By Eliane Nieder
Discussion around immigration policy often divides migrants into those who are deserving of staying in the United States and those who are not. Migrant rights activism often centers those who are considered deserving migrants — initially, those who come into the United States through legal methods, and then undocumented migrants who were raised in the United States and are seen as exceptional. For example, the DREAM Act has held wider public support than other immigration reforms as the ‘Dreamers’ it supports are framed as educated young people who did not choose to come to the United States. The ‘Dreamers’ are seen as exceptional migrants who have fully assimilated into American culture and are therefore more deserving of American support and resources (Sirriyeh 2018, p.5). While this strategy has given rise to policy that supports some migrants, it simultaneously creates the binary of good vs. bad immigrants or those who are deserving or undeserving of being in the United States. Rather than unifying around universal migrant rights and justice, it places different groups of migrants in competition with each other, implying that some migrants are not deserving of safety and support in the United States (Yukich 2013, p.302).
Migrants with criminal records are doubly placed in the bad/undeserving category due to the criminal record they identified within the American criminal justice system and the inherent criminality assigned to migrants. This double criminality comes together in the ‘crimmigration’ system — the entanglement of the criminal justice and immigraton system. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act expanded grounds for immigration detention and deportation and allowed local and state police to collaborate with immigration enforcement (Massey 2020, p.27). The expansion of detention and deportation followed the more general trend of expansion of the American prison system, streamlining systems of control over people labeled as criminals, whether they are migrants or not. Detention centers can now be found across the country, holding an average of about 50,000 migrants at any given time. Detention and deportation have continued to grow without any significant drop in migration. These policies are therefore not being driven by their effectiveness in deterring migration but rather the profit they produce.
This division between migrants that should and should not be allowed in this country does not reflect the reality that undocumented migrants, whether they have criminal records or not, are a part of our communities. Detention and deportation are not an acceptable answer to responding to crime by undocumented migrants. Removing people from their communities continues the harm being done by continuing disruption to the community– which ultimately harms both American citizens and undocumented people alike. Focusing on the unique contexts around why people migrate and what pushes them to crime and addressing those root causes can help support communities and prevent further crime as people’s needs are met. Focusing on care rather than punishment has the potential to disrupt these cycles of harm.
A young man who grew up undocumented in the United States and was eventually deported to Mexico shared this experience of becoming involved with crime even while previously fitting the model of the generalized deserving migrant:
I was actually doing advanced classes, and this was all from first grade onto middle school. I was doing a lot of extra stuff, but once I started getting into high school, I noticed all my friends getting jobs… I could see them–that they were advancing in life, and I was still in the same spot. So I asked my mom if I could get a job, and that’s when she broke it down to me that I wasn’t even from here… from then on I was just like, “You know what? It’s whatever. What’s the point of even trying?” It kind of messed me up, got me depressed a little bit. I started hanging out with bad people, doing the wrong things, and I dropped out my senior year.
This young man’s experience exemplifies the ways in which inability to access resources or fulfill goals because of undocumentation can push people towards crime. When asked why many young undocumented people get involved in crime, this young man generalized his own story. After being fed the American dream of hard work and achievement their whole lives, realizing it can never really apply to them without documentation is devastating and demoralizing. Turning to crime can also be a matter of survival as without a work permit there are no legal means of making money. Turning to detention and deportation as a solution to this issue only delays real solutions by ignoring the cause of the problem. When individuals are detained or deported, they themselves are not receiving the support they need. In the context of this individual, the possibility of being able to work a job and to use his education may have motivated him to finish school and prevented him from becoming involved in crime.
Another young man who grew up undocumented in the United States and was later deported to Mexico mentioned racial profiling by police as another factor in pushing young undocumented people towards crime. He described being harrassed by police at a young age because they assumed he was a gang member or participating in other crimes simply because he was Mexican. This individual argued that this behavior creates anger and resentment that leads to crime. Within the crimmigration system, police and immigration enforcement are one and the same. These systems that punish rather than heal not only fail to fix the problem but are a factor in causing it. When asked what could have prevented him from becoming involved in a gang, this individual mentions having resources to be involved in programs after school and mentorship. In a conversation with a police officer who used to harass him before he became a gang member, this individual told the officer, “The next kids, just don’t do that. Instead of picking them up, taking them to a Boys & Girls Club or take them to the police station, show them what you guys do. What’s important, what’s bad. That’s what you guys should do, not poking us and search us and take off our shoes.” Investing resources in communities rather than in systems that remove people from them has the potential to reduce future harm and solves problems in communities at their roots.
Incarcerating people, separating them from their families and communities, and failing to support them within their own communities in the United States are not solutions. Although individuals who are subjected to detention and deportation are not American citizens, they are part of American communities. Therefore, their removal from American communities harms both migrants and their families as well as the larger community they are a part of that includes American citizens. In establishing a migration narrative that creates a binary between deserving and undeserving migrants we fail to find true migrant justice, leaving behind a population that needs care and support. The violence caused by detention and deportation continues the cycle of harm that exists when crime is committed. Instead, resources should be devoted to individuals and communities to prevent recurrence in the future and to promote healing from within the community.