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11.11.07

Little Rock 9 : Jena 6 :: Undocumented Immigrants : Criminal Aliens

Sherrilyn Ifill has a good post (via The Debate Link ) describing a difficult problem in struggles for justice -- the wider society insists that oppressed people be perfect before they are granted justice. Only if an oppressed person's record is impeccable (proving that they've done everything right and still haven't been able to make it) will defenders of the status quo admit that there's an injustice that must be remedied. She describes how the 1950s and 60s US civil rights movement directly recognized this ugly fact by carefully choosing people with squeaky-clean records to be the face of the movement and carry out the key acts of civil disobedience like the Little Rock 9's attempt to attend a white high school. She contrasts this to the Jena 6, who are encountering problems because they're not perfect -- they did in fact beat up a white kid -- and thus their imperfection gets used as an excuse to ignore the injustice in how they have been treated.

Focusing on the "good" members of the oppressed group can work if everyone's fate rises or falls together. That is, it may have taken someone as perfect as Rosa Parks to get people to realize that segregation on buses is unjust, but then the only feasible response is to let all black people sit at the front of the bus.

Things get trickier when the fates of the "good" oppressed people and the "bad" ones can be separated. I think something like this happened after the downfall of segregation with the shift to surficially neutral yet racial-injustice-promoting attacks on welfare mothers and inner city drug dealers (coupled with the lionization of "good" blacks like Parks or MLK Jr.). But I don't know enough about the relevant history to do a whole post on that.

What I do know something about is how this dynamic of sympathy for the "good" oppressed and demonization of the "bad" plays out with respect to immigration in the US. The divide here is between undocumented immigrants and criminal aliens. The dynamic here is particularly vicious because the "bad" immigrants aren't just pushed to the side in favor of more sympathetic figures. They're actively thrown under the bus (sometimes by progressives, sometimes by conservatives who have been convinced to make concessions) in order to help the good immigrants.

The immigration debate focuses almost entirely on undocumented immigrants -- people who sneak into the US and have no legal authorization to be here. For many people, undocumented immigrants are already too flawed to deserve help -- after all, they broke the law to come here. But there is also a substantial base of sympathy for the image of the "good" undocumented immigrant. This "good" immigrant is someone who faced such crushing poverty in Mexico that they had little choice but to immigrate, and who has worked very hard, managed their finances well, stayed out of trouble, and learned English so as to pursue the American Dream. Most progressives are sympathetic to such "good" immigrants (and by extension to all undocumented immigrants), and therefore support policies like expanded legal immigration quotas and a path to legalization for those already here, and oppose policies like militarization of the border and various pointlessly punitive measures such as denying immigrants access to GED classes.

Criminal aliens, on the other hand, are people who (usually) entered this country legally, but who are deportable because they've been convicted of one or more crimes. The crimes in question are not necessarily big ticket items like murder -- they include such relatively petty infractions as public urination, posession of small amounts of drugs, or minor shoplifting (my favorite was the man who was charged with "grand theft animal carcass" for stealing enough ham for two sandwiches*). Nevertheless, their criminal records make them imperfect, and thus they find it hard to get sympathy from non-immigrants.

Criminal aliens are frequently forgotten in the immigration debate. For example, this diary by duke1676 presents a good starting point for a progressive policy to deal with undocumented immigration -- but it's presented, and endorsed by DailyKos, as a progressive policy on immigration full-stop. When criminal aliens are mentioned in the immigration debate, it's usually to crack down on them. They're the bad immigrants we bash in order to highlight the goodness of the hard-workers.

The recent failed immigration bill got as far as it did because it balanced the expanded opportunities for hard-workers with harsher treatment of criminal aliens. The new options that the bill created for undocumented immigrants had strict and inflexible rules barring people with criminal records. The bill also expanded the range of crimes that count as "aggravated felonies" that make people automatically deportable, to include crimes like drunk driving. It also lowered the burden of proof that ICE has to meet when showing that someone has committed a deportable crime, allowing them to use more kinds of documents and evidence than they currently can. Clearly some people would support justice for immigrants only if they could be assured that the justice was going only to "good" immigrants who, through living a blameless life so far, proved they deserved it.

The blame here obviously lies with the conservatives who refuse to admit that imperfect people can be victims of injustice. I'm not an activist strategist, so I can't say whether ignoring criminal aliens to secure justice for undocumented immigrants is an effective and acceptable strategy given the attitudes of the general public. What I can say is that if we do make that tradeoff, we have to recognize that there's a tradeoff being made, and that criminal aliens have a claim to justice from the immigration system even though they have criminal records.

* But of course focusing too much on the people who are deported for trivial offenses like "grand theft animal carcass" risks repeating the justice-for-good-people phenomenon within the category of criminal aliens. My admittedly radical position is that the only crimes for which deportation should be a punishment over and above serving the sentence that a citizen convicted of the same thing would serve are crimes against the USA qua USA (as opposed to crimes against the USA qua place you happen to be living or USA qua place where the opportunity presents itself). That list would include things like terrorism, spying, election law violations, or smuggling. But it would not include things like rape, murder, or theft.

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