Wednesday, July 8, 2009

“What part of illegal don’t you understand?”

That was a theme running through many of the letters and emails our office received, as well as in posts on various blogs, four years ago when we successfully defended clients charged with criminal trespass. Why criminal trespass? The cases arose when the Chiefs of Police in Hudson and New Ipswich, New Hampshire arrested and charged our clients because they did not have valid immigration status.

First, the part I do understand…

I understand that it is illegal for a non-citizen to enter the country without inspection; specifically, it is a class B misdemeanor or a “petty offense” as defined under federal immigration law and criminal law. This criminal provision of the law is, in my experience, seldom used except at the border. Rather, the cases are most often handled as civil matters. Most people who enter the United States without inspection and are later caught by Immigration & Customs Enforcement Officers are not charged with a crime – they are charged as being deportable from the United States. They go to a specialized administrative court called the Immigration Court, which is part of the Department of Justice.

Now here’s the part I don’t get…

With a very few exceptions, people who have lived here for decades get basically the same deal as those who illegally crossed the border last week. The petty offender gets nearly the same treatment as the very dangerous criminal – and that treatment is deportation. This is a problem. Why? You might ask. If they all broke the law they should be treated equally and get the same punishment right?


The United States has a “destroy the village to save the village” strategy when it comes to immigration policy. When we deport someone who has been here 10, 15, or even 20 plus years – that person often has a home, a business or a strong work history, and a family. So what is the result? It can often be a fire sale of the family home, a business closure or an employer who loses productivity while training a new worker, and U.S. born children that end up on public assistance or in foster care. For a class B misdemeanor? This is not smart public policy; it is self-defeating and unnecessary.

We have the right as a country to limit immigration levels and to secure our borders. However, that we have the right to deport persons from our soil if we wish does not mean that we should always do so. The United States needs some alternative remedies for dealing with immigration law violations. Alternatives that are not so destructive to the economy and the society that (through our laws) we claim to be trying to preserve.

In the 1990’s there was a program that allowed illegal immigrants to become legal residents if they had a U.S. citizen spouse or a U.S. employer to petition for them. They had to be otherwise admissible (meaning no serious criminal record, no communicable diseases, not likely to use public benefits, and no prior deportations, etc…) and they had to pay a $1,000.00 fine on top of the usual fees (over a thousand dollars each) the government charges immigrants to process their paperwork. That is called paying a fine for breaking the law; that is not amnesty -- unless you consider it an act of amnesty when you pay a speeding ticket.

Legalization of those immigrants who are not a danger to the public and who have family and employment ties to the United States would bring thousands of dollars per capita in fees to the U.S. Treasury ($24 billion perhaps). Investigating, detaining, trying and deporting a far smaller number of these same people each year costs the tax payers millions of dollars. There is no logic to inflicting emotional and financial damage on families and communities and to emptying the Treasury on account of the vast majority of illegal immigrants who are not terrorists or hardened criminals or otherwise undesirable. So why do we continue this way? It is time to change our approach.

“FAIR and Unbalanced”

There is more at work in America’s immigration policy debate than the simple logic of law enforcement. There is a coordinated attempt to blame immigrants for most, if not all, of society’s ills and to dehumanize them and make them objects of hatred and derision. I don’t just mean the talk radio and television pundits. Their constant drumbeat of negative stereotyping, name calling and scapegoating is an important part of driving any rational debate into the ditch. However, there is another more insidious factor at play.

You might remember hearing about how the cigarette companies used to commission their own studies from their own laboratories staffed by scientists and doctors on the company payroll. What a surprise it was that they concluded that cigarettes were safe and nicotine was not addictive. It’s kind of the same with anti-immigrant research. When Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan or Sean Hannity needs an anti-immigrant study, report or poll to quote they can turn to several organizations for back up such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies, or NumbersUSA.

The problem is (according to the Southern Poverty Law Center) all of these organizations owe their existence to one very rich and very racist man named John Tanton. Check this SPLC link to find out more about Tanton and his organizations.

It took a long time to get past the propaganda machine that cigarette money built. I hope it doesn’t take as long for people to realize that much of the complaining and pot stirring about illegal immigration is being bought and paid for by a small number of wealthy cranks. Here’s another name to be aware of - Frosty Wooldridge (notice who he is talking up in his online article?):

Unfortunately, when people with power, money and a media platform start broadcasting messages of fear and hate it can have some really horrible effects downstream when the not so rich and powerful take up the cause in violent ways. Scott Roeder’s “alleged” murder of abortion providing physician George Tiller and James Von Brunn’s “alleged” recent murder of security guard Stephen T. Johns at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC are the most publicized episodes of right wing domestic terrorism by mentally unbalanced individuals.

Here are links to some stories that discuss, if not acts of domestic terrorism, certainly crimes motivated by hate and fear of immigrants. These appear to be crimes committed to send the message that immigrants (and Latinos in particular) are not welcome in the United States. The seed of that message germinates in groups like John Tanton’s; it is spread on a cultivated field by hate spouting media and it flowers in acts of violence.

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