Detroit Voices: Driving While Black, Riding While Brown

By Erika Murcia & Tania Morris Diaz Aug 23, 2018

This essay is the second installment in a series of pieces authored by local activists who are leading change work across Michigan. The series is intended to elevate their unique perspectives and pay tribute to the individuals and groups leading the fight to advance equity in Facing Race’s host city of Detroit.

The legal immigration system is not broken. It functions exactly as intended: to preserve and perpetuate white dominance. While it may seem like the immigration system is undergoing a radical shift under the current administration, in reality – it’s only being fine-tuned. Immigration never was (and should no longer be seen as) an issue affecting the “stereotypical” immigrant: an adult, brown, Mexican male clandestinely crossing the southern U.S. border seeking (or “stealing” as some may think) job opportunities. Immigration laws affect anyone, anywhere, who isn’t born with the privilege of U.S. citizenship. Our immigration laws are complex, and an individual’s experience navigating those laws hinges on one primary dimension: their race in relation to their immigration status.

The parallels between institutional racism embedded in our criminal justice and immigration systems are no coincidence. Both were shaped by the same historical power imposed by rich, white, male legislators. Within five days from being sworn into office, the 45th president ordered the deportation of anyone who fit within a broad category of prioritization – including Green Card and visa holders. While Michigan is over 1,000 miles from the Mexican border, it is legally within a “reasonable distance” from the northern border, thus giving the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) the ability to conduct warrantless searches throughout the entire state. CBP has been working closely with Michigan State Police (MSP), uniting local law enforcement’s racial harassment of citizens with federal immigration enforcement’s racial harassment of non-citizens – including those with lawful presence and the undocumented.

In Michigan, this has led to common scenarios where CBP agents are demanding Greyhound bus passengers to prove U.S. citizenship. Given that carrying such documentation is not a requirement, it’s clear that this is nothing but a “race-neutral” excuse for racial profiling. For example, Michigan is home to one of the largest Arab and Arab American communities in the U.S. Yet despite the fact that 82 percent of Arabs in the U.S. are citizens, an overwhelming number are still subjugated to racial profiling. Similarly, MSP has instituted the practice of asking passengers of cars driven by U.S. citizens to provide proof of their immigration status. U.S. citizens may be pulled over for a faulty exhaust pipe that, despite not resulting in a ticket for the driver, will still ultimately lead to the detention and deportation of any non-U.S. citizen passengers on board.

The alarming and disproportionate rate of Black and Latinx travelers being pulled over by MSP has prompted local groups to call on MSP to launch a formal investigation into the racial profiling of motorists.

The interlocked dimensions of race, immigration status, and mass detention prevents immigrants (adults and children alike) from any legal immigration relief in Michigan. This issue of dehumanization is particular to Michigan since state incarceration rates are one of the worst in the world. Also, the number of agents in the Detroit sector has grown from 38 to 411 between 2001 and 2015, an increase of 981 percent, by far the fastest rate of growth of any U.S. Border Patrol sector in the United States.

Once detained, immigrants without legal immigration status are placed on a court docket list that moves much faster compared to those battling the immigration legal system from outside of detention. But getting released on bond is a feat in and of itself, as immigration judges have no legal restraint as to the maximum amount of bond requested but, as expected, do have a minimum of $1,500.

In 2009, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) was founded to serve as an advocate resource to our state’s immigrant communities. In 2018, we launched the Detroit Front Door program, with the purpose of expanding access to legal resources and representation to immigrants who are in deportation proceedings and to counterbalance the oppressive immigration system and policing practices of the Metro Detroit area. The purpose is to fight against the dehumanization of immigrants by defending their human rights. This program will bridge the gap for under-sourced and under-coordinated immigration legal services at Michigan, and aims to impact an estimated 4,000 low-income immigrants in the Detroit Metro area.

About the Authors

Erika Murcia is an intake coordinator at MIRC supporting with a robust intake system and assisting with capacity building in Detroit. Erika earned her bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of El Salvador, and pursued a master’s in Social Work at the University of Michigan, where she was a Community-Based Initiative in Detroit Scholar, and a Scholar with the Center for the Education of Women +.

Tania Morris Díaz is a staff attorney at MIRC representing Detroit immigrants. Tania earned her bachelor’s in International Studies at the University of South Alabama, pursued a master’s in political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and received her law degree from the University of Michigan Law School.