Letter Back Home: New York

Credit: Stephen Rustad.

Credit: Stephen Rustad.

As a proud New Yorker, I’m ashamed of my city. For as much as “resistance” has supposedly flourished in my hometown, our immigrant communities continue to face unprecedented risks.

This past February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials arrested 41 undocumented immigrants in the New York city area in a week’s span. Jamie Schram defended these raids in an article for the New York Post, arguing that they only targeted immigrants with criminal records. Schram opens with a sweeping accusation: “They are rapists, child sex offenders, thieves, and drug dealers.”

But over a third of those arrested don’t fit that description. As ABC News reported, of the 41 immigrants, 10 only had convictions mentioned for driving under the influence and 3 had no criminal record at all. One immigrant’s only previous crime mentioned was re-entry after previous deportation.

Many advocates for stronger deportation policy claim to only want to deport immigrants with serious criminal records; but in practice, enforcement is much more broad sweeping.  Deborah Axt, co-executive director of immigration advocacy group Make the Road New York, argues that ICE bases their policy on the term “public safety threat,” a vague phrase that is “broad enough to cover nearly anyone who came to this country to survive, to put food in their children’s mouth, or to flee violence and persecution.”

President Trump has made it his goal to deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records. There’s a bit of a problem with this, though: there aren’t 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records in this country. The Migration Policy Institute puts the number at about 820,000.

Perhaps this is why in January, Trump signed an executive order that expanded the definition of “criminal” immigrants as priorities for deportation. In fact, as Jennifer Medina of the New York Times wrote at the time, “the order defines criminal loosely, and includes anyone who has crossed the border illegally — which is a criminal misdemeanor.”

Even if these kinds of strict deportation policies weren’t exorbitantly expensive or ineffective at reducing crime, they’d still be worth fighting. Deportation surges rip apart families and dehumanize undocumented immigrants. Systematically displacing individuals who have laid down roots in this country is contrary to bipartisan American values, as conservative messiah Ronald Reagan himself once recognized.

There’s no place where the value of maintaining immigrant communities should be more evident than New York, a city which boasts over 800 spoken languages and a nearly 40% immigrant population. And to be fair, there have been some substantial recent efforts to protect immigrants in New York. For example, the state just became the first to ensure that all immigrants detained and facing deportation will receive lawyers.

Yet many systematic problems have gone unaddressed. The Nation’s Jarrett Murphy highlights Mayor Bill De Blasio’s failure to rollback “broken windows” policing, which aggressively targets petty crimes. Murphy explains that these low-level arrests feed “the deportation machine” by contributing fingerprints to federal databases, “alerting federal authorities to the location of any undocumented person who was previously fingerprinted.”

Structural legal issues are not the only problem. Nonimmigrant New York citizens, myself included, haven’t truly met the call to protect our neighbors from abroad. Many of us have allowed ourselves to become distracted by meaningless Trump administration “scandals” that have no real policy significance. Even worse, some of our efforts to aid immigrants have been misled or counterproductive; a debunked social media campaign warning of fake immigration “checkpoints” resulted in needless turmoil and damaged the credibility of resistance.

New Yorkers need to make a genuine commitment to our city’s immigrants. That means doing due diligence to prevent “fake news” from spreading about checkpoints. That means demanding that our city and state politicians do more than sing pretty rhetoric about Lady Liberty and the “poor, huddled masses.” That means banding together as a city and turning good intentions into real action.

Harrison Hurt