A Nation of Second Chances, Except for Immigrants

A robust public conversation is currently unfolding led by the formerly incarcerated and seized by President Obama himself to reflect on our current criminal justice system and the lasting stigma and damage it causes those who have been in contact with it.

But does a nation of second chances include those of us who are immigrants?

The President and a bipartisan coalition are calling for reform to drug sentencing laws. The New York Times recently quoted a man who died in prison calling for an end to the use of the term "convict." And the Governor of Virginia just reinstated voting rights to those formerly convicted of felonies.

In a recent post on Medium, President Obama concluded saying that, "As a country, we have to make sure that those who take responsibility for their mistakes are able to transition back to their communities."

But when it comes to our nation's immigration policy, the mistakes and charges the President says should not define a person are still being used to define their belonging in their homes. The Obama Administration will be the first to tell you that we are deporting "felons not families;" a claim that is first largely lying about those who continue to make up the massive numbers of people expelled from this country and second, extends the stigma and double punishment to the people who, within the realm of criminal justice, he demands we find a new way to treat, view, and reintegrate into the communities they come from.

People like Jose Juan Federico Moreno suffer from this consistency gap where the reforms and values the Administration is pushing within one system are the opposite of what is occurring in another. Jose Juan was convicted of driving under the influence seven years ago. Like the people that President Obama lifts up in his commutations, Jose Juan has "taken responsibility for his mistakes. And he's worked hard to earn a second chance." He completed every program and has never had an infraction since.

However, because he was undocumented and unable to obtain a driver's license at the time of the incident, the state of Illinois had discriminatory guidelines that added to the gravity of his sentence. Unlike the approach he's promoting toward those with drug-related convictions within the criminal justice system, the Obama Administration's Immigration Enforcement agency ignores the rest of Jose Juan's personhood, his five citizen children, what he's done with his life since, or the entirety of the fifteen years he's lived in the U.S. Instead, it argues that the mistake he made, makes him a "priority" for removal and has driven him to take sanctuary in a Southside Chicago church, not far from President' Obama's own home, in order to attempt to keep his family together.

If the President says that "it just doesn't make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in prison. An excessive punishment like that doesn't fit the crime. It's not serving taxpayers, and it's not making us safer," does he believe that removing someone from the life they've known and the community that loves them, detaining them indefinitely, and eventually deporting them to countries where they are likely exposed to situations of extreme danger isn't excessive punishment?

Last summer Human Rights Watch exposed that the people who the President is now seeking to champion in criminal justice reform are increasingly the ones in his crosshairs in immigration. One year later and as this conversation continues, it's more than time for it to be inclusive of all the ways in which people with convictions are being punished, whether it's lengthy sentences, barriers to re-entry, or unjust deportation. If not, the nation of second chances will actually just be the nation of double standards.

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