Borders and Bars: Exploring Connections Between Immigration and Criminal Justice

I grew up being afraid of the police.  For my family and I, one bad police encounter was just a slippery road away from an immigration detention center, from being pulled away from everything we knew.  In retrospect I am surprised it took me so long to see the connections between immigration and the criminal justice system.

But just in the same way I grew up afraid of the police, I grew up believing that people in jail deserved to be there.  That they had caused harm, and there needed to be a consequence for it; and the only consequence was incarceration.  In college, when I started organizing for immigrant rights, I was so fueled by anger that oftentimes the only way to convey the injustices against the immigrant community was to compare ourselves to someone else.  I am saddened to accept that I was one of the people who said “Immigrants are not criminals, we don’t deserve to be treated as such”.

But what does that mean, where does the need to measure my worth up against some else come from?  And who deserves just treatment and who doesn’t?  I have been examining this question for a while now, and it all resurfaced last month after the DAPA hearing.  I qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) out of sheer luck, simply because I was in the U.S. at the right time.  DACA is an executive action that gives young certain people who were brought to the US as children a 2-year renewable work permit, safety from deportation, the ability to apply for a social security number, be employed, and in some states the chance to apply for an ID/driver’s license.  

Similar to DACA is DAPA, a relief program for parents of U.S citizens/permanent residents announced in 2015.  It would have provided similar benefits.  However, DAPA has been held up in the courts for almost a year now, and last month the Supreme Court reached a 4-4 vote on whether or not it could move forward.  My parents do not have children who are U.S. citizens, and therefore didn’t qualify for DAPA, even if it had passed.  And while DACA and DAPA create opportunities for many undocumented immigrants, they are also painful reminders that piecemeal reforms create a dichotomy of deserving versus undeserving.  Prioritizing certain immigrants, certain age groups, certain lifestyles, and affording them different opportunities over others, creates a hierarchy of worth.  All of the sudden I was more worthy of the right to work, to have a driver’s license, and to live without fear of deportation because I fit the criteria for an immigration policy.

And suddenly it hit me, this is happening within the criminal justice system too.  I think of myself as a pretty progressive person.  I think locking people in cages is wrong and punitive.  But it's easy to hop on the anti-prison complex band-wagon when the people involved committed “less serious crimes”, it's easy to say people charged with nonviolent drug related offenses don’t deserve to be punished so harshly, suggesting that others do deserve harsh punishment.  Instead, can I challenge myself to see the humanity of people who are in prison for violent crimes?  Can I struggle to understand that small criminal justice reforms polarize people into “good” and “bad” prisoners?  But most importantly, can I understand that this polarization is creating the same injustices between immigrants and people caught up in the criminal justice system?

Yes, but it's a painful process.  I am slowly struggling to see the connections between immigrants and people who are incarcerated.  I am understanding that just like immigrant justice is not only about youth and model students, criminal justice isn’t just about ending the ‘war on drugs’ or focusing on small-scale offenses.  Both issues challenge us to see the dignity in each other without needing to hold others down in order to raise ourselves up.