Monday, February 8, 2010

There's No Such Thing as a "Criminal Alien" - Local Forum Brings Up Questions About Immigrants' Rights

On Saturday, I gave a Know Your Rights workshop for the thirty-two people who came to the Union Trabajadores Immigrantes immigrant rights forum. I was invited because everyone, Spanish-speaking Latinos being no exception, should understand their basic 4th, 5th and 6th Amendment rights when interacting with police.

With the help of a translator, I talked about the basics: don’t talk to police, don’t consent to searches, how to tell the difference between detention and arrest and so forth. The questions that people had started off about basic traffic stops. But the questions got harder.

Can you get arrested for having a broken tail light? No, that’s just a citation. Can police ask you about your immigration status if you get pulled over? No, they shouldn’t. Can police ask about the rest of the people in the car? No, they shouldn’t do that either.

What if they say they are going to check your ID on a national immigration database and ask you a bunch of questions? No, local police shouldn’t be doing that and you shouldn't talk to police. If they pull you over you either need a ticket or a good reason to be arrested.

What do you do when you try to assert your right to remain silent by saying “no se,” and the police get angry that you don’t speak English and it makes it worse? What happens if you get arrested for the third time for driving without a license, sent to county jail and they find that your work visa expired a few years ago? What does a mom do about her kids who were born here and are citizens if she is facing deportation?...

I read about the problems in our broken immigration system every day in the newspaper. I see politicians debating about it and I see tea baggers protesting about it. But then I talk to the people whose lives and families are directly impacted by the debates, the expense, the need for legal counsel, the wait, the bureaucracy, I wonder why we don’t have a year of general amnesty? Why can’t we license drivers separate from state identification or citizenship verification? Why are states doing more and more to criminalize those who were brought here by their parents or who overstayed their visas?

The national ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project just put out a new Issue Brief on this debate. Below is the basic info you should know and some links to more information.

When someone is present in the United States in violation of immigration laws, it is not a crime by itself. Entering without documentation is an offense, but most immigrants in the country did enter legally but have overstayed work or school visas. Many others who are undocumented enter the country for work with the promise of secure jobs and legal documentation, but don’t get what they are promised. Also when someone is removed from the country and then comes back without permission it becomes a crime.

It is not a federal crime to simply be undocumented. A very controversial proposal (H.R. 4437, also called the “Sensenbrenner bill” for one of our state Congressmen) did pass the House but was rejected by the Senate after massive street protests. At this time, the lack of legal presence is a civil rather than a criminal law and no immigration laws refer to anyone in violation of that law as a “criminal alien.”

The government is also routing valuable resources away from prosecuting violent crime as it pursues non-violent immigrations violations. As our federal resources are spent pursuing immigrants who are statistically less likely to commit crime, money for gun trafficking, white-color crime and organized crime has decreased.

Criminalizing Immigrants Unlawful and Harmful blog post

Immigrants' Rights Issue Brief

- Stacy Harbaugh, Community Advocate, ACLU of Wisconsin Madison Area Office