Big Immigrant Rights Groups are Failing the People Who Need Them Most: “Bad” Immigrants

By Hairo Cortes

To survive President Donald Trump’s deportation nightmare, pro-immigrant activists need to drop the “good” vs. “bad” immigrant narrative and fight like hell for everyone. Trump already helped usher in his new era of hyper-enforcement by announcing the creation of the VOICE (Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement) hotline, a program designed to provide the federal government with another tool to justify the ongoing crackdown on all immigrants. And by shying away from immigrant detainees with criminal records, progressive organizations and advocates play right into VOICE’s trap.

When the hate hotline formally launched on April 26, a day dubbed “Alien Day” because it marks the anniversary of James Cameron’s Alien franchise, the Internet, spurred in large parts by the efforts of Twitter user Alexander McCoy, responded swiftly with satire and conviction. Thousands flooded the hotline with reports of extraterrestrial mischief and rendered Trump’s latest attempt to scapegoat immigrants useless, further demonstrating how ridiculous VOICE really is.

Whereas the grassroots and Twittersphere acted without giving a shred of legitimacy to Trump’s appeals to fear, the “progressive” community continues the same race to the bottom it dabbled in during the Obama years.The respectability politics of throwing those criminalized and deemed criminal by the system under the bus to defend those immigrants they consider more palatable to American society didn’t work then. And it wont work now.

Take the two recent deportation cases of Juan Manuel Montes and Valeria. Montes, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, got deported by Border Patrol and is now suing the Trump Administration. Valeria, a transgender woman and immigrant rights leader, remains detained by ICE in the Santa Ana jail after providing a silicone injection that tragically led to her friend’s death.

While these cases have played out during the same time, the response from the immigrant rights community underscores the divisions that still exist when it comes to fighting deportations.

“Let’s be clear: this was never about criminals [emphasis mine], it was about building a mass deportation machine that targets even 23-year-old DREAMers,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) posted on their Facebook page last month, condemning Montes’ deportation while reviving the dormant “DREAMer” frame our group retired long ago.

The ACLU is right that Montes shouldn’t have been deported, but by saying that Trump’s policies were never about criminals, they suggest his deportation machine is okay as long as it’s people with criminal records, like Valeria, who are its victims. Are we to forget about a system geared towards denying opportunities to transgender people of color like her and leave them no other option but to take part in crimes of survival? It begs the question: Where has the ACLU invested the $200 million it has supposedly received in donations since Election Day if they’re still clinging to the same failed frames that enabled Obama’s own record-breaking three million deportations?

While major organizations like the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center are highlighting Montes’ case, they’re silent about Valeria. Never mind the fact that before Valeria was detained, she was a vocal and tireless advocate against deportations, especially of other transgender immigrant women. The task is left to smaller, underfunded organizations like the Immigrant Youth Coalition and our own OC Immigrant Youth United to push the envelope and demand a higher standard for the movement.

But this is precisely the problem: the “good”-versus-“bad” immigrant divisions remain, and despite clear evidence that grassroots messaging and strategies work, establishment organizations harm the whole immigrant community by buying into the idea that not all deserve a second chance.

Montes should be home with his family and friends. The same is true for Valeria. It’s time for the rest of the movement to understand this and fight like hell to make it happen.

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