Disparaging immigrants as criminals is a nativist strategy hundreds of years old. The anti-immigrant movement today has taken this strategy and turned it into a primary narrative about immigrants that drives national policy. This was true under Obama and in past Administrations, but is even more prominent now.
The key to fighting back is understanding that this is not about crime, but about criminalization.
Criminalization is the act of turning an activity into a crime, or treating someone or something as criminal. For example:
Different communities of color are targeted by criminalization in distinct, but intersecting ways. Muslim communities may be primary targets of surveillance, but may also experience criminalization by ICE depending on their immigration status. Black and Latinx communities may be primary targets of criminalization based on drug use or “gang membership,” but other communities of color are criminalized in similar ways. Individuals may also experience intersecting forms of oppression based on their identities, whether they are Black immigrants, Muslim Latinxs, queer Asians, or many other combinations of identities.
The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other country on earth. In 2017, 2.3 million people are imprisoned, and 59% of them are people of color—even though only 30% of the population in the U.S. are people of color.
That’s 2.3 million families separated, 2.3 million lives upended or destroyed, 2.3 million people’s freedom stolen, 2.3 million lives with unfulfilled potential.
Taxpayers pay $80 billion to lock up this many people in federal, state, and local facilities. But the social cost is much higher: experts estimate that it exceeds $1 trillion. For instance, lost wages of people incarcerated total $230 billion. The mental and physical costs of incarceration also contribute to these social costs, as do costs to families who must spend money and time visiting relatives in prison, and even the higher death rates that result from imprisonment.
Compare these costs to the massive cuts to public services in Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, as reported by the Washington Post. The budget would:
Criminalization doesn’t just cost us money; it also helps big corporations get even richer. A huge set of industries profit from the mass incarceration that results from efforts to criminalize communities of color.
It is hard to estimate the total amount of money that corporations make from mass incarceration. But here are a few examples, according to The New Yorker:
According to the Washington Post, for-profit prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group make a combined $3.3 billion annually, largely from immigrant detention. They have also spent roughly $25 million lobbying the government, sometimes for policies to lock up even more people. Over 60% of immigration detention beds are operated by for-profit private companies, according to the group Grassroots Leadership.
Along with politicians, government, and private corporations, anti-immigrant groups are doing more than just talking about criminalizing immigrants and communities of color. They are actively lobbying Congress and developing relationships with law enforcement to implement policies criminalizing immigrants. For example:
Many of the policies that criminalize communities of color in different ways still operate based on similar racist logic. They also sometimes use similar tactics, like racial profiling, to target black communities, Muslim communities, Latinx communities, and others. Communities at the intersections of these identities, like Black immigrants, may be disproportionately at risk. (Source: Prison Policy Initiative).
We advocate for the elimination of the use of detention centers and deportations, surveillance mechanisms, and “reforms” that exclude the most criminalized amongst us. One way we are doing this is by advocating for the elimination of the City of Chicago’s gang database.
Genoveva’s case is one of OCAD’s first victories. OCAD supported her in filing a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (something that takes a lot of courage). As a result, Genoveva got her U visa approved, is with her family and continues to fight for others.
Wilmer Catalan had been residing in the US for over 10 years and, in March of 2017, ICE agents unlawfully entered his home without a criminal warrant or consent. ICE had conducted a raid based on false information obtained from the Chicago Police Department indicating Wilmer belonged to a street gang.