Commentary: Legal Violence Against Immigrants and Their Families

Protesting ICE raids. (Photo: Flickr/SEIU)

Legal Violence in the Lives of Immigrants is the title of a report released by the Center for American Progress this week. I found the term “legal violence” unsettling at first, because while our legal system can be unfair at times, I do have faith in it. It’s more than being oxymoronic. Ours is a democracy that does not sanction violence, or ideally should not, on people working for the American Dream and who want nothing more than to be part of our society.

Cecilia Menjívar and Leisy Abrego, authors of the report, argue however that legal violence is indeed inflicted upon immigrants and their families through immigration enforcement. The physical, economic, emotional and psychological well-being of immigrants and their native-born family members are harmed by the cumulative effects of enforcement—detentions, deportations, raids, and traffic stops—along with the crippling fear and stigma that result from the enactment of stringent anti-immigrant policies.

One would think that the Obama administration’s immigration reprieves would allay many immigrants’ fears. The Morton Memo gives Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel leeway, that is, prosecutorial discretion, in deciding who gets detained and deported: mainly hard-core criminals and threats to national security. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allows eligible immigrants to remain and work in the United States for a couple of years.

The administration’s deportation record combined with state-level immigration initiatives however have seared the dread of separation from loved ones into the immigrant psyche. As the report highlights,

Close to 400,000 people have been detained and deported each year since 2009, and an estimated 34,000 detention beds are available every day. New initiatives such as the Secure Communities program, which checks the status of people booked into county jails in participating jurisdictions, have added another layer to the web of Border Control, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other immigration agents operating across the country. On top of these federal efforts, some states and localities have passed their own anti-immigrant laws, such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070 … and Alabama’s H.B. 56 … These laws seek to criminalize all aspects of undocumented immigrants’ life and behavior.

Menjívar and Abrego illustrate that it is the “ever-present fear of enforcement actions” which impacts immigrants and their families the most.

“This fear can take many forms, such as a community refusing to leave their houses or take their children to school because of an impending raid, or an unwillingness to speak out against abuse in the workplace,” write Menjívar and Abrego. They add that even “those with temporary legal statuses, such as deferred action or Temporary Protected Status, also fear that they too could be victims of detention or deportation.”

The legal violence wrought by hardline immigration laws meant to encourage self-deportation not only impacts immigrant communities but our nation as a whole. We have created an environment that hampers the integration of immigrants who could otherwise contribute more to our economy, engage more fully civically and politically, and strengthen our society. We have turned our backs on our immigrant history and legacy.

Violence to immigrants might not be written into law, but it is certainly inflicted through enforcement of draconian immigration laws.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.