At the intersection of race and the criminal justice system: Jayashri Srikantiah

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With the federal court’s ruling on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program this spring, and the Supreme Court’s potential willingness to uphold the current administration’s travel ban on select Muslim-majority countries, it bears asking: What role does race play in immigration law?

Jayashri Srikantiah is a professor of law and founding director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School. As part of our inaugural Q&A series on immigration, Srikantiah, a CCSRE faculty affiliate, discusses the intersection of immigration, race, and the criminal justice system.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about immigration?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that if someone wants to come to this country and “plays by the rules,” they will be able to get in line and get a visa to enter. That is simply not the case. Our immigration statute provides for a small and limited number of visas for most categories of entrants, and there are other restrictions as well, including most importantly country-by-country limits.

How does your research and litigation intersect with issues of race?

Our country’s immigration laws have been defined by race and racism. From the very early days of the Chinese Exclusion Laws to the present-day Muslim ban litigation, immigration law is about who we choose to admit and who we choose to exclude. Our country has historically drawn those distinctions based on race and nationality.

My practice and research focuses on the intersection of immigration and the criminal justice system. Race affects that in multiple ways: racial profiling and assumptions influence who is arrested, detained, convicted, and sentenced in the criminal justice system. When those individuals are then placed in deportation proceedings, the system, exclusions, and customs of the institutions are deeply affected by issues of race.

How can your research be applied to the world today?

My work — research and litigation — focuses on enforcement and its effects, especially at the intersection of immigration and the criminal justice system. Any research I do stems from my work representing individuals facing deportation and conducting broader-scale advocacy and litigation on behalf of immigrant communities.

Of late, I have been focused on measures to stand up to the current administration’s anti-immigrant policies, including representation of those targeted by the policies, public education for immigrant communities (including at Stanford), and broad-scale litigation to effect law reform.

If you could help a political representative of your choosing understand one thing about immigration, what would it be?

Over the past few decades, our immigration system has reserved its harshest treatment for immigrants with criminal convictions. Many of these individuals may suffer mandatory banishment and detention without any individualized assessment of whether such treatment is proportional or rational in their case. I see the results every day in our practice. For example, we represent grandmothers who have very old convictions who are now facing permanent deportation, even though they have no recent convictions and deep, longstanding ties to this country, including U.S. citizen children and grandchildren. That kind of system makes no sense. The immigration laws should be reformed to permit immigration judges to make more individualized assessments, regardless of whether an immigrant has a past conviction.

Full Spectrum

Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity

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The Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity (CCSRE) is Stanford University’s interdisciplinary hub for teaching and research on race and ethnicity.

Full Spectrum

Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford

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