The Penalty is Exile: How Immigration and Criminalization Collide

Under President Obama more than 1 million people have been deported from the United States. We’re told many of those people are criminals who’ve broken more than just immigration law. On this edition, producer Cory Fischer-Hoffman takes a closer look at how immigration and the criminal justice system work together, to detain and deport hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Under President Obama more than 1 million people have been deported from the United States. We’re told many of those people are criminals who’ve broken more than just immigration law. On this edition, producer Cory Fischer-Hoffman takes a closer look at how immigration and the criminal justice system work together, to detain and deport hundreds of thousands of people every year.


Alex Alvarez, deported immigrant; Abraham Paolos, Families For Freedom director; Tanya Golash Boza, author “Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post 9-11 America,” John Morton, Immigration and Customs Enforcement director; Michelle Fei, Immigrant Defense Project co-director; Lili Salmeron, Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights organizer.



Cory Fischer-Hoffman: Have you ever traveled on Greyhound Bus Before?  Do you know the feeling of standing in the station, looking around to see if your bus will be full and hoping that after a smooth and uneventful journey, you will safely arrive to your destination?

In January of 2010, Alex Alvarez boarded a greyhound bus in Lawrence, Kansas and then got off his bus in Orlando to transfer to Immokalee, Florida,  but he never arrived to his final destination.

Alex:, I was entering the bus station, and I entered calmly, but there was someone who detained me and asked, “where are you going?” I said “to Florida, to work.” and then they asked me for my papers.  I didn’t present any documentation and so, they immediately handcuffed me and they took me to a room, and they said, “sorry you can’t travel because you don’t have papers from here.” In this bus station, it was two of us who were detained, because we were the only ones who were immigrants. But, we didn’t commit any crime, absolutely none

Cory Fischer-Hoffman: Alex Alvarez is from Guatemala, and like so many others he left his country in search of way to provide for his family back home.  Alex worked in a bakery in Florida for four years and then traveled to Kansas.  Since he was unable to find reliable work, he decided to return to Florida and see if he could get his old job back.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement stopped him, solely based on “looking like an immigrant,” Alex said.  They handcuffed and arrested him and then took him to an immigrant detention center.

Alex: I was in an immigrant detention center.  They asked me a lot of questions, “what’s your name, what is this, what is that?” as you were a criminal, even though, I didn’t do anything.  Then they took me to another detention center, where there were more people, and throughout the whole time we were handcuffed.  It enrages me to think about how they treat people, I am not a criminal that they should treat me like that, with chains ties around my wrists, ankles and waist.

It was difficult to go into a room that is completely closed off.  Where, you don’t have a right to anything.  You go on, they close you off, and they keep you there as long as they want, without being able to inform your family, without being able to just let your family and friends know where you are.  You are practically disappeared, you don’t give you a right to anything.  They didn’t give me a telephone, just to call my family. Maybe for many, this is not a new experience but for me, I have never been to prison or anything like it before, not in my country.

I returned to Florida on a bus, where one feels like they should be safe, like nothing will happen but they detained me, just for being an immigrant.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman: After spending one week in a detention center, Alex was deported to Guatemala.  Alex was just one of around 350, 000  people who were deported from the United States in 2011. Under President Obama, more than one million immigrants were deported between 2008 and 2012.  Alex had not committed any crime, he happened to be profiled which led to his detention and then, deportation.  Many people listening to Alex’s story would be sympathetic, because Alex is not a criminal.
The rhetoric around immigration enforcement and deportation has mostly focussed on criminals.

Young Turks 1#: It’s a signifigantly larger percentage of criminals who are being deported back, which, I mean, we are all in favor of.  I mean criminals…

Young Turks 2: Of course!

Young Turks 1:  Illegal immigrant criminals need to be sent back.

Young Turks 2: Right, just to give you the numbers real quickly, forty eight percent of the people sent back under Obama were convicted criminals.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman: That was from a liberal online news program called the Young Turks, but similar commentary can be heard across the United States.  What many people don’t know is that immigration enforcement does not only affect undocumented immigrants.  Many greencard holders and legal residents are also at risk for deportation; if they have been convicted of a crime, including a misdemeanor.

So who are these criminal immigrants? Here’s Abraham Paolos’ story.

Abraham: In 2010, in about October 2010, I was walking home from work.  I was stopped, NYPD arrested me and took me into the precinct, I went to central booking and then, ended up at Rikers Island. So, I have two priors from ten years ago, involving theft; considered a misdemeanor in the state that I committed it in but it also raises flags for immigration.  When I was released out of Rikers Island, out on bail, I was looking for organizations and people to help me with my case.  What I had found though, was that though in the realm of my situation, which is a criminal justice situation and then also an immigration situation because I am a stateless Refugee, that I found a lot of organizations that worked with criminal justice, and a lot of organizations that worked with immigration but they weren’t together.  And Families Fighting for Freedom (GL: INCORRECT NAME) was one of the first organizations that kinda bridged those two together, so I became a member.


Cory Fischer-Hoffman: Abraham is now the Director for Families For Freedom, which is a New York-based multi-ethnic defense network by and for immigrants facing and fighting deportation.

Professor Tanya Golash Boza is author of the book Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post 9-11 America.  She is a professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas where her research focuses on racial disparities and human rights implications of U.S. immigration policy.

Tanya Golash-Boza: The body that is responsible for immigration policy in the United States is the Department of Homeland Security.  They have two enforcement arms.  One is called Customs and Border Control, and the other is called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman: The following is from an official ICE video, designed to educate law enforcement on the Secure Communities program.

ICE video Cory Fischer-Hoffman:  A little here about ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a part of DHS has been around since 2003 and inherited the investigative and enforcement responsibilities of the INS.  ICE is the second largest investigative agency in the federal government.  One of its initiatives is Secure Communities, by 2013, this initiative will be activated in every jurisdiction across the country.

ICE video, John Morton:  The idea behind Secure Communities is simple.  We want to identify, for removal, those who are in this country unlawfully, and committing crimes in our communities at the same time.  With Secure Communities, we can now identify deportable aliens who are committing crimes and remove them from the country, before they are released.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman: While ICE Director, John Morton makes the program sound very simple, Abraham describes how secure communities works from the perspective of being detained.

Abraham: I get, let’s say arrested.  It doesn’t matter if I am guilty, or not guilty of the crime that I am arrested for, it’s just that I am arrested and apprehended by a local law enforcement. I get booked into a precinct…and the way that Secure Communities goes is that anyone and everyone that gets booked into a precinct, has their finger prints, not only sent to the FBI, which has been protocal and then they also get those fingerprints sent to an immigration database.

Michelle Fei: Detainers are they key tool that ICE uses to transfer people from the criminal justice system to the deportation system.  So basically, what it is is a request for ICE, once someone is in the criminal justice system that the jail or prison, that the jail or police station, hold onto someone for an additional 48 hours in order to let ICE to come and pick that person up.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman:  That was Michelle Fei, Co-director of the Immigrant Defense Project whose mission is to minimize  the disproportionate immigration consequences of coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

The Immigrant Defense Project and Families for Freedom were a part of a campaign to prevent Secure communities, or as they call it “S-comm” from being implemented in New York City.

Independent of whether a person detained was found guilty of a crime or not, simply having contact with the criminal justice system flags them with immigration.  Immigrants, including those with greencards who have past criminal convictions can be placed in deportation hearings even if they have resided in the country for decades, and they have all US citizen children or grandchildren.

For individuals facing criminal charges, they first must complete proceedings for their criminal case and serve their sentence, and then they begin deportation hearings.

There have been documentaries and news stories depicting an undocumented mother, who gets pulled over for a broken tail-light and the tiny traffic infraction lands her in immigrant detention, only to be deported and separated from her citizen children.


ICE claims that these are the unintended consequences of a program designed to capture criminals.  And as the earlier news clip suggests, this tough on crime rhetoric around immigration becomes the justification for heavy-handed enforcement that affects communities across the United States.

We must scratch below the surface to understand where the criminal justice and immigration system meet. One place that they converge is in the fact that both rely on locking people up.  On any given day, about thirty three thousand people are in immigrant detention centers in the United States.

We must scratch below the surface to understand where the criminal justice and immigration system meet.  One place that they converge is in the fact that both rely on locking people up.  On any day, about thirty three thousand people are in immigrant detention centers in the United States.

Tanya Golash-Boza: The difference between prison and detention, is that you are supposed to be in prison because you have been punished for a crime.  Right, so people that are actually in prison are there because serving a sentence.  People that are in immigrant detention are not serving any sentence, it’s not technically punishment.  They are just there because they are waiting for their trial, or they are waiting for deportation.  But the average time for detention is 30 days and many people spend years there.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman: It is extremely difficult to fight an immigration case.  Lili Salmeron from the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights describes the challenge of legal representation in immigration and deportation proceedings.

Lili: A deportation charge, is a civil charge and so, even though the penalty is exile, which is a huge punishment.  Our government doesn’t see it as something that merits the right to a free lawyer.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman:  Prohibitive costs, frequent transfers between detention facilities, and rigid laws that require mandatory deportation with no discretion are some of the factors that make fighting an immigration case extremely difficult.  For many immigrants in the United States, the ICE initiative, “secure communities” has converted any interaction with the criminal justice system into a high-risk situation that could lead to deportation

Cory Fischer-Hoffman:  Despite a long history of immigration to the United states, immigration enforcement has a much shorter history.

Tanya: THe history of the United State Immigration Law Enforcement is actually not that long.  The border patrol, for example only came into existence in 1924, and was only deputized as a police force in 1925.

Voice:  Here comes the border patrol.  Halt!  Border Patrol Officers come into contact with law breakers of many types, not only those who are attempting to enter the country illegally, or those trying to smuggle aliens across the border, but criminals who handle other types of contraband.#

Tanya:  When we think about immigration law enforcement, we are only talking about less than a 100 year history of immigration law enforcement in the United States.

Michelle:  I think that the history of immigration in the United States is, a really complicated one.  If you look back, there are many groups that have been singled out for exclusion from the United States, whether that’s them not being able to come into the United States or them being forced to leave the United States. So I think one of the earliest examples is the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Tanya:  When the Border Patrol was created in 1925 one of their primary missions was to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act, to make sure that Chinese people, Chinese laborers weren’t trying to come across the Mexican Border.


Um, but in the 1930’s, when we had the great depression  there began to be more pressure from the Federal governemnt onto the Border Patrol to enforce the Law against mexicans who had come into the country illegally.  So, in the 1930s, there was a mass repatriation of Mexicans.  Estimates vary.  But between half a million and one and a half million mexicans were sent back to mexico.  Mexicans and the children of mexican citizens, the US born children of mexicans.  That was in the 1930s.

During World War II, we interned about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry and Japanese citizenship.  But, we didn’t call that jail, we just called that internment camps or relocation camps.  Because they weren’t concentration camps, which is what we were criticizing Hitler for having, right?  So, instead these were internment camps, or relocation camps.

In 1953, 1954, there was what has been called “Operation Wetback” but that was along the border, and border patrol agents, officially returned one million mexicans to mexico.  Some of them were living in border towns and some of them were just coming across the border.  so, there were those two moments when we sent back lots of mexicans.

Apart from those two historical moments, deportations have averaged about 20,000 per year over the, between 1925-1980.  So sort of , consistently sending back some people, but not that many

Michelle:  Since the 1980’s, immigration and customs enforcement, the agency that we call ICE, has had for example, presence in a lot of our jails and police stations, sometimes informally and sometimes more formally.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman:
In the past, every generation has had an opportunity to legalize through naturalization. The last mass naturalization took place in 1986.  A decade later, the US Congress passed an extremely restrictive immigration policy.  In addition to expanding the categories of deportable offenses, the law also mandated enforcement retroactively.  This means that people can now be deported for a crime that they committed decades ago, even if that crime was not a deportable offense when they committed it.

Lilliana: In 1996 Congress passed these immigration laws that expanded the categories of convictions that would trigger deportation and also made it much harder for certain classes of people to fight their immigration cases.  So, you saw this huge spike in deportations after the passage of these laws.  So for folks in our community, who might have greencards, and a lot of them do, any drug conviction triggers deportation.  Some people experience this when they travel, and then on their way back home, they can’t come back in, even if they have been here for ten years, and have American citizen children.

Tanya: It’s always been pretty easy to return people who come to the border and say that they can’t come in, or for the border patrol to return whomever they want to return from the along border.  That’s been very common.  But, what’s changed after 1996 is that it has become easier to deport people who live in the United States.  So people who come to the attention of immigration authorities now have fewer grounds for appeal and the ground on which legally present migrants can be deported has been expanded.  The main thing that’s different about today  is that legally present migrants can be deported for very minor crimes.  So, deportation is much much higher today, than in the past.

Abraham:  Before 1996 it was 4   crimes, now it’s over 50 crimes.  So things like shoplifting, retail theft, drug charges are all considered mandatory detention and deportation. And about 80% of those incarcerated are there for nonviolent drug charges, so you can imagine that a lot of people that are getting deported from this intersection between the criminal justice system and the immigration system are all coming out of this war on drugs, are all coming out of drug penalties.

Michelle:  And the issue that immigrants face is that, now there is this increasing collaboration between the criminal justice system and the deportation system.  So, for basically, all kinds of immigrants, including green-card holders, undocumented immigrants, people with visas.  This means that once you enter the criminal justice system, often times you are on a fast-track to deportation, usually with no chance of ever coming back to the United States.

Abraham:  We don’t see this as anything different that what the Japanese went through, or ‘operation wetback’ with the mexicans.  We don’t really see this as anything different, outside of the fact that we are not being held because of political opinions, we are not being held because there is a war against our countries.  We are being held, simply because we were not born in this country

Tanya:  Anyone who is not a citizen can be held in immigration detention.  So, what is immigration detention?  It’s basically where you await your immigration hearing, or you await your deportation.

So for example, a detention center could be at the local county jail, a detention center could also be at a place that used to be a prison, and has been converted into a detention center, or a detention center could be a newly-built privately-owned facility that is now an immigrant detention center.

Abraham: Forty nine percent of immigration detention is privatized.  The enforcement that they ask for, i think, this fiscal year, is 2.5 Million dollars, and and half of that, or forty nine percent of that is going to go to private corporations for a profit.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman:  The two corporations with the largest contracts with ICE are  the Corrections Corporation of America or CCA, and the Geo Group.

Abraham: Then these corporations, such as CCA and  GEo, what they do with some of these profits, is then pay lobbyest to lobby for for regressive immigration policies so that their facilities can, not only stay at the status quo, but then, also grow.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman:  Wells Fargo invests millions of dollars in the Geo group, so Families for Freedom organized a picket outside of the bank’s Midtown Branch. At the protest, Jane explains why she is fighting against profiting from immigrant detention centers
Jane: Because the government, pays a lot of money to detain immigrants, One hundred and sixty six dollars a day, per person and they only spend, less than a dollar a day for the meals and they dont offer  for healthcare, so they make a huge profit off of it.  And that’s why they want as many immigrants to be detained as possible.

Ronald:  Wells Fargo is a major investor, in private detention centers. Last year alone, two major companies that run these centers made 3 billion dollars off of immigrants who ought to be with their families.

FX: Divest, Divest

Cory Fischer-Hoffman: That was Ronald, an organizer with families fighting for Freedom.

Abraham: Conveniently, detaining immigrants around the world has become a lucrative business.

Michelle: And again, we are talking about a system, where there are huge profit motives and where programs like secure communities are being fueled by rising detention that is really backed by these huge companies that are really profiting off of the suffering of our communities.

President Obama really does have the ability, to stop this program and to  stop this program dead in its tracks right now. And he can’t continue to promise immigrant communities that he is helping them, while he is carrying out these anti-immigrant policies through programs like secure communities.  If he wants the support of low income of color and immigrant communities in the next election, he is really going to have to do something really quickly.


Cory Fischer-Hoffman:  Much of the rhetoric around immigration enforcement sounds similar to the excerpt from the ICE video which uses the language of illegal aliens and criminals.  For members of the immigrant community, it is essential to reframe this debate.

The most common narrative from the immigrants’ rights movement is that immigrants are hard workers and as long as they don’t commit any crime, they should be able to stay in the country.  This story can be very compelling, but it divides immigrant communities.  Lili Salmeron and Michelle Fei explain their approach to this challenge.

Lili: Some of our communities experience really intense policing and we can’t ignore those kinds of issues.  We have to fight for the rights of all immigrants.  There is this history of exclusion, and this history of the criminal justice system used to oppress communities of color and low income communities and that We would be doing our communities a disservice by not linking the two phenomena, and by not talking about these things together.

Michele:  because I think that we have become two comfortable making these claims, such as “that we are not criminals, we are hard working immigrants.”  I think that it is very unfortunate that we are now at a point where we really have to kindo  undo some of the work that has been done.We have become too comfortable saying that some people do deserve to stay here and some people don’t, and I think that making those distinctions is not helpful.

Lili:  And yes, it can be difficult because that framing is so prevelant in the immigrants rights movement, that we deserve to stay here because we are good workers. but, I think that beyond being good workers, we are human beings and that we deserve to stay here because of our humanity and not just because we are willing to work, you know, these terrible jobs.  When you take that kind of framing all the way to its very end, it’s like we are going to accept more enforcement in exchange for legalization, well that didn’t even happen.  We have more enforcement and no legalization, so I think that it’s time to be a little more visionary in terms of what we are looking for and what we are fighting for.

Michele:  ICE has described 2013 as when, it regards S-Comm as being mandatory across the country. We really challenge that and so lot’s of the detainer policies across the country, such as in Santa Clara, California, Cook county, New York, New York city has a version, try to really limit ICE’s access to immigrants while they are in the criminal justice system, or refuse to submit to these requests after ICE makes them.  So, I think there is really a two-pronged strategy, one is trying to enact local ordinances, local laws that try to limit the number of immigrants that get sent to ICE custody through the criminal justice system and then, the other, is still really trying to push for a nationwide termination of Secure Communities.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman:  The local initiatives are varied but they are all the result of campaigns targeting local law enforcement to not cooperate with the hold requests issued by ICE.  Ending secure communities is an important step to decreasing the massive detentions and deportations.

Professor Tanya Golash-Boza offers an additional step, based on the failure of current immigration enforcement policies.

Tanya: Mass enforcement of immigration law is not possible, attrition through enforcement, doesn’t work and so then, you have to ask, ok, so what are the other options? And then I think about it, and then I say, well maybe he big problem that people seem to have the undocumented, is that they don’t have papers and so the easiest solution is to give them papers.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman:  Alex is still recovering from his deportation, and it is an experience that he says he would not wish on anyone.

Alex: No tengo ningun deseo…

I don’t want what happened to me, to happen to anyone. Hopefully one day, this will stop, all of this that is happening.  I don’t know how much longer this will last but, I know that one day, all of this will stop, where they won’t deport you or detain you simply for being an immigrant

For More Information:

Videos, articles, etc:

‘Secure Communities’ and the U.S. Immigrant Rights Movement: Lessons from New York State
Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post 9-11 America
Detention Watch Network Deplores Latest Anti-Immigrant Hearing in Congress
Restoring Community: A National Community Advisory Report on ICE’s Failed “Secure Communities” Program
As New York Debates Secure Communities Program, Study Challenges the Homeland Security Policy.