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Criminal justice reform forgets immigrants

While Congress and the president laud a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that ostensibly gives federal inmates a second chance, the fact that this bill intentionally excludes most immigrants from the benefits of these second chances seems forgotten.

Criminal justice reform is desperately needed to address the epidemic of mass incarceration and criminalization. The irony of excluding immigrants from federal criminal justice reform is that migration-related cases make up more than half of all federal criminal prosecutions in the U.S.

{mosads}Rather than compounding laws that create this unjust system, including those that criminalize transnational families driven to migrate to be together, lawmakers should be repealing them.

Daisy Aviles, a Texas high schooler, joined the Immigrant Justice Center during an advocacy day on Capitol Hill and spoke to Congress about how federal prosecutions of migrants devastated her family when it ripped her father, a mechanic, away from her mother and three siblings.

When she was a child, Daisy’s father was arrested and deported after defending his family from a robbery. Daisy’s father re-entered the U.S. to reunite with his family. This year, after the family called the police to report a crime, he was arrested and prosecuted for illegal re-entry. As a result, Daisy’s family has been left without its “rock” and faces severe economic hardship.

Proposed legislation like the bill introduced by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) could contain several recycled provisions imposing harsher punishments upon immigrants. These would make it even more likely that immigrants may be deported and separated from their families following encounters with law enforcement. Daisy wears a bracelet that her father made her in prison as she fights to be reunited with him.

Khalil Cumberbatch also joined IJN to share his personal experience about how current laws make non-citizens susceptible to double punishment. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) tore away Khalil — a green card holder who moved to New York from Guyana as a young child — from his two little girls and wife because of an offense from 12 years prior.

Khalil, a criminal justice reform leader, was about to complete his master’s degree in social work. Despite all his positive contributions and having served his time, under our harsh immigration laws, Khalil was subject to mandatory exile. If not for tremendous advocacy, which resulted in his receipt of a rare governor’s pardon, Khalil would have been permanently ripped apart from the life he had painstakingly built.

Ale Pablos, a nationally recognized activist, was stripped of her legal status and spent two years in Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center as a result of charges when she was young. In January, Department of Homeland Security agents arrested Alejandra while she was leading a peaceful protest outside their office. Despite tremendous support, Ale is fighting the possibility of permanent exile as she awaits her final asylum hearing on Dec.11.

Legislation that threatens to jail and deport immigrants regardless of time served and time elapsed continues to tear apart families. Fathers, mothers and young people face the ever-present fear of deportation to countries that are often more foreign to them than the U.S., where they have built their lives with their loved ones.

McCarthy, who Republicans elected to be their next House minority leader, packaged some of the most anti-immigrant legislative ideas into his recent bill — including expanding grounds for automatic detention and deportation, imposing mandatory minimum sentences, and giving a pass to law enforcement to racially profile people of color through required information sharing with ICE.

The push for harsher punishments for immigrants and their exclusion from criminal justice reform efforts show that legislators see families who are part of our communities but not born here as undeserving of the same treatment and opportunities to turn their lives around — as those who were.

Efforts to increase punishments for immigrants manifests itself in both our immigration policy and our criminal justice system. Immigrants, like anyone else, are required to complete a sentence or probation. But, for immigrants, another punishment — deportation — is added on — sometimes right away without the opportunity to present their case to a judge or to say goodbye to loved ones, and sometimes decades later when they least expect it.

The promise of the U.S. is that where you happen to be born doesn’t have to be one of the most consequential factors in whether or not you can thrive. We should realize that promise by resisting laws that betray it. 

Alisa Wellek is the executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project. Sameera Hafiz is a senior policy strategist at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Paromita Shah is an associate director of the National Immigration Project of the Lawyers Guild. 

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