immigration reform:
it whitens and brightens

by ismalia guitierrez

In an effort to curb what a majority of the US citizenry perceive to be the growing immigration problem, Congress passed the 1996 Immigration Reform Act which greatly expanded the grounds on which a non-citizen (including legal permanent residents) can be deported. The new definition for "aggravated felonies and crimes of moral turpitude" was not only more comprehensive in scope but also retroactive. The set of crimes that make people deportable was changed to include far less serious crimes, and the new rules applied to crimes that immigrants had been found guilty of before the laws changed (often many years before). Heart wrenching stories began to pour in and filter through the immigrants rights groups. X person was living the American Dream. Married with two children, church goer, and entrepreneur. A statutory rape conviction twenty years ago. Ripped apart from his family and community and detained in prison for months. Sent back to a country that he left a lifetime ago. Doesn't even remember how to speak the language. This scenario is a very sympathetic story to sell to congressmen. It's a winning story and actually succeeded in a proposed bill that would allow limited court discretion for super-compelling cases involving model new americans. However, this strategy fails to cover less popular immigrants targeted by this reform.

Prior to 1996, immigrants who were convicted of specific felonies were subject to deportation upon conviction, a weeding out of the criminal element in the immigrant pool. The 1996 Immigration Act further culls the immigrant population by expanding its definition of applicable crimes and applying that definition retroactively, including plea bargains that were previously non-triggering offenses. By focusing policy activism on how unfair the Act is to the model New American, we are actually just helping Congress fine tune its social engineering, making sure that the scalpel cuts precisely at the poor and deviant. Why is that the most logical approach to solving the anti-immigrant sentiment in the US today? Why don't we instead start with the intended targets of the Immigration Act? Drug dealers, prostitutes, gang members and spousal batterers are not sympathetic characters to include in a lobbying campaign. The Act essentially gives the police power a blank check to trigger the deportation of any suspected immigrant troublemaker. Ironically, it is precisely these people who face the most imminent danger if deported. According to a Los Angeles public defender who specializes in criminal immigration law, El Salvador has reconstituted its death squads to massacre gang members deported from the United States. Despite evidence of such danger, courts have consistently refused to recognize discretionary power to stay deportation proceedings. Cases in which courts have found that they do have discretion to end-run the strict 1996 Immigration Act often involve white (european) immigrants. The public defender mentioned above stated that, of all her successful appeals, not a single case involved a latino defendant even though the majority of her clients were latino. In fact, the attorney could not think of a single latino defendant being granted discretionary relief. Talk about ethnic cleansing.

A radical change in the immigration policy of the United States will not come about by merely fingering more deserving villains. Immigration law centers and community groups should take on the challenge of organizing the very people that INS targets instead of just asking for a more narrow scope. The terror of deportation is a violence that I can't live with. The Immigration Act counts on me to defend my superior right to my american-ness against foreigners who want to destroy my way of life. This is not just a right-wing patriotism thing either. Earlier this year the Sierra Club was considering an official anti-immigration position as being harmful to the environmental balance of the United States. I don't know how the vote turned out and I don't care. The linking of traditionally liberal issues and anti-immigrant discourse is enough to make my skin crawl. Looking the other way is not going to solve the problem to those most vulnerable to the immediate and discriminatory application of the Immigration Act.

ismalia works in puerto rico and los angeles.

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