We Beliebe that Another World is Possible
5 truths about immigration and criminalization that are more important than Bieber
By Jenny Marks and Isabelle Nastasia
Teen pop singer Justin Bieber was arrested last week in Florida on charges of drunk driving and resisting arrest. Because he is living in the U.S. on an O-1B Work Visa, many people reacted by demanding that he be deported. Given the American peoples’ affinity for organizing around inconsequential causes, it is no surprise that the “Deport Bieber” White House petition hit 100K signatures this week.
While Bieber’s case has captured public attention, there are a few things that we could be paying attention to instead! In his State of the Union address, President Obama didn’t mention deportations once. He commented vaguely that we need to “get immigration reform done this year,” as he has said every year since he’s been in office. (The not-so-Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, however, remains nowhere.)
While the White House has been working on “getting it done,” groups like National Immigrant Youth Alliance and United We Dream threw down in 2013, orchestrating multiple border-crossings of undocumented immigrants, blockades of ICE bus routes, and hunger strikes. These forms of direct action escalation are challenging the very existence of ICE, detention centers, and borders.
As a result of the 100K-strong petition calling for Bieber to be be “removed from our society”, the White House is required to make a statement. As the Beliebers wait anxiously for their response, we’d like to put forth five points that are helpful in understanding the limitations of immigration reform:
1. No One is Illegal; No One is Undeserving
The United States is a settler-colonial state with a revolving door for opening and closing borders to maximize the exploitation of undocumented workers. Criminalization, as a tool for social control, has always existed here in connection to the terms of citizenship – determining who is entitled to basic rights and freedoms and who is not. Our laws legitimize the forcible removal and confinement of some groups of people who are deemed undeserving. This is why, today, more than 2.3 million people are in jails and prisons across the United States, and why more than 2 million people have been deported since Obama was sworn in.
The people deemed disposable have been constructed as “illegal”: dependent, and criminal. This image is mobilized to justify unimaginable violence, from the continuing torture of inmates at Guantanamo Bay, to countless ICE raids and deportations, to the murder and sexual violence of migrants at the border. Immigration legislation reflects this undeserving/deserving dichotomy by explicitly excluding those who have criminal records or show signs of “moral turpitude.” For example, individuals are only eligible to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) if they have never been convicted of a felony or “significant misdemeanor.” Significant misdemeanors include drug related crimes, burglary, and any conviction for which the individual has served more than 90 days in prison.
We have to ask ourselves how the process of criminalization turns people into criminals. Because our criminal-legal system is systemically racist, classist, ageist, and xenophobic, it is no surprise that low income youth of color are disproportionately represented at every step of the way. Youth of color are more likely than white youth to be stopped by the police, arrested, charged, convicted, sentenced to adult prisons, and to be sentenced to prison for more time. This is despite the fact that white youth are more likely, for example, to use drugs and alcohol than Black or Latino youth, and it’s also why (let’s be real) Justin Bieber will not be deported, despite possible convictions of multiple felonies. Undocumented youth, who know this all too well, have been making #Undeportable memes go viral on social media, drawing further attention to the racist double-standard in the prison and immigration system.
In the movement that goes beyond Comprehensive Immigration Reform and instead seeks the destruction of borders, we must resist replicating neoliberal framing of the “undeserving” and “deserving” immigrant. We must instead recognize that all people impacted by borders, prisons, and policing are facing extreme violence, and that access to survival should not be conditional. Instead of centering the folks in the movement who are the most “normative” – the straight, college-educated, nuclear family members – we should center those who are the most marginalized and impacted by violence. We have to stop organizing around exclusion and claims to innocence, and instead confront the process of criminalization as inherently violent.
2. Sustaining Communities is Extraordinary Labor
High-profile immigration cases like that of Bieber (and John Lennon almost 40 years ago,) expose the visa system’s biases towards certain types of work. As a O-1 Visa holder, Bieber is granted ability to live and work in the US because of “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics.” What if we flipped the script on the language of “extraordinary ability”? What if we held up the incredible labor that it takes to, for example, cross borders, as well as the work it takes to build, support and sustain communities in the face of structural racism and xenophobia?
O-1 visas are reserved for immigrants with “special talents that allegedly cannot be carried out by an American citizen,” reflecting the misconception that immigrants are coming to the states to “steal our jobs.” The discourse of “stealing citizens’ jobs” is particularly violent, and disturbingly ironic, because the projects of colonialism, imperialism and neoliberalism have stolen the lives, land and labor of people from the Global South, forcing many to migrate here in the first place.
For example, neoliberal “free” trade agreements like NAFTA have destroyed Central American economies, while setting up the U.S. economy to depend on exploiting the labor of undocumented workers. More than a million farm workers (over half of the U.S. agricultural labor force) are currently undocumented, meaning that they are especially vulnerable to wage exploitation, abuse, environmental health hazards, and unsafe work conditions, all without access to quality and affordable healthcare. Consistent labor under these conditions takes extraordinary ability.This is why we must continue building a labor movement that prioritizes the most marginalized workers and advocates for a living wage for every kind of work.
3. Really, Treat Us All Like Bieber
The petition to “Treat Us All Like Justin Bieber” points out that Bieber had consumed alcohol (underage), smoked marijuana, was charged with driving without a valid license, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest. Despite this set of illegal shenanigans, Bieber was promptly released on bail and has since left to frolic on the beach in Panama with a supermodel.
While “deserving immigrants” like Bieber get off with a gentle slap on the wrist, 34,000 immigrants (a Congressional quota) are jailed in ICE detention centers on an average day for far less severe crimes. In fiscal year 2011, 46% of those deported were convicted of drug-related or criminal traffic offenses (including DUI’s). If we treated all immigrants like Bieber, not one among those 87,000 would have been deported. If we treated all immigrants like Bieber, everyone would be given the respect of personal choice, access to high quality health care, and access to effective drug treatment.
The inequity in government responses to illegal drug use points to the need for addressing drug treatment as a public health responsibility. Harm reduction activists and organizations have been leading the charge on this for decades, pointing to the disparities in funding for drug law enforcement and drug treatment. They have also advocated for models of care that prioritize health and safety and called for the destigmatization of drug users. We must also recognize, in the context of immigration, the connections between oppression-related stresses, traumas, and drug use. Given that minor drug crimes are used as justification to deport tens of thousands each year, the immigrant justice movement must call for the decriminalization of drug use and build on alliances with other criminalized communities.
4. Queering the Immigrant Justice Movement
The image of families being torn apart by deportations has been mobilized by immigration-focused non-profits and the mainstream media alike. The horror of families being forcibly divided is unquestionably real, and yet there are a number of concerns that arise when this image is centered at the expense of other narratives in the immigrant justice movement.
Focusing on families reinforces the inherent non-criminality of children, who have captured the nation’s empathy in particular. This emphasis, unfortunately, has the danger of implying that undocumented adults are criminal and that therefore deportation is a legitimate punishment for them. In addition, the need to “keep families together” has been taken up by ICE, which uses this justification as one of the primary reasons to detain and deport entire families.
The focus on (hetero)normative families also erases the existence of queer immigrants. Queer and trans* immigrants often do not have family-based support, or family-based paths to citizenship, because of rejection or estrangement. They are also often denied access to legal status through marriage. These barriers, compounded by the additional barriers of police profiling, employment discrimination, and lack of access to gender affirming legal services and healthcare make trans* immigrants much more vulnerable to profiling, detainment and deportation.
Working within a no-borders/abolitionist framework means rejecting reforms that continue to be exclusionary or that might actually worsen conditions for some undocumented people. This is why we are critical of the demand for a federal marriage equality bill that would allow queer bi-national couples to obtain residency and health benefits via their partner. Subscribing to an assimilation model means that we will continue to exclude some of the most marginalized.
The campaign for marriage equality continues to exclude those couples in which neither partner has health insurance or citizenship, as well as people in relationships that are non-monogamous. Instead of assimilation into normative notions of family, we should be advocating for expansive definitions of family that include queers, trans* folks, chosen families, adopted families, and “blood” families. We should be advocating for universal free health care that will cover all individuals regardless of marital status. Marriage equality and other liberal reforms will not end poverty and racism, nor are they a solution to the root causes of xenophobia and heterosexism. Luckily, we can look to undocuqueers, like Lulú Martinez and Julio Salgado, for models of organizing that foreground queer immigrant experience.
5. Walls Turned on Their Sides are Bridges
Drawing connections between abolitionist and no-borders perspectives is helpful in recognizing the ways that immigration and incarceration are intertwined. Both are legal means of state violence, both involve the forcible movement of bodies, and both set up categories that divide us. An abolitionist vision, then, must look forward to the world without innocent/guilty dichotomies, without national citizenship and arbitrary borders, and without prisons.
Abolition means acknowledging that borders and prisons are themselves structures of violence that cannot be redeemed or reformed; that ICE detention centers and jails are home to some of the most dangerous conditions for human life; and that this form of state violence is the “real” terrorism of which we should be concerned. Abolition means rejecting all means of criminalization and exile, and beliebing that all people “deserve” clean air and water, freedom of movement, and the possibility of full lives. As we tear down oppressive institutions and build up communities that nurture our whole selves, we remember: “Las paredes vueltas de lado son puentes.” (“Walls turned on their sides are bridges.”)
We believe fully in the capacity of collective movement to challenge the permanence of prisons and borders. We look to queer and trans* abolition-oriented groups, like the Against Equality Collective and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, for concrete lessons on creating projects of accountability and justice, and to undocuqueer organizers for models of organizing that are truly intersectional and leave no part of our identities behind. We also look to groups like the Safe Outside the System Collective and the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project for small scale examples of prefigurative institutions that are building alternatives to the current system of punishment.
Although a future without walls and cages might currently seem impossible, as James Baldwin reminded us in The Fire Next Time, “the impossible is the least that one can demand.”