A project of the Center for Community Change

“Immigrant” does not mean “criminal”

Guest blog by Julia Clunn

One major problem when talking about the treatment of undocumented immigrants in this country is that they are often branded as “law-breakers” or “illegals.” Instead of looking at these people as individuals with different backgrounds and situations, they are clumped together and treated like criminals. This is how Saad Nabeel’s case was handled, despite the fact that he had lived in the US since he was 3 and never committed a crime. He and his family came here as political refugees and were deported while their green card renewals were being processed.  This kind of treatment of honest people as delinquents is unfair, and sadly Washington is only taking baby steps to remedy the problem.

The pressure exerted through the “Change Takes Courage” campaign has brought a tiny glimmer of sunshine in an otherwise bleak outlook for immigration reform.  In a memo recently sent by John Morton, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), it was advised that the agency use “prosecutorial discretion” when detaining and deporting immigrants. In other words, it is made clear that there is to be a distinction made between those who pose a threat to security (the intended target of ICE deportations) and those who do not.  Furthermore, the memo recommends that ICE “not [] assert the full scope of the enforcement authority” when dealing with undocumented immigrants who are not a threat.  It is suggested that the agency consider other factors before prosecuting, such as age, time spent in the US, contributions to the community, role as a caretaker for the disabled, military service, and whether the individual is pursuing an advanced degree.

This acknowledgment of immigrants as assets that play vital roles in the fabric of our society is an important step. It asks that these people be judged based on their personal circumstances and contributions, not simply their legal status.  But simply recommending such changes is not enough; the changes should go further and be mandated in order to truly put a dent in the number of non-criminals deported from this country each year. Indeed, the threat of backsliding from even the smallest step forward remains. There is dissent among ICE employees, some wishing to keep the current policy towards all undocumented immigrants. This may cause the suggestions proposed in this memo to be ignored, necessitating that Obama push harder to make sure that those who deserve to stay have an opportunity to do so.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who recently came out as an illegal immigrant, is a perfect example of how this idea should be applied and broadened. Vargas has lived in the US with his grandparents since childhood while the remainder of his family remained in the Philippines. Through determination and despite towering odds, he became a leading professional in his field and a model, hard-working member of his community. He is the American Dream, and even Republicans like former Florida Senator Mel Martinez are reaching across the aisle to recognize that he deserves to become a legal resident.

Americans proclaim this country to be a beacon of opportunity, and the obsession with labeling immigrants as criminal is detrimental this identity. If hard-working individuals like Saad Nabeel and Jose Antonio Vargas aren’t considered to be American, who is?  The object of Vargas’ story, of every story told by the victims of unfair deportation, is for us to stop and think of immigrants as people, as human beings who have motivations like the rest of us, who wish to find a better life for themselves and their children, through hard-work, education, paying their taxes, and contributing to their community. Those that would say undocumented immigrants are not real Americans need to reevaluate their idea of “American”.  And our leaders must take bigger steps towards relief for the many deserving immigrants currently living in fear of, or facing, deportation in this country.

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