Critics of the federal government's latest wave of deportations--which started with predawn raids in early January and saw 121 Central American asylum seekers, many of them children and parents, grabbed from their homes by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents--correctly argue that such tactics are brutal and terrifying. They're also right to note that most of the targets had been denied a fair chance at asylum, since few, if any, had lawyers to help them navigate a complicated legal process; and that sending them back to the dangers they fled in their home countries is inhumane.
Yet where many of the same critics have gone wrong is in calling for a halt just to raids focused on Central American families and a return to President Obama's much-hyped policy of targeting "felons, not families." What they ought to be demanding is an end to the government's entire deportation regime, which in going after people with criminal records, has continually violated human rights and torn families apart.
Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) has monitored ICE raids and "community arrests" since 2013, and we've uncovered troubling patterns and rights abuses in the targeting of people with criminal records. We've found evidence of ICE agents using excessive force, such as storming into people's home with their weapons drawn, forcibly separating children from their parents, and holding guns to people's heads. ICE agents in many instances intentionally confuse people to gain access to homes without a proper warrant, often misrepresenting themselves as police conducting an investigation. We've also seen examples of ICE arresting people at and outside courthouses, creating significant obstacles for their criminal legal cases, and snatching immigrants out of homeless shelters or supportive housing, many of them with serious mental health issues or medical conditions.
In detaining and deporting such people, the U.S. government punishes them for a second time -- often long after they have already served their sentence, paid their fine, or carried out their community service. Human beings who are members of families and communities -- parents, grandparents, siblings, co-workers, and neighbors with deep roots in the United States and deserving of fundamental rights -- are thus reduced to "criminals" and permanent outsiders.
ICE targets people with convictions under the guise of protecting public safety. But, in the vast majority of cases, there is no evidence that these individuals represent any kind of threat. They include people with convictions regarded as so minor by the criminal justice system that their penalty was to pay a small fine or to do community service, some whose felony convictions are from aggressive government prosecution of illegal entry offenses, others whose convictions were decades old, and many with serious medical conditions.
Take the example of a woman whose case we encountered in New York. She was picked up by ICE in her home in an early morning raid, targeted as a threat to the community. In her mid-50s, she has lived in the United States almost her whole life. She suffers from several serious medical conditions, including cancer, and is a survivor of serious domestic abuse. She suffered greatly in detention as she received improper medical treatment. She is now facing deportation due to a shoplifting conviction as well as a drug possession conviction from over 20 years ago.
The government is able to deport people en masse in large part because the system is extremely unforgiving. Even a minor conviction can lead to permanent exile, and immigrants facing that prospect lack basic due process rights. Since there is no right to appointed counsel in immigration court, the vast majority of immigrants facing deportation have no access to an attorney and are forced to represent themselves in extremely complicated and technical proceedings where a judge has very limited discretion to consider any positive equities such as the length of time they've lived in the United States, their family ties, and work history, or how they've turned their lives around since their convictions. This situation applies across the board to undocumented people, asylum seekers, and long-time legal permanent residents.
The spotlight on aggressive ICE tactics against vulnerable targets is a time to take pause and critique the logic of mass deportation of people with convictions. Those who call for the deportation of "felons, not families" not only disregard the humanity of people with convictions, they also overlook the growing recognition, in the criminal justice context, that treating people as irredeemable is fundamentally unjust. At a time when the federal government and many states and municipalities are taking steps to rectify some harmful aspects of criminal justice policies--such as felony disenfranchisement, exclusion from critical social services and employment, and harsh mandatory sentencing provisions -- we must apply similar critical scrutiny to the immigration enforcement regime. Human beings who happen to be non-citizens have fundamental rights, too, whatever their history.
The administration claims its immigration enforcement policies are "consistent with our laws and values." But the fact is that the laws themselves -- indeed the immigration system writ large -- are frequently at odds with values of fairness, equality and justice. Laws that punish people twice over, that impose permanent exile without a fair day in court, are inhumane and unacceptable -- and not at all consistent with the values of a just society.