How Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Turns Immigrants Into Criminals

It has been well established for decades that the vast majority of immigrants are not criminals by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, immigrants who have committed no violent offense are often subjected to a different kind of violence doled out by the U.S. immigration-enforcement system.

Young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the United States find their educational and career goals frustrated by undocumented status, which renders them unable to receive financial aid for college or to work legally. Working under the table leaves them doubly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers.

Despite the fact that over 93 percent of undocumented immigrants have never committed a felony or even a serious misdemeanor, previous administrations as well as President Trump use anti-immigrant rhetoric to transform undocumented immigrants into something they are not.

This has had a lasting, damaging effect on America’s immigrant population, which finds itself in the crosshairs of a system that perpetually establishes laws, structures, and institutions that seek to criminalize them. This amounts to institutional violence that is justified by falsely equating “undocumented immigrant” and “criminal.”

According to an article in the Journal on Migration and Human Security, the current administration has ramped up the level of institutional violence that immigrants and their families experience in their daily lives through anti-immigrant rhetoric, enhanced enforcement, and widening the scope of who is considered deportable.

This did not start with the current administration, however. A watershed moment in the criminalization of immigrants was passage of the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) and Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), both passed into law in 1996. Together, these two laws expanded the concept of an “aggravated felony” to include virtually any offense for which a sentence of one year or more was imposed. Anyone who committed such an offense was therefore deportable.

Since then, numerous policies and programs have ensnared a widening circle of both documented and undocumented immigrants, opening them up to deportation. Operation Streamline has fast-tracked the deportation of apprehended border crossers. Detained immigrants are often held in dangerous detention facilities. Programs such as 287(g) transform local police into proxy immigration agents.

Immigrant families containing both documented and undocumented children are divided by the fact that some are perpetually in danger of deportation and others are not. But even native-born U.S.-citizen children can find their lives torn apart if one or both of their parents is deported. All too often, family members find themselves permanently separated, with those who were deported on one side of the border, and those who remained on the other side.

If U.S. immigration policies were governed by sane enforcement priorities, we would not be stretching the definition of “criminal” beyond the breaking point just to ensnare people who contribute to the U.S. economy and society.

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