The Myth of the ‘Perfect Immigrant’ Does More Harm Than Good

Immigration advocate Michelle Fei says that our criminal justice system is imperfect. So why do we expect the country's immigrants to be?

By Julianne Hing Oct 05, 2011

After facing a long summer of criticism from lawmakers, immigrant rights advocates and law enforcement officials, President Obama has delivered on his promise to focus on deporting the folks he’s called "the worst of the worst," the country’s "illegal and criminal aliens." Last week immigration officials announced that they’d rounded up 2,901 immigrants with criminal convictions on their record after a seven-day enforcement spree called Operation Cross Check.

"This is what we should be doing; this is good law enforcement," Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton said at the press conference, the AP reported. "It makes sense to be removing people who are committing crimes who are here illegally first and foremost."

More than half of the group had at least one felony on their record, including convictions for manslaughter, kidnapping, armed robbery and sex offenses. Not everyone had been convicted of such violent crimes–nearly 400 people in the group were people who had come back to the country after being deported in the past. ICE has conducted Operation Cross Check in the past but called this run the largest of its kind.

The Obama administration has been sharply criticized for its record-breaking rates of removals, and Obama’s reliance on the deportation of people who had no criminal convictions whatsoever to bolster his numbers. Consider the operation the Obama administration turning to his critics and asking, "Are you happy now?"

To make sense of it all we caught up with Michelle Fei, co-director of the Immigrant Defense Project, a New York-based organization that fights for the rights of immigrants who’ve been convicted or accused of crimes.

What does the government mean when they refer to fugitives and so-called "criminal aliens"?

ICE’s definition of who a criminal alien is has shifted time again, largely according to ICE’s whim or political need. The most recent definition of "criminal alien" that has been employed" is any non-citizen who’s been convicted of a crime.

However that actual definition doesn’t at all jive with the actual application of the term. So when ICE talks about enforcement efforts such as with Secure Communities, the class of people that are covered under Secure Communities are undocumented and documented immigrants who have either been charged with or convicted of a crime. It’s a very amorphous category and even when ICE tries to talk about who they call the "worst of the worst," they’re often referring to the category of people that fall under the immigration term of "aggravated felon."

It’s important to recognize that [in immigration court] aggravated felonies encompass a whole range of offenses, many of which are considered neither aggravated nor felonies [in traditional criminal court]. So for example, very minor drug offenses and very minor theft offenses can fall under the category of aggravated felonies that get applied to so-called criminal aliens. And fugitives, under ICE’s definition, are people who have been ordered deported and who have not left the country.

Obama’s gotten so much heat for enforcement programs like Secure Communities that are impacting people who were never supposed to be caught up in it in the first place. But here now we have ICE going after the "worst of the worst." Is this consistency, then, finally? Where do we draw the line when we talk about who deserves to stay in the country and who doesn’t?

For some people this announcement makes sense because it does seem to be in some ways the answer to the critique of Secure Communities not doing what it’s supposed to do. It seems that we as a country have become very comfortable or at least complacent about making blanket statements that people who have criminal convictions just don’t deserve to stay, but that really obscures the reality of how broken the deportation system is and how bad of a job the criminal justice system is doing.

The way the criminal justice and immigration systems are intertwined tends to mean that the racially disparate impacts the criminal justice system produces then get compounded when the immigration system gets involved too.

The criminal justice system already severely punishes those who are from low income, or of color or immigrant communities. There’s really no sense of real justice when you’re from one of these communities and you have to interact with the criminal justice system, and all of those injustices are compounded by getting thrown into the deportation system which has even fewer protections and affords fewer rights to immigrants than even the criminal justice system does.

That’s a huge problem when it comes to the right to counsel, for example. Low income, of color and immigrant people in the criminal justice system often end up pleading guilty because that’s seen as the most efficient way to dispose of their cases. And once they get through with that system, and are thrown into the deportation system they don’t even have a right to a lawyer, and you’re talking about people from very subjugated communities that are forced to fight their own deportation cases largely on their own and in detention centers thousands of miles away from their family.

In immigration court if you can afford a lawyer you’re entitled to one but if you can’t afford a lawyer, none will be provided for you, so you can see how that would disparately impact low income and of color immigrants.

Where’s the fight happening right now? Many of the people who have been critical of programs like Secure Communities are not that comfortable with the idea that immigrants who’ve been convicted of crimes have a right to stay in the country.

I think part of the problem is one we’ve created on our own by forcing this rhetoric that we are not criminals and only painting immigrants as hardworking people that deserve to stay only because they’re hardworking. Even in that rhetoric we’ve completely dehumanized immigrants. So it should come as no surprise that the debate forces them to fit themselves into either the "good", deserving immigrant camp or the bad, undeserving immigrant camp. Until we get to the point where we are able to fight for the rights of all immigrants regardless of their interactions with the criminal justice system, we have to take responsibility for having centered it that way.

How ought people think about immigrants then, and especially those who may have been convicted of crimes?

I think we need to recognize that just as immigrants are more than hardworking, one dimensional figures, they are also people who make mistakes and those mistakes should not be fatal to their ability to stay in this country with their families and communities.

We can’t continue to treat immigrants as subhuman by not accepting that they will come here, at our recruitment, and then not establish community ties and families and want to stay here. And we can’t treat them as superhuman by threatening at every turn that if they mess up they’re going to get headed straight to detention and shipped out of the United States. 

On the criminal justice end, we need to recognize that deportation is a second punishment that is imposed unfairly only on immigrants, and so they are being treated like second-class citizens. We need to go back and revisit the 1996 laws that set things up this way so that deportation and detention aren’t basically a mandatory minimum for virtually any kind of interaction immigrants have with the criminal justice system.