VOICES: Obama skewers the immigrant justice movement

Photo of a sign at a Secure Communities protest rally, by WEBN-TV via Flickr, says in English, "An injury to one is an injury to all. Solidarity!"

By Kung Li

The Obama administration announced last week it will be reviewing pending immigration deportation cases in order to prioritize people with criminal records for deportation over "low-priority" immigrants. Individuals eligible for the DREAM Act, veterans, and victims of crime who are currently in deportation proceedings will, if the reviews are done as promised, have their cases stayed.  

The announcement was made in response to sustained, well-organized pressure by immigrants, Latinos and allies critical of the President's deportation policies in general and the controversial Secure Communities (S-Comm) program in particular. Three hundred people walked out of an S-Comm Task Force hearing in Los Angeles on Monday, Aug. 15. Two days later, in Chicago, Task Force members were again confronted by an audience angry at the President's use of S-Comm to ramp up deportations. As in Los Angeles, an undocumented youth leader asked the Task Force members to resign, and led a walk out from the hearing. Blocking an exit ramp from the I-94 freeway, six undocumented youths were arrested.  

Apparently startled by the forcefulness of the protests, the Obama administration scrambled a conference call on Aug. 18 to announce the case-by-case reviews. Though modest, it is a concrete step to stopping the deportation of DREAM Act-eligible students and victims of crimes. Women like 20-year-old Isaura Garcia, who testified during the Los Angeles hearing about calling police for help and ending up in deportation proceedings, will have their cases stayed. A sweetener: some individuals whose cases are closed will be able to apply for work authorization.

Determined, direct action by courageous and creative organizers -- undocumented youth in particular -- has forced the Obama administration to make a real move. 

And so the chess game begins. 

How is Obama going to play this? This White House blog post by Cecilia Muñoz, uploaded in the hours between the L.A. and Chicago hearings, gives a clue. Muñoz boasts of "a dramatic increase in the number of criminals deported from the United States," and credits S-Comm for enhancing Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) ability to deport people who have committed crimes. The administration's strategy hinted at in this blog post is this: split immigrants into non-criminals and criminals, and insist that those being deported are criminals, not immigrants. Or mothers, or long time residents, or uncles, or co-workers, or neighbors, or friends. Labeling people "criminals" erases every other part of their being.

It is a cynical and aggressive strategy that bolsters ICE and de-legitimizes anyone who continues to oppose the President's deportation policies. Those policies will, Muñoz said during the Aug. 11 conference call, continue at the same frenzied pace as these past two years, with no change in the overall number of deportations.

If this is indeed Obama's overall strategy, it becomes clear that by responding as he did to criticisms over S-Comm, the President is setting up a skewer move. In chess, the skewer is an offensive move that is made possible when two pieces are lined up with a more valuable piece -- let's say the queen -- in front of a less valuable one, like the knight or rook. When the piece in front is threatened, the player must move it aside, sacrificing the other piece. 

The only defense to a skewer move is to not put yourself in the position of being skewered in the first place. That can only be done by rejecting wholesale the premise that some people are less valuable than others because they have a criminal record. 

Cristian is young, undocumented, and unfailingly polite. He has a criminal record. He was sleeping in a friend's car when he was woken up by a police officer and charged with underage drinking. He falls within the priority category of "criminal."

Jean Montrevil and his wife Jani are the parents of four beautiful children. Jean came to the U.S. in 1986 as a teenager, with a green card, from Haiti. Jean has a criminal record. When Jean was 20, he was busted on a cocaine charge. The judge sentenced him to 27 years -- an extraordinarily long sentence -- of which he served 10. Since his release, Jean has built up a van service in Brooklyn, became a member of Families for Freedom, and co-founded the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC. Even though Jean is a legal resident, he is still considered a "criminal alien" and falls under the high priorities for deportation.

Aleida is a single mother of the three U.S. citizen children, the youngest being 6 months old. She has a criminal record. Aleida was arrested in New Orleans for domestic violence after defending herself from a woman visiting her cousin's home. Under the guidelines, Aleida is a "criminal" rather than a victim, and a priority for deportation.

How long is this list of people who are not protected by the promised stays? John Sandweg of the Department of Homeland Security said that over 94% of S-Comm deportations last year met their "priority" criteria. No complex math necessary here -- the reality is that the overwhelming majority of people who are facing deportation will still be deported. Only now, they will be deported to the sound of the Obama administration crowing about how they are "deporting criminals."

The resistance to S-Comm and the criminalization of immigrants has built both momentum and moral power over these past two years. Holding DHS to its word and insisting on a stay of proceedings for every eligible person will -- and should -- be the gratifying, immediate next move by the advocates and organizers that forced the administration to act. 

But to then get drawn into an argument over what constitutes a "serious" crime and what does not, or whether certain types of crimes should be excluded or included, would be playing directly into Obama administration's strategy. 

Every statistically-based analysis of the criminal justice system shows it is deeply racially biased at each stage, and more oriented towards policing and convicting people who are poor than those who are dangerous. Contact with such a criminal justice system is no way to decide who should or should not be deported. 

Just as illegitimate is the Obama administration's insistence on enforcing immigration laws that it has acknowledged need to be changed. Change the laws first, to give immigrants who have been here more than five years and want to remain a reasonable way to do so legally. Halt deportations in the meantime. Enforcing laws that need to be changed before changing those laws makes no sense. Using a rapacious, racially-biased criminal justice system to carry out -- and justify -- that enforcement turns mere senselessness into cruelty.