Political rhetoric around immigration sometimes creates categories of good and bad immigrants — those who should be welcomed into the United States and those who should be kept out. President Obama embraced this rhetoric with his “felons, not families” policy, insisting that his administration focuses on deporting those with criminal convictions, not those with family ties in the U.S.
The problem is that real people do not fit so easily into neat boxes of good or bad, felons or families.
Take the case of Lundy Khoy. Khoy was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the U.S. as a refugee with her family when she was a baby. While in college, she was convicted of drug possession. Fifteen years later, immigration officials targeted her for deportation. But for a pardon from the governor of Virginia, she would have been deported to Cambodia — a country in which she has never set foot.
Obama’s “felons, not families” policy has made any immigrant with a criminal conviction a target for deportation, whether that immigrant is a legal permanent resident or undocumented and whether the person was convicted two years ago or 20 years ago. The punishment for being undocumented and being convicted of a crime is permanent exile from the U.S.
In March of last year, Operation Cross Check swept up more than 2,000 immigrants in one week. Nearly half of those picked up had misdemeanor convictions and, of those with felony convictions, nearly half were for immigration-related violations. It is questionable whether more than a handful posed any threat to public safety.
Pastor Max Villatoro of Iowa City was one of those swept up in the raids. His story helped put a human face on the “felons” that are being deported every day.
Also targeted was Samy, who immigrated to the U.S. with his family legally more than 30 years ago at the age of 9. He was picked up in the raids due to an immigration paperwork error and a 20-year-old drug possession conviction.
As Anabaptists, we know the danger in separating people into good or bad, friend or enemy. We believe in the awesome power of God to bring about restoration and reconciliation. We also place a priority on relationships, on getting to know an individual’s joys and struggles, on understanding before judgment.
Tens of thousands advocated against Operation Cross Check and the deportation of Villatoro and others. Likely due to that outcry, there have been no subsequent large-scale raids, although deportations continue. Also as a result of this advocacy, immigration officials further clarified how all circumstances should be reviewed before an individual is deported, including length of time in the U.S., family ties and whether the person is a threat to public safety. In many cases, however, this still is not happening.
Every community should be a safe place. But our communities are not made safer by deporting fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, pastors and parishioners over decades-old minor crimes. Such actions only leave behind tragic stories of separation, of children wrestling with depression, of families thrown into poverty.
A just society and a just immigration system should look at the whole person, should prioritize keeping children with loving parents and should leave open the possibility of the transformational power of God to mend transgressions.
Tammy Alexander is senior legislative associate in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.