Post by Yolanda Vázquez, Assistant Professor of Law, University of Cincinnati College of Law. Yolanda’s research examines the incorporation of immigration law into the criminal justice system. Her scholarship has focused on the role of criminal courts and the duties of defense lawyers in advising noncitizen defendants on the immigration consequences of a criminal conviction. In this post she discusses recent attempts to reform immigration law in the US, pointing out how such plans continue to criminalise migration.
It has been two months since U.S. President Obama’s announcement on the actions that his administration would take to “fix” the nation’s broken immigration system. As I listened to Obama's speech then, and as I have witnessed the legal and political battles over the legitimacy of the executive order in the intervening months, I have been struck by how the complaints and accolades completely miss the overarching consequence of his plans. For, despite evidence to the contrary, the myth that immigrants, mainly poor and from Latin America, are a potential threat to national security and community safety continues to dominate the debate and actions of this government. As a result, those most devastating parts of immigration law and current policies, which have been responsible for the removal of millions of individuals and the breakup of their families, continues, not only without protest, but with further reinforcement.
The myth of the “criminal alien” and their continued threat to the nation permeated throughout President Obama’s speech. Boasting that the deportation of “criminal aliens” during his administration was up 80 percent, Obama implied that “criminal aliens” have been running rampant throughout the United States, causing violence and devastation. Even though unauthorized immigration is a civil immigration violation, President Obama’s speech conflated it with the current political trend, that unauthorized immigrants were “criminals;” They are “dangerous” for the mere act of crossing a border without permission. They have become a subset of the “criminal alien.”
Obama reinforced the dangerousness of the “criminal alien” by offering words of comfort, “we are going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” he said. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who is working hard to provide for her kids.” His answer to the problems that the nation faces: additional resources for border patrol particularly on the Southwest border; easier and faster processing for highly skilled immigrants; the inability to seek temporary relief from removal if you are a “criminal;” and the continued enforcement against and removal of the “criminal alien.”
Obama's solution? Congress and a bill that passed in the Senate but stalled in the House, “The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” SB744. A bill that he calls “a compromise.” The bill that would give billions of dollars to increase the militarization of the Southwest border with fences, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, and more border patrol provided by former military personnel. A bill that expands the number of crimes that have immigration consequences, and increases the number of prosecutions at the Southwest border for unlawful entry from 70 to 210 per day. A bill that swells the number of immigrants who can be placed under the control of the Department of Homeland Security by allowing for alternatives to detention, not decreasing deportation or detention requirements. The bill that only offers temporary status to those who have been here with the hope that one day, many years from now, they will be able to apply for lawful permanent status—if they keep their job, are not convicted of a crime, and the border security measures are successfully met.
Why should both sides of the immigration debate refocus their attention to the laws and policies that target the “criminal alien?” First, the majority of individuals deported are not those who are the greatest danger or pose an “actual threat to security” but those who are convicted of nonviolent, regulatory and historically civil offenses: traffic, drug, or immigration violations. Second, there is little correlation between immigrants and crime. In fact, most studies find that immigrants are less likely to cause crime. Third, the programs that have been put into place, such as Secure Communities, have done nothing to deter crime. Fourth, the disparate impact that current immigration laws and policies have on the Latino community will continue as the Southwest Border continues to be increasingly patrolled, militarized and targeted and the criminal justice system continues to impact poor people of color.
So, while Latinos, advocates, and others applaud Obama’s executive order and Republicans fight to destroy its implementation, we need to step back and see the bigger picture. Immigration reform will continue to fail and poor immigrants of color, predominately Latinos, will continue to be deemed as threats to the community and the nation, instead of hardworking and contributing members of the United States. As a result, discussions on immigration reform will fail to separate immigration from the criminal justice system, millions of dollars will continue to be spent with no cognizable benefit, and the racialized identity of Latinos as “criminal aliens” will prevent their ability to gain full membership into US society for decades to come.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Vasquez Y. (2015). Obama’s Immigration Announcement and its Aftermath. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/obamas-immigration/ (Accessed [date]).