The Immigration System is Racist; Solutions Exist

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Aug 16, 2023

In 2015, Julio, a Black Dominican immigrant living in New York City, was stopped by police for “walking suspiciously.” It was the tail end of the stop and frisk era, the notoriously racist policing strategy that subjected Black people to a vastly disproportionate percentage of police stops in the city.

Julio was 18 years old and sold water, candy, and T-shirts to earn extra money for his family. He was attending Bronx Community College in the hope of becoming a medical assistant. (Julio’s name has been changed in this story to protect his identity.) One day, he noticed a black car following him, and it turned out to be the police. “The officer said that I looked nervous, but why wouldn’t I?” he said. “Why wouldn’t I be nervous [when] there is a black vehicle following me slowly?” The police stopped and searched Julio and discovered an unregistered gun, which he had started carrying after being robbed at gunpoint near his Bronx home. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Hoping to turn his life around upon release, Julio worked for Corcraft, New York State’s prison labor manufacturing division, and took all available education courses while incarcerated. “I did everything that was possible to make it home to my family,” he said. “I wasn’t making trouble; I learned my lesson.” That work paid off. After four-and-a-half years, he earned early release.

But instead of being released at the completion of his sentence, Julio was immediately swept up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and placed in immigration detention. Even though he was a green card holder with permanent resident status, New York State officials contacted ICE, triggering deportation proceedings and his transfer to immigration detention.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, this can’t be true,’” said Julio, who left the Dominican Republic at age eight. “Imagine doing your whole time and they put you in another cell.”

Unable to afford an attorney who could argue for his release, Julio was held in a prison-like detention center. Human rights abuses abound in U.S. immigration detention, according to the federal government’s own reports. Justifications for the practice of detention fall flat, as it is not needed to ensure that people appear in immigration court, nor does it deter migration.

Julio described the detention facility as worse than prison. “You were in a cell with no fresh air most of your time; you only get an hour to go out,” he said. “The rec area was straight metal, like if you [were] in a cage like a dog.”

A broken system

Julio’s story shows the importance of transforming an immigration system that is rooted xenophobia and racism, and of breaking its ties to an equally racist and unjust criminal legal system. Reforms that could help fix this broken system include ending mandatory detention, and rolling back harmful laws that linked the criminal legal and immigration systems. The United States should also provide universal representation to all people facing deportation.

In the 1990s, laws like the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) made immigrants subject to detention and deportation if convicted of a wide range of infractions, including minor crimes. As a result, hundreds of thousands of long-time U.S. residents have been separated from their families and exiled from their homes for even minor transgressions, like drug possession and shoplifting.

IIRIRA and the changes it brought to an immigration system which criminalizes immigrants has particularly harmed Black immigrants, who are overpoliced. The same prejudices that pervade the criminal legal system extend to the immigration system. Just as Black people are more likely than white people to be targeted by police, research suggests that Black immigrants are also disproportionately vulnerable to immigration enforcement.

Attorneys can help people who are facing deportation, but immigrants face unique obstacles to retaining counsel. Unlike in criminal court, where the Sixth Amendment guarantees anyone convicted of a crime the right to legal representation, people facing deportation in immigration court are only guaranteed representation if they can afford a lawyer themselves. Most cannot. There are nearly 2.4 million cases pending in immigration court, in which more than 1.4 million people lack legal representation. Adults, families, and, sometimes, even children are forced to appear alone in court, defending themselves against trained government attorneys. The daunting complexity of immigration law stacks the odds against them, particularly for immigrants who are unfamiliar with speaking English.

Justice for all

Julio believes he would have been deported had he not qualified for legal aid from the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, a publicly funded deportation defense program. With his attorney’s help, Julio was able to win his case and get his deportation terminated.

“Having a lawyer helps you mentally because you have somebody that actually cares for your well-being and wants you to stay in the United States,” Julio said. “It’s not just you by yourself. It makes you feel like you have a chance. When I was going to sign the deportation papers just to get out of detention, my lawyer said, ‘No, no. You have a good chance.’”

Julio is now home with his family. But others—people who could otherwise establish their legal right to stay in the United States—are deported simply because they cannot afford to pay for an attorney to help protect their rights. To help those caught in the current system, more than 50 jurisdictions across the country—including Dallas, Texas; Dane County, Wisconsin; Nevada, and Colorado—have created similar programs that provide attorneys to protect the rights of residents who are facing deportation.

In addition to the critical importance of providing government-funded legal help for people facing deportation, Julio's story also highlights the inhumanity of forcing immigrants into detention while their immigration cases are pending. The ultimate goal must be to eliminate immigration detention altogether and enact policies—like the New Way Forward Act and the New York For All Act—that disrupt the prison to deportation pipeline and prevent states and localities from using their resources to place residents at risk of detention and deportation to begin with.

In the meantime, universal representation—a public defender-style system for people facing deportation—is one tool to help alleviate the disproportionate double punishment faced by Black immigrants, like Julio. People with representation are 10.5 times more likely to obtain relief from deportation than those without representation.

The proposed federal Fairness to Freedom Act would create a publicly-funded national system to provide legal representation to all who are facing deportation in immigration court. Polling has found that two in three people in the United States support government-funded representation for immigrants facing deportation, including 80 percent of Democrats and a majority of Republicans. Providing attorneys to protect the rights of people in immigration court is a matter of due process and racial equity.

It was not easy for Julio to restart his life after prison and immigration detention. But he persisted, found work in construction, and is working toward becoming a site safety manager.

“It has been tough, but wonderful. By the grace of God, I didn’t let that setback destroy my life,” he said. “I am healthy, and I am working . . . . Whatever life hits you with, pick yourself up . . . just keep moving forward.