Thursday, October 22, 2009

No Human Being is Illegal: Civil Offenses

Stories from Detention - Week 2

In conversations on immigration issues, people on many sides of the debate use the term "illegal immigrants." Some choose instead to say "illegal aliens." Even the mainstream media uses these phrases. This choice of language reflects the widely-held notion in the United States that not having proper documentation is a crime.

Get ready for this one: Being an "illegal immigrant" is not a crime.

Violations of immigration laws are civil, not criminal offenses. Let's look at a couple other examples of civil offenses. These include paying for damages in a car accident, going to court for a property dispute, or settling a disagreement about someone's will. These are not criminal offenses, and neither are immigration violations.

What is the punishment for most civil offenses? A fine. What is the punishment for immigrating to the United States without documentation, which is also a civil offense? Arrest, detention, and deportation.

When undocumented immigrants are found to be in violation of immigration laws, they go through a process to see whether they have a right to stay in the United States. Immigrants detained during this process are in non-criminal custody. However, it's easy to get confused on this point, because more than half of the immigrants in detention are held in private prisons or county jails. Some of them are even mixed in with the criminal prison population.

In this video clip, a woman who was detained in an immigration raid on a New Bedford factory gives testimony about her experience. She was separated from her daughter and refused access to a lawyer. Traumatized from the humiliation she experienced, as well as the verbal and physical abuse that she witnessed, she still chooses to share her story.

This woman's experience in the immigration detention system caused her a great deal of pain. Her story raises an important question: What should be the appropriate governmental response to people who enter the U.S. without documentation?

Since most immigration violations are civil rather than criminal offenses, the U.S. government should treat detention as a last resort. Right now, almost all the people accused of violating immigration laws are held in detention centers - no matter what their individual circumstances are. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security should develop community-based alternatives to detention for people, like the woman in this video, who are not a risk to public safety. That way, they could stay together with their families and children as their cases are processed. In addition, Congress should pass a bill on immigration reform that protects people from being treated unfairly in detention.

I will talk in much more detail about these possibilities for reform in the upcoming post, "There's a Better Way: Alternatives to Detention." But these reforms aren't going to happen tomorrow - although they could certainly happen in the next few months. In the meantime, you can help to raise awareness about the immigration detention system.

Language can be a powerful tool. The way that people talk about immigration reflects how they think about immigration. The words that frame these issues actually serve a political purpose - they shape how the discussion on immigration reform advances.

By making a conscious choice not to say "illegal immigrants" and instead to say "undocumented immigrants," you can help to educate your friends, family, and community about how violating immigration laws is not a criminal offense.

Other posts in this series:


  1. Great series! Thanks for bringing to light the realities of detention, as well as clarifying some common misnomers.