When Did "Immigrant" Become a Dirty Word?

On that fateful day, 9/11/2001, I found myself trapped at the Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Nigeria. I was returning to NY from the Durban World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance and my plane had stopped to refuel in Lagos. The plane took off earlier than scheduled with my luggage, leaving behind two of my friends and myself. While we were running around the airport trying to find another flight back to JFK, someone yelled out that NYC was under attack. The three of us watched in horror as we saw the planes strike the Twin Towers.

Tragically, 9/11 not only marked the death of three of my friends and almost 3,000 others, it also saw the unraveling of some of the most fundamental due process protections in the United States. And now, almost seven years later, fundamental human rights continue to be eviscerated for more and more communities around the country, particularly for immigrants, both legal and undocumented.

Last month, Breakthrough, a non-profit that I currently head, released a videogame called ICED -- I Can End Deportation. The name is a play on Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), the largest investigative branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The goal of ICED is to create awareness about the lack of due process and human rights in current detention and deportation policies. ICED has created a huge buzz, especially in the blogosphere, and approximately 70,000 individuals have downloaded the game so far.

The attacks from the Right began almost immediately with one particularly vituperative piece in Info Wars that took great exception to an "Indian" woman like myself having the gall to make a videogame about immigration. Then the Minutemen sent out a press advisory signaling their availability to speak against ICED -- with a whole host of made-up information about the game, all untrue. But the icing on the cake was how many media outlets, including several ABC affiliates and CNN, simply took the Minutemen statements and structured their entire story around ICED based on lies and distortions without bothering to look at the press materials from Breakthrough or bothering to check with us.

While I always expected to be attacked by the Right, and am not too surprised by the distortion of information by the mainstream media, I must confess that I am more frustrated about and deeply saddened by the lack of support for due process for immigrants from the progressive community.

While I was at Law School at New York University, I had the privilege of studying constitutional law under one of the greatest civil rights minds, Norman Dorsen, a former President of the ACLU. Obviously, the Bill of Rights featured prominently and despite the historical legacy of slavery and discrimination against women, poor communities, and many others, I developed a profound respect for the fundamental principles of due process that the U.S. legal system was built upon. And so, I am now deeply disturbed by the lack of impunity with which our government has systematically stripped even legal permanent residents of due process rights and basic protections.

If a legal immigrant commits a crime -- even as minor as getting in a fistfight -- the judge is required to automatically deport him, and cannot consider the circumstances of the case. There are NO exceptions for a list of crimes called 'aggravated felonies,' though the list encompasses a range of non-violent crimes that are not felonies for U.S. citizens. What's worse, is that detention and deportation laws can be applied retroactively which means that people are being punished for the same crime twice.

These laws have resulted in some tragic outcomes like the case of Sandra Kenley, a 52-year-old legal permanent resident of 30 years, who was placed in detention in 2005 upon returning from vacation for two prior minor drug convictions dating from 1984 and 2002. She died in custody seven weeks later because of lack of access to medical care. Sixty-two people held on immigration charges have died in detention in the last three years.

Not only is there a lack of support for respecting due process and human rights in detention and deportation policies, but to add insult to injury, any discussion of these issues is immediately framed in an anti-illegal immigrant, anti-amnesty framework. The Right has very effectively created a poisonous and vitriolic public frame around illegal immigrants -- so much so that not only have undocumented people been completely stripped of their humanity or any rights, but the very term "immigrant" has become a dirty word.

The U.S. already has 2.3 million people behind bars. Now that immigrants have become synonymous with criminals, what's a mere 280,000 more in detention at a cost of $1.2 billion? Immigrants in detention include families (both legal and undocumented), asylum seekers and torture survivors -- all incarcerated in "non-criminal" custody because violation of immigration laws is not a crime but a civil violation.

I'm glad that ICED has created a dialogue even with all the attacks and hate mail we've been receiving. I am also very grateful to the progressive bloggers who HAVE come to our defense and countered the hate. I'm hoping that millions will play ICED and become a part of the larger dialogue around the need to create fair immigration policies for legal and undocumented immigrants.

Because, let's remember, when we let the government deny due process and human rights for one group of people, we put all of our freedoms at risk.