My Experience With The Broken Immigration System

The United States runs the world's largest immigration detention system. This network's most indefensible features are its reliance on jails and prisons to hold violators before a hearing and countless systemic inequities and bureaucratic hurdles. It's a broken-down scheme in drastic need of reform.

The United States is the country I've lived in for 40 years. I became an American citizen in April 2016. Twenty-three years earlier I was one of the thousands of detainees witnessing first-hand the baleful effects of immigrant enforcement, which punishes victims far beyond the scale of any offense they may have committed.

Summoned to a U.S. immigration court in 1993, the possibility of deportation from the only country I've known since age 11 hung over me like a proverbial sword of Damocles. I'd completed my prison sentence for the self-defense shooting of my cousin (who was hired as my bodyguard before becoming a literal menace, extorting money and threatening my family) during which a bystander was injured. Since then I've had no other trouble with the law.

A lengthy hearing ensued. Lawyers demonstrated that I am a father of two, with personal and business properties here, who pays his taxes year in and year out. They presented evidence of my close social ties, outstanding community service and other good deeds. Ultimately, the presiding judges reinstated my permanent resident status "aka green card." They found that my positive conduct far outweighed my conviction, demonstrating "unusual and outstanding equities," and that I was clearly rehabilitated.

Immigration authorities appealed the ruling and lost. Though an administrative appeals board decided that allowing me to remain in the States was "in the national interest," they appealed again. They pursued the case even after I was unconditionally pardoned by then New York State Governor David Paterson. Only after 23 years of administrative appeals, pardons, and federal court litigation at all levels of the legal landscape was the original order reaffirmed. One month after that I was sworn in as a naturalized citizen.

This long, drawn-out journey is the failure of higher-ups at The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the recalcitrant Immigrations & Customs Enforcement Agency to to weigh in and say, "This is crazy!" Instead they use of every technical hook in the book - real and created - to thwart a just result.

While the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now known as the Department of Homeland Security, was trying to deport me, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. was arranging an exhibit honoring my contributions to hip-hop culture and society at large. My extended saga underscores everything that's wrong with America's immigration system. Prior to 1990, immigration judges had the authority to balance a person's qualities against the government's interest in deporting that person. My original immigration judge did just that. He concluded I should remain in America. But vindictive prosecutors, federal bureaucrats and a damaged system perpetuated my ill treatment for decades.

After serving my criminal sentence, I was incarcerated in immigration detention for over 18 months. This, in many respects, was far worse. Unlike criminal dentition, immigrants are incarcerated for months or years, in what are supposed to be short-term prisons and jails. These offer "inmates" few or no services, and they have limited or no outdoor access. They wear prison uniforms and visit with family through Plexiglas barriers. There's a psychological toll to all this, from depression to a sense of hopelessness. These places are filthy, and the experience of being served expired food on dirty trays is one of the routine indignities.

Prolonged immigration incarceration was not always the norm. It began in 1980, to save the near-bankrupt Corrections Corporation of America. Its owner was the primary fundraiser for the Republican Party in Tennessee. Today, we have an immigration industrial complex where Congress, at the behest of private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO, mandates that 33,000 immigrants remain incarcerated at all times. The growth of private prisons completely altered the "civil" nature of immigration. Today, we have tens of thousands of children and young mothers incarcerated in immigration prisons.

Many immigrants die in prison, some by suicide. All are treated like prisoners, when their only crime is their desire to live in the U.S. These excessive and harmful detentions check in at a taxpayer expense of almost one billion (yes billion!) dollars per year. We could easily return to the old system of allowing immigrants to remain free on bond while monitoring their activities. However, such humane action won't satisfy the prisons-for-profit mentality that now pervades.

The sad truth of is that my 23-year immigration journey was unnecessary and damaging. My case should have ended when the judge entered the order supporting my right to remain in the United States. We need to reinvent a system of immigration justice that grants fair, speedy hearings, free from prolonged incarceration, where an immigration judge can exercise common sense that balances a person's misdeeds, if any, against his positive contributions to the community. This course will not only relieve a costly burden to taxpayers, it will reaffirm America's values and commitment to human rights.

Co-Written By Ira Kurzban Esq.

Slick Rick, hip hop's greatest storyteller, is a Grammy-nominated performer, the most sampled rapper in the genre and the most successful British-American rapper in music history.