For the past 15 years I have served as a pastor of Tierra Nueva, ministering to immigrants from Mexico and inmates in Skagit County Jail here an hour north of Seattle. I regularly see immigrants suffer terribly due their inability to become legal residents or avoid deportation on account of sometimes even minor criminal activity. Immigration reform is critical at this time and must include far more than an opportunity for the millions of undocumented immigrants residing in the USA (12-20 million) to become citizens. Reforms are also desperately needed to overhaul the failed 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) to give young men and women labeled “criminal aliens” opportunities for redemption.
Last week while in Honduras my wife Gracie called me about a close friend from Mexico named Ignacio whose 21-year-old son Jose was in jail charged with a DUI and possession of a controlled substance; as a result he was subject to a Border Patrol hold. If he is convicted, he will serve his time and then be deported back to a country where he has never lived, with a possible lifetime bar to re-entry. He will be separated from his US citizen wife, three year old daughter and family. “Is there anything we can do?” Ignacio asked in desperation.
I was talking with Gracie by cell phone, having just arrived in a Honduran town where we had lived for six years in the 80s promoting sustainable farming to stem the exodus from rural areas to cities. Two days before a 23-year-old man from a nearby village had been shot to death by someone he had threatened. The INS had deported two months before, after he served time for a minor crime in a US jail.
“He had been working for three years in different states but then was arrested and deported. Like many young immigrants who have been in the USA, he came back with a serious drug problem, all disoriented and not wanting to work for $3.00 a day,” said Angel David, Tierra Nueva’s Honduran pastor whom I joined to comfort his grieving mother. The US-based MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs were exported and rapidly spread throughout Central America when the INS deported vulnerable immigrant youth from violent American urban centers and prisons.
What could we do to keep Jose from being deported? Since he is married to a US citizen he might be able to apply for a waiver, depending on the seriousness of his conviction. However, people can be stripped of their residency status or barred from ever becoming a legal resident through committing a crime involving drugs or “moral turpitude”, which includes nearly every offense. This is because IIRAIRA created a terrible two-edged sword: the threshold for a having a crime be considered the most serious crime has been dramatically lowered (so that shoplifting a pack of gum is equated with the murder of a policeman or rape of a child), and at the same time the ability of immigration officers and judges to offer forgiveness to the truly deserving has been severely limited.
The law now puts tremendous discretion in the hands of our current prosecutors, and immigrants are too often left to the public county and municipal defender systems, which are overwhelmed and underfunded. Prosecutors can determine what charges to file and what plea agreements to accept, often well aware that what might be a great “deal” for a citizen of the US will impose a horrific “collateral” immigration consequence upon the immigrant: exile from work, home and family. This is coupled by the inability of our overworked public defenders to gather the resources needed to fashion resolutions of criminal charges, like drug treatment, community service and education, that allow the immigrant to pay his debt to society and reintegrate as a productive member. In contemporary America justice too often requires hard cash.
Ignacio and his wife Maria, like most immigrant workers, don’t have cash to pay for a private attorney for their son—who really needs drug and alcohol treatment and not jail time. They migrated to Washington State from Nayarit 15 years ago when Jose was 7, and other kids were 5, 3, 2 and 1. They had been unemployed and landless and were eager for work. Like many undocumented immigrants, they have struggled at the bottom of American society, taking on minimum-wage jobs in construction, slaughter houses, meat-packing plants, landscaping and field work.
I think back to a forum Tierra Nueva hosted more than a decade ago when a local berry farmer shared with the regional head of the INS his longing to see his many beloved workers be offered the chance to become legal permanent residents. “You know sir, that’s not what you really want,” said the INS chief. “If you give these people status and they will go after the America Dream. Then they won’t want to work for you anymore and there will have to be another wave of illegal immigrants to provide the workers to harvest America’s crops.”
Could the current political impasse that is keeping undocumented immigrants “illegal” be a deliberate mechanism to keep people in a state of perpetual slavery? Until ordinary Americans become aware of the desperate plight of immigrant workers, which is sustained by laws and economic forces that encourage them to come here but then force them to remain in the shadows, the sorry state of our justice system and shrinking pathways of forgiveness and begin to make their voices heard the plight of people on the margins will worsen. As people get to know immigrant workers as friends they will become motivated to put healthy pressure on prosecutors, judges and lawmakers to enforce laws in ways that favor all people and communities and change laws that don’t permit full consideration of each person’s humanity.
Last night I met with Jose during a bilingual Bible study in Skagit County Jail. His father Ignacio has spent the afternoon repairing my car after he and Maria had attended their son’s first court hearing. “We’re doing everything we can,” I assured him. “Esta bien, gracias,” he said smiling as they led him back to his cell.