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Black Lives Matter Co-Founder: The Immigration Challenge No One Is Talking About

5 minute read

Opal Tometi is the Executive Director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration and a Co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

Immigration is a hot issue this election season. Unfortunately, despite the attention that news outlets and presidential candidates are giving the issue, the most devastating policies immigrants face—the 1996 immigration laws—are barely on the radar. As a result of these laws, millions of immigrants have been victims of fast-track deportations and unjust, arbitrary detention; families and communities have been torn apart; and entire generations of immigrants have been criminalized.

April marks the 20th anniversary of these draconian policies. The best thing we can do to mark this anniversary is to repeal them.

In the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, President Bill Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996. This legislation expanded the grounds for detaining and deporting immigrants, including long-term legal residents, and was the first law to authorize the now widely used fast-track deportation procedures.

Following AEDPA, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) was signed into law in September 1996. The law made sweeping changes to allow for deportations to be retroactive and broadened the types of crimes that could result in deportation. As a result,many immigrants, including those with legal residency, became deportable for non-violent offenses, including relatively minor ones, such as marijuana possession, jumping a subway turnstile or selling bootlegged DVDs. Many of these offenses are not even classified as crimes on the state level.

The system of mass detention and deportation perpetuated by the 1996 laws have had a dramatic effect on black immigrants, who often bear the harshest burden of most laws that affect communities of color.

Data released by the Department of Homeland Security shows that black immigrants are detained and deported at higher rates than their counterparts of other backgrounds. Over the past 20 years, since the 1996 laws have been in effect, statistics have shown a dramatic, alarming increase in the number of undocumented immigrants of African descent who have been racially profiled by local police and turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. Estimates show that the deportation rate of undocumented black immigrants is five times their numbers in the undocumented population, which is similar to the overrepresentation of African Americans in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, black immigrants are twice as likely to be detained due to a criminal conviction. Even though black immigrants make up only 7% of the total immigrant population, 20% of all immigrants in deportation proceedings due to criminal convictions are black.

IIRIRA also made it more difficult for people fleeing persecution to apply for asylum.

Gisela, an immigrant woman from Cameroon, fled years ago due to ethnic conflict. Gisela (first name used because she fears for her safety) came to the U.S. seeking asylum but was greatly harmed by the 1996 laws. For more than 15 months, she was held in a detention facility, living in fear of deportation, while feeling harassed and unable to communicate with her family. Fortunately after Gisela’s release, my organization, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, was able to support Giselala and help her reconnect with her family and find work.

Sadly, her story is not uncommon. Across the country, we continue to hear stories of immigrants who are ripped away from their families and communities and thrown into detention facilities for excruciating periods time, subjected to punitive treatment and fearing deportation to countries some of them never even knew.

The 1996 immigration laws are clearly unjust and inhumane. To dishonor this month’s anniversary, racial justice and immigrant rights organizations, including the Black Alliance for Just Immigration are joining together to demand key provisions of the laws be repealed.

Specifically, we are calling for removing convictions as a grounds for deportation and exclusion, including aggravated felonies and drug offenses; ending the retroactive application of the 1996 laws; restoring judicial discretion and due process for all individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice and immigration systems; ending permanent deportation; terminating mandatory detention; ending police/ ICE collaboration programs such 287g; eliminating the three and 10-year bars, which prohibit return to the U.S.; and providing a “right to counsel” in immigration proceedings.

U.S. immigration law has not changed substantively since 1996. Politicians, advocates, businesses and grassroots organization across the board have recognized that the immigration system, including the 1996 laws, needs to change. Nonetheless, the U.S. has continued to disregard the dignity and human rights of millions of immigrants. We should look to efforts like that of Representative Raul Grijalva and others with their new resolution, HR 708, which challenges the criminalization of immigrants, noting that people of color are already unduly targeted by all arms of the criminal justice system, and that the immigration enforcement system only has a compounding impact on migrant communities.

With the next presidential election on the horizon, America’s faulty immigration laws cannot be ignored. And the American public cannot accept unrealistic or Band-Aid solutions like deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants or building a wall or blocking Muslim immigrants from entering the country. If we want a fair, just and inclusive immigration system, we must hold our next president and Congress accountable for long-term solutions that will improve the lives of all immigrants living in the U.S.

For a start, they should repeal the 1996 immigration laws. And then we can talk about voting.

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