The next time someone tells you that the U.S. isn’t going after the people who cross the border, you can respond with a very simple answer.
Over the past 10 years, prosecutions for illegal entry and reentry have increased 1,400 and 300 percent, respectively, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
Crossing the border without authorization is now the most prosecuted federal crime.
As the prosecutions have gone up, so has the percentage of non-criminals who are targeted — people whose only offense is crossing the border illegally.
The percentage of non-criminals prosecuted for illegal entry went from 17 percent of all prosecution in 2002 to 27 percent in 2011, according to the report.
“I never could understand why so much was being put into these particular individuals, who were not our high-level criminals,” said Terry Goddard, a former attorney general of Arizona quoted in the report. “It’s a use of resources disproportionate to the threat.”
The good news is that both the Senate and the White House seem to agree that a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented people in the country right now is necessary (the House seems less convinced, though they have yet to put out anything solid). But as it stands, the path to citizenship seems as though it will be rife with socioeconomic barriers. Both blueprints emphasize the need for undocumented people to “take responsibility for their actions” and pay taxes and a penalty (I’m guessing the U.S. won’t be taking any responsibility for a foreign policy that devastates economies in the global south and makes it so that folks have to come here for work in the first place). How steep will this penalty be? Who will be able to afford it, and who won’t? Moreover, the blueprints lay out a pathway to citizenship that includes a criminal background check. While on its surface this may not seem unreasonable, we need to be watching out for the details on what kinds of crimes will block this path. What will make a “serious” criminal? Will it include the kinds of crimes – sex work, petty drug convictions, theft – that low-income and undocumented queer and trans folks often turn to as strategies for survival? We know that convictions largely play out along lines of class, race, and gender identity, and if we’re not diligent about calling out the details of completing this path it’s likely that citizenship will remain inaccessible to many undocumented people.
After the application fees, fines, and background checks, immigrants who have cleared these hurdles will be given a provisional legal status, and will have to wait for existing immigration backlogs to be cleared before they are eligible for lawful permanent residency. Both blueprints have made it clear that during the time that immigrants have this provisional status, they will not be eligible for public benefits. While we don’t know exactly how long the wait between the provisional status and permanent residency will be, it seems likely that the wait will be at least a few years. Add to that the five-year bar – which forbids immigrants with legal permanent residency from accessing most public benefits for the first five years they have that status – and it becomes clear that for low-income undocumented people who are able to get through the initial hurdles, relief in terms of very basic needs such as health care and housing will not be coming any time soon. This is particularly disturbing when thinking of undocumented children and young people, who may literally go a lifetime without access to health care or food assistance.
Both blueprints emphasize that employers who deliberately hire undocumented workers must be held accountable. To do this, employers must be able to verify that their workers have the appropriate documentation to work, and herein lies the problem: in the past, verification systems (such as E-verify) have been rife with errors. As it happens, these errors disproportionately affect people who tend to change their names – that is, women and trans folks (possible extra bonus: being outed as trans at work!). Though the White House’s blueprint mentions a pilot program for people to check their own records and make sure that everything is accurate before applying to a job, it is unclear what recourse a transgender person, for example, might have for changing their information in this system.
But it is important to remember who and what kind of political action got us to a point where immigration reform finally seems inevitable after many, many years of need and just as many of political inaction. And here I have to give mad props to DREAMer youth, many of whom are queer, who have spent the last few years on an unapologetic campaign to get the country to face the fact that non-action on immigration is unsustainable by engaging in direct actions and refusing to give up and go away – even when the odds seemed so far out of their favor. If we are going to make immigration reform meaningful for queer and trans immigrants, we must stay steady on our hustle. We have to remain diligent in watching out for all the ways the most marginalized immigrants could be excluded from this process, and demand better for our communities.
Take a facet of crime, and then look at television shows/movies that feature those criminals as protagonists.
White serial killers.
White political corruption
White drug dealers
I mostly want to talk about this as a TV phenomenon, but pick a crime, any crime, and Western media has probably made a movie/TV series/play/etc. with a white person that romanticizes the criminal activity. No matter what, a white person can do whatever terrible crimes and still have a TV/movie fanbase that loves them.
When you see black or brown people committing crimes on screen, you are to see them thugs and criminal masterminds and people to be beat down.
When you see white people committing crimes on screen, you see a three-dimensional portrait of why someone might commit that crime, how criminals are people too, and how you should even love them for the crimes that they commit because they’re just providing for their families or they’ve wronged or they’re just people and not perfect. This is particularly a luxury given to white male characters, since there few white female criminals as protagonists.
If and of the above shows were about black or brown folks, there would be a backlash of (white) people claiming that TV and movies are romanticizing criminals and are treating them too much like heroes and that it will affect viewers and encourage violence and “thuggish” behavior. And yet fictional white criminals get to have a deep fanbase who loves these white criminals, receive accolades and awards, get called amazing television that portray the complexities of human nature. Viewers of these characters see past the atrocious crimes and into their humanity, a luxury that white characters always have while characters of color rarely do. The closest that mainstream TV has come to showing black criminals as main characters is probably The Wire, and even then, the criminals share equal screen time and equal status as main characters as the police trying to stop them.
The idea that crime can be so heavily romanticized and glorified to such a degree is undoubtedly a privilege given to white characters. The next time you hear someone talk about Dexter Morgan or Walter White in a positive way, it may be an opportunity to rethink how white people can always able to be seen as people no matter what they do, while everyone else can be boiled down to nothing but a criminal.
Get out of my head, y’all! I’ve been thinking all like this about Breaking Bad specifically versus The Wire or even New Jack City.
And Dexter? Now maybe the analysis is out there and I haven’t run across it yet—and please send me the link(s) if they are there—but I haven’t heard a feminist critique of the Dexter’s serial killing as sanitized because he offs “bad people,” when the reality about quite a few serial killers’ victims are women. The last feminist analysis I read about male serial killers in US pop culture is Jane Caputi’s Age of Sex Crime from waaaaaaay back in 1987.
I recall my grandmother and father telling me, when I was about 10, about a relative who courageously fought back against and killed a white jailer who attempted to rape her. I did not hear the story again until I read about Joan Little in graduate school. It was only then that I learned that Joan’s fight for survival had made national headlines and transformed U.S. attitudes about racialized sexual violence and victims’ rights.
Before I was old enough to grasp the intricacies of Little’s case, I understood that the tales about her were a lesson about our family values–about preserving one’s honor and dignity in the face of pervasive racism and sexism. Now that I know the full story, I know that Little advanced those values on a larger scale than I’d ever imagined: Her case galvanized a diverse movement of activists across the nation to band together and demand justice for Joan, as well as for other women of color, sexual assault survivors and victims of police brutality.
After growing up in challenging circumstances of racism and economic inequality, Little was arrested for breaking, entering and larceny in Washington, N.C., in 1974. Later that year, the 20-year-old Little was charged with using deadly force against Clarence Alligood, her white jailer and would-be rapist. Little escaped from prison following the assault and disappeared for a week–during which time local officials called for her to be shot–then surrendered and was quickly indicted.
Throughout the case, various whites and even blacks in the community opined that Little was guilty of seducing and then killing Alligood in order to escape jail. Her detractors denied Little’s innocence because of her criminal background, so-called “fast” lifestyle and rumored “immorality.” For some, Little could never be a rape “victim” because she did not meet their standards of social respectability. The prosecution capitalized on these attitudes, characterizing Little as a depraved seductress. They were “[more] interested in sending black women to the gas chamber than the truth,” Little later recalled. In spite of all this, Little remained self-possessed and maintained her plea of self-defense.
Historically speaking, the odds were against her. Only a few decades earlier, in the 1940s, it had been “nearly impossible for black victims of sexual violence to receive justice in the courts,” writes Danielle L. McGuire in her landmark history, At The Dark End Of The Street. In 1944, Rosa Lee Ingram had been given the death penalty by an all-white jury for killing a white man in self-defense in Georgia.
However, in the intervening years, the “ritualistic rape and intimidation” of black women by white men had become one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement. Over the course of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, thousands of black people mobilized to defend women’s bodily integrity and dignity.
“Sandy” had a common experience: She is a 35 year-old transgender woman from Mexico who arrived in the United States in her twenties. In her hometown, she had been ridiculed for her gender identity, and she was beaten and severely bullied most of her life. Like many of her peers, Sandy dreamed of a life where she would be safe and accepted, and she looked for that life in New York City.
Once she was in New York, Sandy suffered an abusive arrest for prostitution and sought our help. As she talked about her immigration experience, it became clear she was a survivor of human trafficking. In Mexico, she had been unsure about how she could move to the United States with little money and no family support. Ultimately, she was approached by an older man, seduced, and brought to New York City, supposedly, to be his girlfriend. But once they were in New York, he quickly used violence and threats to force her into prostitution, and he took the money she earned. She escaped after a year of this sustained abuse. As is typical for many trafficked persons, Sandy was reluctant to tell us her story, as she was convinced we would not believe her…
Lack of social power and political voice make immigrant trans women of color vulnerable to police violence in a city where police violence is rampant. Trans women sex workers, and transwomen incorrectly profiled as sex workers, have likely been improperly arrested at some point in their lives. In this context, there is no opportunity for law enforcement and victim to have a discussion about her life. There is no common ground or trust. Even though the police are supposed to come to the aid of crime victims, these victims are rendered so invisible by bias and discrimination that they have no chance of being identified.
The expansion of neoliberal globalization, and the concurrent rise of the sports-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex have been (and continue to be) intimately interconnected. In the case of the sports- and prison-industrial complexes, both involve mutually favorable relationships between public/non-profit and private entities that benefit from the continual flow of bodies through the system.
According to popular wisdom, sports and prisons are practical solutions to the complicated economic and social problems associated with the United States’ “surplus population.” (For example, we can reduce violence and keep our communities safe if “at-risk” youth get involved in sports, and if that fails we can always lock them up in prisons.) In this way, the commodification and criminalization of young black bodies goes hand-in-hand. It is no accident that these two industrial complexes arose at the very same moment that the nation began to deindustrialize (as transnational conglomerates moved their production sites overseas), the government started cutting back/privatizing social programs, and the mainstream media/entertainment industries became increasingly corporatized and consolidated.
As Patricia Hill Collins notes, “Athletes and criminals alike are profitable, not for the vast majority of African American men, but for people who own the teams, control the media, provide food, clothing and telephone services, and who consume seemingly endless images of pimps, hustlers, rapists, and felons.”
A number of interlocking political, economic, and social imperatives are driving the expansion of the sports-industrial complex on the very backs of black bodies at the turn of the twenty-first century. Not only are public and private entities profiting from the mass movement of black talent through the system, but as David J. Leonard and C. Richard King argue, the commodification of black athletes “also functions as an ideological and discursive commodity used to sell the American Dream and colorblindness in post-civil rights America.”
Arguably, maintaining the prison-industrial complex and other types of racial caste systems in the United States (i.e. unequal education, healthcare, etc.) relies heavily on black hypervisibility in the sporting realm. On the one hand, individualist and sanitized stories of black success in professional sports are offered up as proof that race no longer matters. On the other hand, the overrepresentation of black athletes at play (especially those who do not follow the prescribed “rules” of sporting etiquette, both on and off the court) reinforces the notion that black people must be properly managed, and if necessary, caged.
I don’t begrudge anyone getting their due attention and diligence when they go missing. The coverage they receive more often than not helps in their eventual recovery, or at least leads to finding the parties responsible, and by no means is that a bad thing. More troubling is the lack of that kind of attention leveled on the missing African Americans. After all, we make up a a third of all missing persons cases in the United States, while being only 12 percent of the population.
The stories Find Our Missing features don’t make for less compelling television — can you imagine the uproar America would be in if the media caught wind of a kidnapped, disabled, white five year old? — and they don’t lack substance or quality. Why isn’t Ann Curry talking about Hassani or Pamela? Are we still seen as such an Other in this country that the heartstrings that tug at Elizabeth Smart’s name won’t also tug for Hassani Campbell? Or is it that kidnapping and mysterious disappearances simply aren’t seen as crimes that happens to Black people? Gang, drug, sexual, and domestic violence are ‘our’ crimes, and the media struggles to break away from that mold when giving coverage to stories of the missing.
It’s almost as if they’re confused when a comfortable, middle class black woman goes missing with no hints of the average ‘Black crime’ elements involved. (The common perception that there are ‘no black serial killers’ certainly helps explain the difference in the amount of national coverage Anthony Sowell received in comparison to other recent serial killers like Dennis Rader in yet another case involving several missing Black women in the Cleveland area.)
When it comes to shows profiling crimes and criminals, you’re more likely to see a person of color starring on Lock Up than you are on Dateline, and that’s one of the reasons I’ll be watching Find Our Missing every week. If given a platform and the exposure it deserves, I firmly believe that the program can help solve some of the cases it features.
Even if the cases aren’t solved, at least they’ll get people thinking and remembering that there aren’t just the white women disappearing in Aruba to worry about.