asylum seekers through Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy and subsequent third-party agreements that force asylum seekers into countries with severe safety risks.
"...the current administration has placed us on a horrifyingly dark path that has already resulted in immense pain and suffering..."
While the seeds of this human rights atrocity were sewn over the course of decades and exacerbated by preceding presidents, the current administration has placed us on a horrifyingly dark path that has already resulted in immense pain and suffering, but will undoubtedly bare results that are hard to imagine, even now.
“What is this era going to mean for future generations? The human consequences are so immense; I don’t even think that we have kind of begun to fathom what it all really means,” Wang concludes.
Jarred Bean is a writer and analyst working in the New York City Department of Education. Coming from a working class family in North Carolina, he has gone on to live in and serve working class communities in the US and abroad. He has previously written for Brand New Congress.
Editor's note: On February 5th, 2020, a California Federal Judge issued a ruling barring ICE from using error-prone databases when issuing requests to police agencies to keep people who have been arrested in custody for up two days beyond the time they would otherwise be held. The ruling affects all but a few states.
A February 7th article in the LA Times also notes "The earlier ruling also blocked ICE from issuing such requests to state and local law enforcement in states where there isn’t an explicit statute authorizing police to arrest someone or keep them in custody on an immigration detainer."