Families Fight for Human Rights Over ‘Crimmigration’

Manisha Vaze, an organizer for immigrant rights organization Families for Freedom, talks about the group's approach to meaningful reform.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Aug 23, 2011

Last week, following nationwide protests of S-Comm organized by Presente.org and its allies, President Obama exercised his discretionary authority, not to suspend S-Comm, but to call for a case-by-case review of 300K open deportation files. As Julianne Hing reported, a working group convened by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice will classify cases as low and high priority – those who are not deemed "criminals" will be eligible to apply for work permits. "The move will not grant any of those people legal status, nor will work authorization be guaranteed. But they will not have to leave the country."

The change will bring welcome relief to less than 3 percent of undocumented immigrants. At the same time, it’s premised on an important caveat: that in order for immigrants to stay in the country, they must not be considered "criminals." 

Since the announcement was made, the distinction between so-called "good" and "bad" immigrants has been continuously highlighted by The White House and beltway organizations that for many years focused on enforcement-laden Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), aptly described by Gabriel Arana at the American Prospect as "the euphemistic plan to trade tougher enforcement for much-needed improvements to immigration law."

The repetition of "illegal and criminal aliens" and the "worst of the worst," is a nod toward our country’s love affair with "crimmigration", the merging of the criminal justice and immigration systems that is having devastating results for migrants of color. If it’s easy to first dehumanize and criminalize "illegal aliens" it becomes much easier then, to discard "criminal aliens" and deny them human rights starting with due process. The list of high-priority deportable crimes continues to increase and is tied to root issues of mass incarceration that plague communities of color, papers notwithstanding. In this system a deported mother who re-enters without permission to be with her US-citizen children and a young person who’s lived here her whole life and has kicked a drug addiction and served time — will be deported instead of being unified with their families.

I chatted with Manisha Vaze of Families for Freedom, a New York-based multi-ethnic defense network by and for immigrants facing and fighting deportation.  She gave us her take on human rights and how the immigration and criminal justice systems are merging to marginalize and divide immigrant communities of color. 

While many groups lobbied for CIR in the past few years, why was FFF and other organizations, critical of that work?

We were doing ground level organizing to educate communities about what CIR would actually mean. Our families were sold down the river. The push for CIR left the voices of people who have been dually punished by the criminal justice and immigration systems in this country. They were pitting our families against people that wanted to legalize. That was hard for us to negotiate because we’re not an organization that isn’t for legalization, but we are critical of legalization if it means that more people are caught up in the system, or could still be deported after they have gotten legal documents to be in the U.S.   

The second part of why we weren’t for CIR is because besides legalization, the other two pillars in a lot of the reform legislation were increased militarization on the border and heavy sanctions for people with criminal convictions, pushing the system more and more into our communities with enforcement tactics. A lot of the people that were for "comprehensive immigration reform" didn’t tease out the details about how it would actually affect our community.   

Notably, New York chose not to use language that would further criminalize people during the Secure Communities fight, which you won before the program took a turn for the worst. How did this decision come to be?   

We pushed hard to create and form a coalition that took to heart human rights values, that didn’t pit one community against another based on immigration status or based on "criminal" history. We have a highly conscious grouping of organizations that understand why it’s not effective to only talk about people with a certain kind of immigration status or without a criminal history.   

We created points of unity, and decided we were not gonna say "we aren’t criminals," or anything that would compromise or pit one community against the other. But we will talk about immigrants as a whole and we will talk about human rights values, about families and their need to stay together.

Families For Freedom is led by families directly affected by federal policies intended to cause human suffering to the point of exhaustion, known officially as "attrition through enforcement." What does this mean in terms of how we are to protect and promote human rights in the U.S?

The human rights question is a big one. Our families are of mixed status, some people are undocumented, some people have some kind of document, some people have green cards and they’ve lived here for many years. When it comes to human rights principles, everyone is deserving of their dignity and their rights: the right to family, the right to shelter, the right to due process, the right to fairness, the right to justice. When politicians or other people say some people are more deserving of this than others, naturally, criticism comes from our base. It might sound nice to the mainstream, but when you’re on the ground, coming from the human rights perspective, it doesn’t make any sense.   

What would you say to mainstream immigrant rights organizations that have been defending CIR about the gap that’s occurred?   

There’s two things I would say: Talk to the people that are affected by the deportation system and really listen. That family story, that narrative is so powerful. Make sure that people understand what you’re saying and why you’re making certain compromises against those with criminal convictions. A person’s only value cannot be found in the label of "criminal alien."    

The second thing I would say is, without a real firm understanding of how key systems came to be and how they relate to systemic biases that exist in this country, there is absolutely no way that you can really fight for "reforms" in immigration law. You have to understand the history of deportation in this country from the late 1800s, the history of the prison industrial complex, how and why slavery existed, how and why so many black and brown communities are in prison, the "war on drugs" and "war on terror."     

The solutions need to be thought of in a new way, with a human rights lens, prioritizing human life and dignity. We have to push ourselves to think outside of the box because reforming a system that is based on racism and all sorts of other biases isn’t gonna fix anything for anyone. We have to start from the ground up.