Melissa, a Jamaican-born mother of two, has been in detention since 2010. Eleven years ago, Melissa pled guilty to simple assault and obstruction of justice charge for breaking up a conflict between a security guard and her boyfriend in a Virginia Beach skating rink after their belongings were stolen.
Melissa served time for her offence back in 2002. But she did not know at the time that, for non-citizens, an obstruction of justice misdemeanor counts as an aggravated felony. When she tried to apply for citizenship in 2009, she was placed into deportation proceedings. More than a decade after first having contact with the criminal legal system, Melissa was forced to leave behind her family and her 5-year-old twins -- one of whom is autistic and requires especial attention. She is currently fighting deportation.
Melissa's case illustrates the situation that many immigrants in the United States face. We have watched the immigration debate fragment our communities with language that divides us into "good immigrants," who deserve a pathway to citizenship, and "criminal immigrants," who deserve to suffer through detention and be torn from their families by deportation.
The umbrella of criminal categories that make an immigrant a "high priority" detainee has steadily expanded. Melissa is just one of the millions of immigrants who will be excluded from any protection, or even acknowledgment, under the current immigration debate. Not only are our communities being excluded from any hope of legalization, but we're also becoming marginalized among immigrants themselves for the sake of reaching a bargain.
As it stands, the "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" bill passed by the Senate does nothing meaningful for our families. As Families for Freedom, a New York-based, multi-ethnic human rights organization by and for immigrants facing and fighting deportation, we reject the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, S.744.
Politicians dangle the prospect of legalization in front of us with the heavy cost of increased enforcement and the militarization of the border, more deportations of those who have had contact with the criminal legal system, and no right of return for those that have been deported under expansive categories of convictions.
We need to prioritize human life and dignity when considering how we will modernize our immigration system. Currently S. 744 provides most of us with two options: "Registered Provisional Immigrant" status or deportation. The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law estimates that 5 million people will not qualify for temporary legal or "Registered Provisional Immigrant" status and will thus be in danger of immediate deportation. As "RPIs," we would not enter a path to citizenship, but instead a probation period without a full legal status and no legal rights. Not only is this status riddled with exclusionary barriers that target people living in poverty, but it can also be taken away at any point. The bill also does not create a pathway to citizenship for those who have been in the United States legally for years as Green Card holders who have had contact with the criminal legal system -- even when their debt to society has been paid, as is the case with Melissa.
Among our biggest concerns is that S. 744 systematically binds a criminal legal system rooted in mass imprisonment with an immigration system driven by enforcement. Along with the current push for enforcement, the criminalization of our immigrant communities will continue to grow in order to justify the billions of dollars being pumped into immigration enforcement.
With this union, S. 744 will push to expand the categories of who is considered a "criminal alien" and accelerate the process from detention to deportation, leaving no opportunities for discretion or due process. As a result, Green Card holders, asylum seekers, many undocumented people who may not qualify for "RPI" status, and other noncitizens who have had contact with the criminal legal system, will continue to be denied basic human rights.
Last year, about 400,000 families were separated. Yesterday, 1,000 people were forced out of the country. Today, 34,000 of our loved ones deteriorate in prisons and detention centers across the country awaiting real reform. If what we want is comprehensive immigration reform, to support a bill like S. 744 is incomprehensible.
We want a reform that is rooted in family unity, due process and a dignified relationship with our neighbors in Mexico. In 2006, when the last major immigration push was underway, we whole-heartedly supported the Child Citizen Protection Act, which would restore an immigration judge's discretion to stop the deportation of virtually any immigrant if that deportation were against the best interests of their U.S.-citizen child. We will continue to support any legislation, small or large, that respects the right of all families to remain together.
Millions of people in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean and other migrant-sending regions of the global south live with the pain of family separation. Those numbers alone should be enough to teach us about the perils of migration control policies that place the interest of military contractors and discriminatory party politics ahead of the humanity of migrant communities. Standing on the tears, hearts, and hopes of our families, we want reform with justice, not a bargain with politicians that promises provisional status in exchange for a police state that exploits the detention and destruction of our families.