Structural Racism and Mass Deportation

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a goal of deporting 400,000 people from the United States every year. The policy of DHS to deport as many people as possible is advertised as a measure that enhances national security. The way that mass deportation is implemented, however, leads to the disproportionate deportation of black Caribbeans and Latin Americans. Because of the disproportionate impact of deportation on black and Latino immigrants, the policy of mass deportation is another manifestation of racial inequality in the United States.

(image from here.)

The overwhelming majority of the 12 million undocumented people in the United States are not in deportation proceedings. Some undocumented migrants, particularly East Asians, are very unlikely to ever be apprehended and deported. In 2007, there were about 230,000 undocumented South Koreans in the United States. Only 417 Koreans were deported from the United States in 2007. In that same year, there were about 280,000 undocumented Hondurans in the United States. Yet, 29,737 Hondurans were deported. In 2007, there were slightly more undocumented Chinese and Filipinos in the United States than Hondurans. However, only 408 Filipinos and 766 Chinese were deported. This is indicative of a trend – Latin Americans are much more likely than Asians to be deported.

Given that DHS claims to be making the nation safer through deportation, it is remarkable that they almost never deport people to countries which the U.S. Department of State identifies as sponsoring terrorism – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan. In 2007, for example, 319,382 people were deported. Among these were 49 Iranians, 27 Iraqis, 40 Syrians, 76 Cubans, and 13 Sudanese. (Data were not available for Libya and North Korea.) Instead, deportees are most often sent to countries with which the United States has amicable relations – our allies in the Western Hemisphere. Human Rights Watch reports that 897,099 people were deported on criminal grounds between April 1, 1997, and August 1, 2007, and that 94 percent of these people were from just ten countries, all in the Western Hemisphere – Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Colombia, Jamaica, Canada, Brazil, and Haiti,

The laws that have led to mass deportation were created in the context of fears of a racialized other. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which lay the groundwork for much of present-day undocumented migration and employment, was the result of nativist concerns over rising numbers of undocumented immigrants in the United States. The 1996 laws, which expanded the grounds for deportation, were an outgrowth of Proposition 187, a California initiative with many racial overtones. The Homeland Security Act, which allowed for the funding of mass deportation, came about in the context of fear of terrorists, often racialized as Middle Eastern. Although these laws are color-blind on the books, both their enactment and implementation are tainted by implicit and explicit acts of racism.

As Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro (among other scholars) explain, it is not necessary for laws to use explicitly racial language to reproduce racial inequalities. Insofar as laws, policies, and institutions create inequitable outcomes in their implementation, they can be considered part of the structural racism that has pervaded U.S. society since its inception.

Forced to Choose Between Family and Country

In the United States of America, the spouses of US citizens can be deported, no matter how long they have lived in the United States, no matter how many US citizen children they have, and no matter how much they love their family.

In Chicago in 2008, I interviewed nine couples that consisted of a US citizen married to an undocumented migrant. Each couple discussed the implications of US immigration law to their families. I discuss this project in this video:

This is one of the stories from this project:

Fatima is 30 years old, graduated from Loyola University, and works as a family therapist, counseling families whose children are in juvenile detention. She likes being able to help people, to give them hope, and to figure out ways to make their life better. Her husband, Antonio, paints houses for a living. He would like to go back to school, to learn a trade such as an electrician, or maybe open a business. But, life hasn’t presented him with that opportunity yet.

Fatima, along with her two sisters, was born in Mexico City. When she was four years old, her father passed away, and her mother decided that it would be easier for her to raise her three children in the U.S. She was able to obtain visas, and they came to the US on an airplane. Eventually, the whole family obtained U.S. citizenship.

Antonio was born in Michoacan, Mexico, in a small town. His father was attacked by a bull when Antonio was thirteen. This accident left him invalid, and Antonio and his brother left school to go to Mexico City to work. They found work in a car wash, and stayed there for six years, until a woman from their hometown asked Antonio to accompany her to cross over to the U.S. Antonio arrived in Dallas, and eight months later, decided to come to Chicago. In Chicago, he spent several months working as a day laborer, until he finally found a more stable job as a painter. He has been in that job now for four years, and works seven days a week most weeks.

Not too long after Antonio found his current job, he met Fatima. When I spoke with them, in May 2008, they had a two and a half years old son and had been married for three years.

Fatima and Antonio came to the community-based organization, Latinos Progresando, to see if there was anything they could do to legalize Antonio’s status. Antonio had been living here illegally since he crossed the border in 2003. Fatima said she is constantly stressed out. When he goes to work, she has to worry about whether or not there will be a raid, or if he will be stopped by the police. This stress is clearly wearing on her, as her voice broke and her eyes welled up with tears as she talked to me. Continue reading…

Governor Paterson’s Pardon Panel Sets a Better Example than Arizona

In the absence of a national comprehensive immigration reform, individual states are coming up with their own immigration laws and policies.  Two of the most notable state actions include the signing of SB 1070 in Arizona by Governor Jan Brewer and a decision by Governor Paterson of New York to offer more pardons to legal permanent residents facing deportation.

The bill recently signed into law in Arizona criminalizes undocumented migrants by making undocumented migration a crime of trespassing – the punishment for which will involve a fine and jail time. In United States law, there is no punishment for being undocumented, as being undocumented is not a crime. Deportation is not considered punishment; it is a civil sanction. Deportation is outside the purview of most Constitutional protections. For this reason, immigration agents can detain people without establishing reasonable suspicion and non-citizens are not afforded counsel in deportation proceedings. In Arizona, police officers will be trained to enforce immigration laws and will turn suspected undocumented migrants over to federal immigration agents to be deported. Arizona officials cannot deport anyone.

As Jessie pointed out in a recent post, the Arizona law is tied to white supremacist organizations. In stark contrast to the Arizona law which makes undocumented immigration a crime, New York Governor Paterson announced on Monday that he will establish a special five-member state panel to review the cases of legal permanent residents convicted of crimes to determine whether or not they merit a governor’s pardon.

Governor Paterson’s panel, unlike the immigration court system, can take into account the severity of the crime, the ties to the US, and lack of ties to the home country of legal permanent residents convicted of aggravated felonies to decide whether or not a non-citizen should be deported. Under current law, non-citizens convicted of aggravated felonies face automatic deportation. Immigration judges cannot take into account any personal circumstances. Aggravated felonies include a wide array of crimes – some of which are actually misdemeanors. For example, a shoplifting conviction with a suspended sentence of one year counts as an aggravated felony. People who have been legal residents of the United States for nearly all of their lives have been deported for shoplifting Tylenol, for smoking marijuana and for forging checks.

Once the judge determines that a crime meets the definition of an aggravated felony, the non-citizen faces deportation. It does not matter if the person was adopted by a US citizen as an infant or came to the US as an adult – a conviction of an aggravated felony automatically leads to a deportation. There are only two ways for a person convicted of an aggravated felony can avoid deportation – a governor’s pardon or a presidential pardon. Until now, very few pardons have been granted.

Governor Paterson’s decision to implement a panel to review pardon cases is very different from what is going on in Arizona. Arizona is attempting to change the nature of immigration law by criminalizing civil offenses. Governor Paterson is not changing any laws. He is simply taking on more actively a power he already has – the power to grant pardons.

State senators across the United States are proposing to take immigration laws into their own hands. Unfortunately, most states are looking to follow the path of Arizona and criminalize immigrants. Few states are proposing to provide relief for legal permanent residents convicted of crimes. This is an aspect of immigration law that needs to be changed at the federal level. For now, however, state governors could show the need for this by implementing panels similar to that of Governor Paterson.

Since 1996, over 100,000 legal permanent residents have been deported from the United States due to criminal convictions – many of them for minor crimes. (See this site for more information about aggravated felonies.).   Our immigration laws are desperately in need of reform. Most of the legislative proposals in Congress, however, do not propose to change the overly punitive laws regarding the deportation of legal permanent residents convicted of crimes. Few lawmakers wish to be perceived as not being tough on crime. Who wants to stand up for “criminal aliens”?

I commend Governor Paterson for standing up for what is right and encourage other Governors to take similar action. It is right and it is in line with our values as a nation to allow people facing deportation to have their cases heard.  It is wrong to deport people without taking into consideration their ties to the United States and the effects of their deportation on their lives and on the lives of their families.

~Tanya Golash-Boza is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Sociology at the University of Kansas. She blogs about immigration policy at:

Reflections on the The March for America: a Movement Matures

As I waited in the bus for the rest of our riders to come trickling in, two middle-aged,  men, Ricardo and José,  slowly walked in, clearly fatigued after the pre-march rally, immigrant rights march, four-hour rally and long hike to the stadium where hundreds of buses were parked. As they stumbled in  José  asked “and now what do we tell Obama”? “Nothing more for now”, responded an exhausted Ricardo as he plopped on his bus seat. “We have already spoken with our bodies”.


(Image from Messay Photography @Flickr – excellent slideshow here)

Four years ago when I started researching the immigrant rights movement in Chicago, a march of this magnitude in DC was barely imaginable.  I was one of a group of scholars at the University of Illinois at Chicago who were closely studying the megamarches in Chicago while observing from afar the multitude of marches in cities large and small throughout the country.  Spurred by  by a loose coalition of organizations,  churches, religious groups and unions in light of the collective fear  of a bill that would have criminalized immigrants and those who supported them, the megamarches were a sign of Latino political potential, albeit ones that relied primarily on the strengths of each home base. The kind of national organization and coordination of grassroots efforts that a megamarch on DC would have required still seemed quite distant. Moreover, after an immigration reform bill introduced in the Senate failed in the summer of 2007, some feared that perhaps the Latino muscle shown would be hard to revive. The marches continued, but dwindled significantly in numbers in 2008 and 2009.

However, interpreting this decline in the number of marchers as a decline of the immigrant rights movement would be a serious mistake.  Post-2006 activism and advocacy continued in many forms. Throughout the country new community organizations proliferated in many major cities but also were created for the first time in small cities, suburbs and villages that had great immigrant demographic growth but low preexisting levels of organization.  For example, last year, in the Chicago metro area, PASO,  the West Suburban Action project, was founded, bringing  together two large churches and several suburbs to organize for immigrant rights among other issues.  Barely four months ago,  a group of undocumented youth created the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) , born out of an arduous and ultimately successful campaign to prevent the deportation of a local college student. Eleven days before the DC march, the IYJL staged its first major action, a march and rally. Stating that they were undocumented and unafraid,  eight undocumented youth publicly came out of the shadows, telling their painful stories of what it means to grow up undocumented in the US, emphasizing their need to speak for themselves about their lack of freedom and opportunity in the only country they consider their home.

Meanwhile, older organizations continued their steady work. Centro Sin Fronteras continued to focus on the family separation issue, working  closely with Continue reading…

Immigrants and Citizens Alike Affected by Immigration Reform

The immigration policy debate is not solely about the fate of immigrants, or of non-citizens. The outcome of these debates and any measures enacted under the guise of immigration reform will affect United States citizens. In the contemporary United States, any policy that has negative implications for immigrants inevitably also will have negative consequences for citizens. This is because, in many ways, there is not a clear boundary between non-citizens and citizens nor between immigrants and citizens.

Some US citizens are immigrants, and some non-citizens will become citizens. In addition, most non-citizens have citizen family members. As Fix and Zimmerman point out, fully:

“85 percent of immigrant families (i.e. those with at least one non-citizen parent) are mixed status families. The meaning of this is clear: most policies that advantage or disadvantage non-citizens are likely to have broad spillover effects on the citizen children who live in the great majority of immigrant families” (emphasis in original).

In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is charged with handling the transition of the foreign-born either into citizenship or into leaving this country. As indicated on the DHS official website, the mission of the DHS is as follows:

We will lead the unified national effort to secure America. We will prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation. We will ensure safe and secure borders, welcome lawful immigrants and visitors, and promote the free-flow of commerce.

The primary mission of the DHS is to protect citizens from terrorist attacks. This projection involves protecting the borders, and enforcing laws in the interior, but at the same time, welcoming lawful immigrants and visitors and international commerce. For the DHS, lawful immigrants are potential citizens, whereas unlawful immigrants are unwelcome.  The DHS is charged both with enabling immigrants to become citizens and ensuring that those who are not eligible for citizenship are appropriately regulated.

Although the DHS is clear on its intent to regulate non-citizens and to protect citizens, it is not possible to divide the US into two discrete parts – citizens versus non-citizens. It is perhaps more useful to draw a divide between the foreign-born who are eligible for citizenship and those who are not. The foreign-born who are eligible for citizenship include legal permanent residents who have been in the US for several years, and have not violated US laws. Those who are not eligible for citizenship include most undocumented migrants, tourists, students, refugees, and non-citizen who have violated certain US laws.

Non-citizens who are convicted of a wide range of legal violations not only are ineligible for citizenship, but also face deportation. The legal violations that render non-citizens deportable include violent crimes such as murder, rape, and robbery. However, they also include minor crimes such as crossing the border without inspection, shoplifting, resisting arrest, and tax evasion. A US citizen who commits similar crimes faces the appropriate charges, serves any time sentenced, and goes about his or her life. A non-US citizen who commits these crimes faces deportation to his or her country of birth. In this sense, the law is clear as to the different nature of punishment for citizens versus non-citizens. The impact, however, is often felt by citizens. When a non-citizen is deported, his or her family often suffers greatly.

People who are not US citizens and are thus subject to deportation often have US citizen family members. They also often live in communities with US citizens. Some may have been in the country for a few days, but others have settled here and have been here for decades. Their deportation can be a tragedy for those left behind. For this reason, the immigration policy debate cannot take a narrow look simply at migrants, but must also take into consideration the significant impact on citizens, as well as recognize that immigrants and citizens are not mutually exclusive categories, but often stages in a person’s migrant career.

Legalization for All? Not with HR 4321

It looks like it is about time for immigration reform to be debated in Congress again. For the twelve million undocumented people in the United States, immigration reform could not come too soon.

H.R.4321 – Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, the latest proposed legislation, would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status. This provision has caused anti-immigration activists such as Mark Krikorian and others to voice concern about the proposed legislation. Among immigrant-rights activists, the provision is generally celebrated. However, many activists also recognize that HR 4321 likely will not provide for the legalization of all 12 million undocumented people in the US.

HR 4321 provides legalization only to those undocumented immigrants who qualify. Any undocumented immigrant who has been convicted of more than three misdemeanors or one felony will not be eligible for legalization.

This may, at first glance, seem like a fair provision. Who wants criminal elements in our midst? However, if we consider the potential human costs to deportation, the story changes. Felonies are generally crimes for which the sentence is more than one year. Felony convictions vary by state but could include, for example, property damage over $250 (Arizona) or possession of one gram of cocaine (Indiana) possession of four ounces of marijuana (Texas) or possession of a BB gun (New Jersey). These are crimes, but many would argue that the punishment should not be permanent separation from one’s loved ones. For many, deportation amounts to exile from the only country they have known.

Due to racist police tactics and a discriminatory justice system, felony convictions are all too common for people of color. For example, Bureau of Justice statistics estimate that 17% of Hispanic males in the United States will go to State or Federal prison at least once in their lifetimes (pdf).  Notably, only about 75% of people convicted of felonies actually serve time, making the rate of felony convictions for Latinos even higher. Rates of incarceration for immigrants are lower than for the native born.  However, it is reasonably safe to say that as many as one million of the current twelve million undocumented migrants currently in the United States will not be eligible for legalization because of prior criminal convictions.

Many of these one million people will be long-term residents of the United States, and will have families in the United States. Knowing they have a criminal conviction, they will be faced with the choice of remaining in the shadows and continuing to live with their families and leaving their families behind to fend for themselves.

In short, anything less than legalization for all will mean that the problems associated with undocumented migration will not go away with immigration reform. We will continue to have people in the United States who are deprived of the basic rights that go along with legal status, and, of course, citizenship.

It is crucial to point out that those undocumented migrants that can take advantage of legalization will benefit from the passage of a bill such as HR 4321. For that reason, this bill deserves the support of the progressive community. At the same time, we should continue to push for the long-held goal of the immigrant rights movement – legalization for all! Anything less will be a compromise that will harm millions of immigrants and their families.

~ Tanya Maria Golash-Boza teaches at the University of Kansas and blogs about her research on the consequences of mass deportation at