This week includes the most patriotic day of the year—a perfect time to consider the current heated debate over the milions of people living in the United States who want to be able to legally call themselves Americans and access the privileges that citizenship brings.
Last Thursday, the Senate passed what some have touted as a “sweeping immigration reform bill” by a vote of 68 to 32. Many people have applauded the bill as a “path to citizenship for the vast majority of the country’s 11 million immigrants.” What’s been missing from the conversation is focus on who loses from this reform: for many immigrants, the bill increases the chance of incarceration and deportation.
Here’s how it works: the bill allows immigration judges to stop a deportation proceeding if it would result in hardship to a US citizen parent, spouse, or child. However, it plays on the “good immigrant” vs. “bad immigrant” binary, denying that same opportunity if the immigrant has a criminal conviction. It doesn’t allow for explanations, such as when the conviction happened or under what circumstances. The bill also keeps in place provisions that mandate the deportation of non-citizens with criminal convictions, even for minor offenses, without the opportunity for a full hearing before a judge.
This past fall, I met Dede Adnahom, an activist, organizer and mother of three who is facing deportation. Dede came to the U.S. at age ten with her sister, brother-in-law, and their children. Several years earlier, the family had fled war-torn Ethiopia, where their parents had been killed. They were granted permanent residency under the 1980 Refugee Act. Three years later, Dede was removed from her sister’s home and placed in foster care. The foster care agency severed all ties between Dede and her sister.
At age 18, Dede aged out of the foster care system and was expected to take care of herself. Without resources or support, Dede slept in cars and, occasionally, at her former foster mother’s house. In 2002, 19-year-old Dede was caught selling $20 of crack cocaine. It was her first—and only—time in trouble with the law. She was convicted for controlled substance delivery and sentenced to nine months in a work-release center. She served six months and was released to begin rebuilding her life.
In 2006, Dede gave birth to her first daughter. Months later, she received a letter from the US Board of Immigration Appeals mandating her to appear for a deportation hearing. In 2007, an immigration judge ruled in Dede’s favor. The board appealed the decision and, although Dede had received a gubernatorial pardon in 2011, reopened her deportation case in 2012.
While Dede has been fighting her deportation case, she has also been raising her children and remaining involved in social justice organizing around Seattle. Under the immigration reform bill, none of that would matter. What would matter is that, at age 19, Dede Adnahom was convicted for selling $20 worth of crack.
This is just one case, but Dede is not the only person who would be negatively impacted by this bill. While immigration reform could certainly create a “a real, substantive difference to the lives of millions of aspiring citizens,” it’s important to recognize how it will hurt the very groups supporters hope it will help.
“The Senate bill makes every immigrant a ‘bad immigrant’ unless they can prove otherwise,” says Maegan Ortiz, an LA-based media maker who has followed immigration issue for years. In her view, “the bill, by including more deportable offenses such as ‘gang’ activity and domestic violence, denies the reality of law enforcement racially profiling immigrants of color.” In 2012, a record high of over 400,000 people were deported—it’s possible that by expanding the list of crimes worthy of deportation, the “pathway to citizenship” bill could actually wind up deporting more immigrants, not allowing more people to set up stable lives in the US.
And that’s before we get to the bill’s unprecedented new border security measures. “I think it’s important for everyone to acknowledge that the name of the Senate Gang of Eight bill that passed last week is the ‘Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.’ From its inception, increasing border enforcement and surveillance has been at the heart of the legislation,” Ortiz notes.
One amendment to the bill infuses over $40 billion into militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border. It doubles the number of border agents, constructs 700 miles of fencing, and expands the use of aerial drones.
“I believe that voting against this bill is voting against border security,” stated Bob Corker, one of the Republican Senators who wrote the amendment, which brought 14 Republicans on board to vote for the bill.
From that perspective, this bill isn’t about building a pathway to citizenship—it’s about building an even bigger fence between the US and Mexico.
And are the politicians backing immigration reform really interested in pathways to citizenship? Or are they actually backing an increase in deportations and incarceration of immigrants? Let’s look at who’s bankrolling some of the bill’s main supporters. The reform bill is the result of months of private negotiations by the Gang of Eight — a group of four Democrats and four Republicans. New York Senator Chuck Schumer is one of the Gang of Eight. He is also the recipient of over $100,000 in campaign contributions from private prison corporations, including Corrections Corporation of America, the company that received more than $200 million in federal contracts to incarcerate immigrants awaiting deportation hearings. Marco Rubio, who detailed his parents’ journey to the United States from Cuba to sway his fellow senators, has received at least $33,500 from private prison industries. Other members of Congress have also received whopping sums from private prison corporations.
For immigrants, all of these aspects mean that the much-touted “pathway to citizenship” has the very real potential to become a “pathway to deportation” as well. Instead of just discussing this bill as a progressive bipartisan reform that’s good for immigrants, we need to reframe the conversation to acknowledge its dark side.
Photo of an immigration reform protest in Savannah by Loretta Principe, via Flickr CC.