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Black Lawmakers Demand an End to Prison-to-Deportation Pipeline

Washington’s renewed push for immigration reform comes fast on the heels of an election that positioned Latinos as the new deciders. But in all the post-election buzz and the Beltway’s bipartisan agreement that overhauling immigration is the best way to snag Latino votes, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Immigration is, of course, a multiracial issue. And it’s not just a matter of votes but one of justice. 

Perhaps last on the list of groups associated with the current immigration debate are the nearly 3.3 million black people who live in the U.S. but weren’t born here. They make up only 9 percent of the immigrant population, a proportion that doesn’t lend itself to political expediency.    

Despite the optics, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has made overhauling the system a focus in its official policy agenda for the year. (The others are voter protection and fighting poverty.) It also formed a task force co-chaired by Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), a member of the House Judiciary committee—a committee that should hold significant sway in any immigration bill. 

A Push for Better Jobs and Fewer Prisoners

The CBC’s immigration reform priorities include a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants and for non-citizens in the United States on temporary visas. Caucus members add that they want to strengthen worker protections and improve conditions for low-income laborers in general.

“If employers continue to break the law by paying people under the table and [using] them as shadow workers, that lowers the quality of life for all workers,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV), a co-chair of the CBC immigration task force, tells “That’s particularly true for African American workers who are often in the same situation as those immigrants.”

Along with a path to citizenship and better labor conditions, the CBC is also calling for a reform package that maintains existing pathways that Africans use to immigrate legally. This issue made an early cameo in November when the Republican-led House attempted to gut the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which opens the door for people from countries with historically low rates of US immigration. Nearly half of diversity visa holders are from African countries including Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya.

CBC task force leaders have also joined grassroots organizations in their call for a reform bill that places yield signs on a systemic speedway that begins with racial profiling and ends in automatic deportation. They say a reform effort that doesn’t address how racism fuels criminal deportation won’t be a successful one. 

“The level of policing and the abuse of certain police tools and tactics have led to black immigrants being put in these precarious positions by virtue of their race,” Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY), a task force co-chair says. “This is about fairness and equity to be quite honest.”

A Risky Proposition

The most notable—even daring—immigration goal articulated by some CBC members is the repeal of laws that require the automatic detention and deportation of immigrants who have been convicted of minor crimes. In particular some have proposed rolling back the so-called ‘96 laws, which expanded the number of criminal charges classified as aggravated felonies and stripped judges of all discretion.

Without discretion, judges aren’t allowed to weigh factors such as longtime residents’ community ties, whether they have kids here, or if they left their country of birth when they were children. The ‘96 laws apply not only to undocumented immigrants but to green-card holders and asylum seekers.

“You’re finding young people who are getting arrested and then take a plea agreement for having a marijuana joint in their pocket. Does that mean they cannot be part of their community, that they should be [banished] for the rest of their lives because of an overly aggressive stop and frisk policy?” says Clarke in reference to the controversial NYPD policing tactic used overwhelmingly in black communities.

When Congress first created the aggravated felony category in 1988, it included only a few serious crimes: murder, drug trafficking, the illegal sales of certain firearms, high-level money laundering, fraud that cost victims at least $100,000, and offenses that carried sentences of at least five years. 

Then came two 1996 laws passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. These laws made minor offenses including low-level theft, falsifying a tax return, and failing to appear for a court hearing “aggravated felonies.” Also on the list were crimes carrying sentences that exceed a year and financial fraud costing victims more than $10,000. 

Race and the ‘96 Laws’

Advocates note that the 1996 laws strike black immigrants with particular venom. “What we all need to understand is that black people—whether foreign born or not—are always being profiled,” says Opal Tometi, coordinator of the Black Immigration Network. “Black immigrants and African Americans continue to be disproportionately represented in all facets of the US criminal justice system due to structural racism and endemic criminalization.” Tometi’s group is spearheading a March 20th rally at the capitol to unite African, Latin American and Caribbean immigrants with African Americans and to “stop the reversal of civil rights gains under the guise of immigration enforcement,” according to a press statement. 

The CBC is also challenging the conventional wisdom that African American and immigrant issues are in opposition to one another: “These are issues that are affecting black immigrants and African Americans at the same time,” says Femi Kirby, the caucus’s communications director. “Our understanding of criminal justice reform in the immigration reform discussion is critical. These are problems that [caucus members’] constituents have brought to their attention.” 

Even though they’re significantly less likely to be undocumented than others, Caribbean immigrants comprise the largest number of deportees other than Latin Americans. Compared to 30 percent of all immigrants, 16 percent of Caribbean and 21 percent of African immigrants lack papers, according to a set of Migration Policy Institute reports.

If an immigration reform bill passes, millions of undocumented immigrants will gain legal status. But if the 96 laws aren’t repealed, these people will remain vulnerable to deportation until they become citizens. Based on initial proposals from the White House and from the bi-partisan Senate group drafting an immigration bill, that citizenship process that could take well over a decade.

David Pierre, a 47-year-old in immigration detention, says he doesn’t have that much time. Pierre was born in Antigua, moved with his mother to the US Virgin Islands when he was 2, and then came north to Jersey to attend trade school in the ’80s. He’s married and has six kids, two who are serving in the armed services. But for the last three years, Pierre been locked in immigration detention centers. 

In the ’90s Pierre was convicted of theft and a set of drug offenses including sale or possession in a school zone. He served two years in prison and was deported to Antigua. But Pierre came back—his family was here and he didn’t have anything in his birthplace. Although Pierre says he got his life together and court records confirm his lawful course, federal immigration authorities flagged him in 2009. As a result, Pierre has been in immigration detention since 2010.

“I’m here for something like 20 years,” says Pierre, who is fighting his case. “I paid my debt to society and I turned my life around and now I have this issue. I have a family here, my wife is here, everything I own is here.”

A Ray of Hope?

Having a judge who can actually use discretion would likely benefit folks like Pierre. And based on a draft of the White House’s immigration proposal, which was leaked to reporters, there might be some hope. Buried deep in the plan was language that would soften the aggravated felony laws. 

The White House plan would narrow the definition of an aggravated felony to crimes carrying sentences of at least five years rather than those with one-year sentences. Also under the plan, financial fraud convictions would be classified as aggravated felonies if they resulted in victim losses of a $100,000 or more, rather than the current $10,000 threshold. In cases with convictions beneath these limits, judges would be able to decide on deportation.

The White House proposal is unlikely to make its way through Congress and it’s unclear if the Senate bill under construction will include similar language. But the concept of the prison-to-deportation pipeline is gaining steam among advocates and some progressive lawmakers in the CBC. 

“Reverting back to a definition that classifies only the most severe offenses as ‘aggravated felonies’ is a necessary step toward establishing some semblance of proportionality in the relationship between crime and deportation in the United States,” notes Raha Jorjani, an immigration attorney and lecturer at the UC Davis school of law.

“When we talk about immigration, we have different communities that have different needs,” adds CBC immigration task force co-chair Horseford. “We have got to craft a bill that addresses those needs.”