Racism and the US Immigration System


Racism and the US Immigration System

Dear Friends,

Immigrant Legal Center’s mission is welcoming immigrants into communities with high-quality legal services, education, and advocacy. We are committed to welcoming and inclusivity work, intentionally striving for a world where Black lives matter, no person is illegal, and no human being is superior to another.

Right now, our country is having a long overdue conversation about race . As immigration legal service providers, we see firsthand the devastating effects of racism on our immigration system. Immigration has always been part of the racial landscape of America.  In fact, the very first law regarding Naturalization, dating all the way back to 1790, reserved citizenship by naturalization to “free white persons.” The Immigration Act of 1924 provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census, making it easier for white immigrants while severely limiting immigration from African and South American countries. It completely excluded immigrants from Asian countries.

To this day, immigration policies disproportionally affect immigrants of color, including the Muslim Travel Ban, ending Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for countries whose recipients are largely persons of color, ending the Central American Minors program, the attempted rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), separating families and putting children in cages and redistributing funding to keep out asylum seekers on the southern border.

Just like BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) Americans, non-white immigrants are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned than the immigrant population as a whole. Immigration enforcement relies heavily on local and state law enforcement when making decisions on who to prioritize for deportation, seeking out 287g agreements like the one in Dakota County, Nebraska, which history has demonstrated have resulted in widespread racial profiling. 

Being arrested, even for minor traffic violations, low-level crimes, or crimes a person didn’t commit, can jeopardize an immigrant’s ability to remain in the United States. For example,

  • After an immigrant is charged with a crime, he or she may be confronted with a choice to plead guilty to a lesser offense, one he or she may not have committed, that doesn’t include jail time, out of fear of being detained by ICE.
  • In 2010, the Supreme Court held in Padilla v. Kentucky that the Constitution requires criminal defense attorneys to advise their clients of the immigration consequences of their criminal charges. With limited access to representation, the large caseloads of public defenders, and the complexity of immigration law, this does not always happen, and noncitizens are still sometimes pressured to sign plea bargains that may damage a subsequent immigration case.
  • A criminal conviction could trigger mandatory detention, deportation, and ineligibility to reenter the United States. It may also serve as a bar to U.S. citizenship, eligibility to obtain a green card, and various forms of relief from deportation, such as asylum or withholding of removal.

The reliance on state and local law enforcement for prioritization for deportation clearly reflects law enforcement’s racial bias when policing the Black community in particular.  For example, there is absolutely no evidence that Black immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate than the overall immigrant population. However, while Black immigrants make up only 7.2% of the non-citizen population in the U.S., they make up 20.3% of immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds. This is unacceptable.

There are several recommendations from the Black Alliance for Immigration Justice and other partner agencies for how we can dismantle the racism present in our immigration system. A few of these recommendations include:

  • Congress should eliminate the criminal bars that prevent individuals from seeking access to immigration programs for those escaping war, egregious social, political, and economic conditions, public health and infrastructure crises, and domestic violence
  • Public charge rules that force families to forego public benefits they may need to feed, house, and care for their families should be eliminated.
  • Immigrants should be granted a right to government-appointed counsel.
  • Where relevant, states should amend criminal laws such that the maximum sentence for certain criminal offenses is less than one year, so that those offenses no longer constitute grounds for deportability.
  • States should legalize acts that the broader public no longer believes should constitute a crime or violation and implement pre-plea diversion programs for a wide range of offenses so that individuals do not face harsh immigration consequences as a result of their involvement in the criminal system.
  • Municipalities should pass laws prohibiting local law enforcement agencies from collaborating and sharing information with ICE.
  • States and municipalities should increase access programs that support immigrants’ ability to access public benefits.

There are other ways we can combat systemic racism in our communities, including:

  • Take the 2020 Census. An important way to celebrate the diversity and heritage of everyone in our communities is to stand up and be counted.
  • Register to vote, and then research and identify candidates that support immigrants at the local, state and national level.
  • Support local organizations that are doing important racial, immigration and social justice work. These organizations need your financial support to continue the fight towards equity and inclusion.

At Immigrant Legal Center, we will continue advocating for our clients, and immigrants seeking refuge and peace in the United States.

In solidarity,

Erik Omar
Executive Director


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