Imigration reform, and the myth of the “reformed” illegal

Reflecting on this post from Mariame Kaba:

“The irony of all of this is that the carceral state is deeply invested in circulating “conversion stories” about the “reformed criminal.” Rehabilitation is supposed to be a central tenet of the American prison system”. … “The immigrant who is criminalized is forever a ‘criminal’ and will be precluded from ever gaining citizenship rights.  Why can’t the immigrant be ‘rehabilitated?’ What does this mean about what the country actually believes about the possibilities of so-called ‘rehabilitation’ for ‘criminals?’ How can we use this seeming contradiction as the basis for calling for prison abolition? If the prison is abolished, will we also be rid of the concept of ‘rehabilitation?’ Does this then afford us an opportunity to get outside of the constraints of the concept of “criminality?” “

To think abut rehabilitation and the narratives of “reformed criminals” in relation to immigration reform as Mariame suggested, perhaps we can pull back a bit from the specifics of “criminal alien” – i.e. the non-citizen who is accused of having a criminal record, and instead speak more broadly about the category of “illegal”. “Unauthorized presence” means being in this country without documentation; this has been criminalized in the popular imagination and in the enforcement of immigration policies, but not necessarily in the penal system. In other words, it is not necessary for one to have been labeled a “criminal” in terms of their police record in order to be considered “illegal”. In “punishing” the undocumented for the violation of their being, the rule of law is invoked: they have broken our immigration laws, therefore they are “illegals” and so on. so “criminal” and “illegal” can be overlapping but distinct categories. More simply: anyone apprehended without papers is considered “illegal” and thus deportable, and the focus of many raids, arrests and Poli-Migra programs is on the apprehension NOT of immigrants accused of committing crimes but of anyone suspected of being undocumented. (Raids and detentions are preemptive — immigrants are  grabbed and held in order to prove after-the-fact “crimes” or violations for which they may be considered deportable on criminal grounds, and which are also useful as the state  justifies these mechanisms in terms of national security; but what brings people into the scope of state surveillance and violence is not necessarily the action of committing a “crime” but the suspicion of unauthorized presence). In the Reform Bill, the exclusion of people with criminal records is one way that the distinction between people who are more or less a “priority” for deportation is being parsed out — what is at stake is using and expanding the category of “criminal” to normalize the category of “illegal”.  Whereas the myth of rehabilitation is powerful in relation to reproducing the “criminal”, it may seem there is no rehabilitation for either the “criminal alien” or the “illegal”.

But here is I think where the state’s investment in DREAM Activism and the figure of the DREAMer come into play. With powerful political backing and sexy media appeal, the figure of the DREAMer has been dominating the media landscape of the last few years. The hyper visibility of the DREAMer has often obscured who precisely is behind these campaigns, and how are they capitalized  upon? Who is funding and supporting them? Why are they so attractive to mainstream media and the electoral campaigns of Senators, while anti-immigrant sentiment against all other categories of “illegals” is on the rise?  What is the relationship between the rise to media stardom of the DREAM ActORS (and their exceptional status in the cultural imaginary and in the courts) and the increased normalization of notions such as “illegal immigrants”, the expanding infrastructure of the detention/deportation apparatus? While more and more DREAMers engage in civil disobedience, their arrests are generally symbolic and result in release, while for most undocumented people contact with police is used as one of the main mechanisms of capture. Perhaps the DREAMer offers a possibility to play out the fantasy of rehabilitation in the sphere of “illegality” — offering a figure through which one can imagine not just the “good immigrant” but the rehabilitated illegal? Knowing no other country that this one, speaking fluent English, dreaming in English, no criminal record, good student, upwardly socially mobile in every (other) way, professional class, patriotic and willing to serve, and so on, the DREAMer stands in sharp contrast to the figure of the “criminal alien” but also to the illegal in general – who is represented as poor, non-English speaking, not assimilated into American values of productivity and upward social mobility and so on. One of the key distinctions has always been around the question of original blame: DREAMers were brought here with no choice of their own, so they can be imagined not as having “broken the law” and their illegalized parents did, but instead can be seen as victims. This rhetorically refocuses the emphasis not on the state and on processes of illegalization, but on the actions of migrants themselves as the “problem” or the “crime”. and just as the narrative of “rehabilitation” saves to justify the penal system, the figure of the DREAMer serves as justification for expanding detention and deportation against all other “illegals”.

Yesterday in the marvelous PIC training organized by the PIC Teaching Collective this summer, Shira Hassan facilitated a workshop on the criminalization of youth. A key point of the discussion focused on how the shift in focus from criminalizing youth for prostitution to defining juveniles as victims of trafficking actually lead to an expansion of enforcement and policing against young people in the street economy. While it has not been formalized in the same way, how does the specific emphasis on the parents as the perpetrators of criminal activity operate as a kind of “anti trafficking” narrative?