“Indefensible” — Stories of resilience in the face of deportation

Sometimes, officers tell you, “Hey, you ain’t shit! This is you, this is your life, you’re nothing but a criminal.” Hearing that once or twice is nothing, but hearing that day in and day out for months at a time, you start to say, “Damn, you know what, maybe I ain’t. Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I am what they say that I am.”

— Johnny Perez, Safe Reentry Advocate at Urban Justice Center, Member of the NYC Bar Corrections and Community Reentry Committee, Member of the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Johnny was imprisoned at Rikers Island at age 16 and recalls these taunts from corrections officers while in solitary confinement.

As part of our work to provide a counter narrative to the dehumanization of all people with criminal convictions, this week the Immigrant Defense Project is launching Indefensible, a podcast series by producer Will Coley. Indefensible is a collaboration with our grassroots partners to elevate the stories of people facing deportation due to criminal convictions. Through these voices Indefensible confronts the rhetoric of racism, criminalization, and hatred that fuel the national security state. These stories shed light on the deep harms of an immigration system that, by design, denies basic rights — such as the rights to a fair trial to protection from excessive punishment.

The Trump administration’s continuous coupling of the terms “criminal” with “immigrant” aims to tap into deep-seated myths to leverage political support for its anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-poor, anti-other agenda. The intended outcome is to legitimize its “national security” program rather than draw close examination and critique of a system that, in broad strokes, deprives liberty as a regular practice, by expanding the police state in our communities, imprisoning up to 40,000 immigrants a day and exiling close to 500,000 U.S. residents per year.

The use of the idea of “criminality” to achieve political ends, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Throughout U.S. history, groups of people have been branded as harmful and irredeemable — notably black Americans, and including but not limited to the Chinese, Japanese, communists and anarchists, Native Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, and Haitians — to justify state violence through excessive policing and prosecution; the denial of welfare, health care, and citizenship; imprisonment, and exile. The state’s active construction of scapegoats serves to make invisible the role of the government in generating and perpetuating inequality, human rights abuses, and hatred. Under a government that seeks to absolve economic and social systems of blame, individuals, particularly those deemed as “irredeemable” or “undesirable,” are demonized and blamed for instability.

Currently, the deportation regime has widely adopted many of the ideas and practices of the war on crime and broken windows policing. The government uses the frame that its key targets as “lawbreakers” using labels such as “criminal aliens,” “gang members” and “illegals,” and relies on an assumption — much like broken windows policing — that immigrants with convictions, regardless of how minor or how old, or any other factors in their lives, embody perpetual threats to public safety.

An additional challenge is the massive state investment in excluding, imprisoning, and exiling immigrants. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. government — invoking a never ending “state of emergency” — has built the world’s largest and most costly system of imprisonment and deportation, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in border walls, detention centers, weapons, and enforcement officers. Working hand-in-hand with the criminal legal system, immigration policing relies on racialized fear and reductive labeling to ensure the swift, unforgiving, and permanent disappearance of individuals from their families and communities.

On May 17, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a press release touting its immigration arrests during the first 100 days of the Trump administration — a 40% increase compared to the same time period under Obama during the previous year. While the press statement honed in on immigrants with criminal convictions, many news outlets decried the increase in number of people arrested who had no prior criminal convictions. Their response is just another example of how deeply the mainstream has embraced the message that there are those who are “deserving” of rights and protection — the “non-criminals” and “those who are not thugs” — and for the rest, you are “nothing but a criminal.”

Deportation banishes our community members to countries that they have not visited since infancy; often, they find themselves without family, community ties, and, sometimes, without the ability to even speak the language. These drastic penalties are imposed for decades-old criminal convictions, some from adolescence, and others that carried no jail sentences at all. Deportation erases powerful examples of resilience post-imprisonment and deprives communities of concrete contributions for good. What deportation does not do is what Trump’s Executive Orders claim — “enhance public safety.

The stories shared by Indefensible show the human side of the devastation caused by the deportation apparatus, as well as the resilience and determination of those fighting for an alternative vision of belonging.

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