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Undocumented Criminals Are Not the Enemy

Just because the government says someone’s a “bad hombre” doesn’t mean we should allow police to kidnap them.

By Malcolm Harris


(Photo: ndlon/Flickr)

In the wave of increased immigration enforcement, there have been at least two fact-checked cases of Latino food purveyors targeted for deportation. The stories of Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco of West Frankfort, Illinois, and Armando Garcia Mendez of Houston, Texas, follow a similar arc: Both worked their way up in the food-service industry to run small businesses and are valued members of their communities. They also both had past scrapes with the law, which made them subject to the President Donald Trump’s “law and order” deportation program. No politician has been quick to stand up for the rights of undocumented criminals, but these stories should make us question what we’ve agreed to forget when we use language like “undocumented criminals.”

For Pacheco, it was two drunken-driving convictions from a decade ago that made him a criminal. Trump’s appeals throughout the election used people like Pacheco as scapegoats: Why should anyone get to stay in America illegally if they wantonly put citizens’ lives in danger? Don’t we have a duty to protect ourselves by expelling them? But though Pacheco’s community in West Frankfort voted to be protected from the “bad hombres” Trump kept conjuring, they don’t want to be protected from Pacheco. Instead, letters of support have poured in from civic leaders, including the mayor, the prosecutor, and the high school athletic director. Why are a group of men who sound like they were pulled from the membership rolls of the local White Citizens Council be campaigning to keep an illegal immigrant with a criminal record in their community?

The United States is a country of immigrants, but we’re also a nation of criminals.

The answer is that, to their community, Pacheco is not a criminal. There is an electronic record stored on a server somewhere that says Pacheco is a threat, but the people of West Frankfort never took a vote on that. They see him as Carlos, the manager of La Fiesta, who hosted that fundraiser that time. If they’re gossips, maybe they mention how he used to drink; most of us know people who have struggled with drugs and alcohol, but we don’t usually see them as dangers first (especially if they quit in 2007, as Pacheco’s friends tell the New York Times that he did). We see our neighbors in terms of their contributions to our well-being, and the collective well-being of their family or neighborhood or town. That’s how people deserve to be judged, regardless of what side of a border they were born on.

Garcia’s case draws our attention to some contradictions in America’s picture of the ideal immigrant. He left Guatemala to escape civil war and headed to Houston, where he then went from cook to owner-operator of two taco trucks. Way before they evoked white guys in Portland, food trucks were a business hustle, an entrepreneurial option for people who had more passion and drive than money. And it doesn’t necessarily even ruin Garcia’s narrative that he was kicked out of the country once and came back, or that he has a misdemeanor assault charge, or that he allegedly had (for a time) a fake vehicle inspection sticker. This is America; we like people who are determined and willing to take risks (even with the law) in order to succeed.

It’s cliché at this point to say that the United States is a country of immigrants, but we’re also a nation of criminals. From the legitimacy of its first post-colonial land claims, America’s policies have been “fake it ’til you make it” and “write the rules in pencil.” The robber barons were, of course, robbers, and things haven’t changed much: Today’s technology heroes never met a regulation they wouldn’t rather disrupt than follow. The cable channel AMC seems to be devoted mostly to stories about white gangster immigrants of the early 20th century, and I’d love to see the Venn diagram of Trump voters and the owners of Scarface posters — a film about an immigrant thug posing as a refugee, and an American classic. We idolize criminals; that the Kennedy family has a bootlegger past only cements its place as national royalty, and, during the campaign, our current president barely bothered to distance himself from his well-earned reputation as a tax-dodging confidence trickster. It’s pretty rich for Trump of all people to portray himself as a zero-tolerance law enforcer.

The truth is that Americans don’t actually want all our laws enforced. It’s not just that we admire the outlaw’s renegade spirit, we also have a lot of laws. Attorney Harvey Silvergate has claimed that the average American unwittingly commits three felonies per day — at least they could have, in the eyes of an overzealous prosecutor. We don’t want every jaywalker fined, every marijuana smoker jailed, or every undocumented immigrant deported. Almost everyone breaks the law one way or another, and if the authorities prosecuted every infraction we’d be living in a continent-sized penal colony. Of course, we also might not have any police officers left, given how often they break the rules they’re sworn to uphold. Very few of us want to live that way, and the kind of person who would tell their neighbor to their face that they should be removed from their family, home, and country because of a fake vehicle inspection sticker is not the kind of person who should be guiding government policy.

The truth is that Americans don’t actually want all our laws enforced. If the authorities prosecuted every infraction we’d be living in a continent-sized penal colony.

Using the question of criminality to divide immigrants serves a number of purposes for Trump and his supporters. It paints immigrants with the idea of crime by simple association: Even if Trump repeated, “Not all undocumented immigrants are criminals,” it would still intertwine the two concepts in listeners’ minds. It’s a dog-whistle to racists who can’t wait to get their eyes on the promised database of immigrant criminals. On the other hand, focusing on criminals makes Trump’s rhetoric sound vaguely conciliatory in form if not content, as if he were mediating between the viewpoints of Marco Rubio and David Duke. (Which, I suppose, he is.) Worst of all, it accelerates the country toward white-nationalist fantasies of — without exaggeration — millions of immigrants rounded up and put in camps.

To resist Trump and his deportation force, American communities can use the language of sovereignty. The “sanctuary city” designation suggests that our municipalities reserve the right to decide what happens there, but the implication goes further than the policies do. After a recent operation by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the acting field office director for enforcement and removal operations in Pennsylvania, Jennifer Ritchey, told the press:

ICE arrested several at-large criminal aliens in which the agency had issued detainers but the City of Philadelphia failed to honor them and released the individuals from custody — a situation that puts the public at unnecessary risk. ICE will continue to conduct targeted enforcement operations, whether local jurisdictions intend to cooperate with ICE or not.

We can’t fall for this “public at risk” nonsense; the city of Philadelphia is in this particular instance acting on the clear orders of the people of Philadelphia. We can’t let the feds tell us it’s too dangerous for the people to govern our own cities.

After the recent Pennsylvania raid, one of the detentions that ICE announced to the public was that of a 65-year-old Vietnamese man who was seized along with 1100 marijuana plants in his house and car. The man had previous marijuana convictions, and in the law’s eyes that makes him a criminal — an undocumented criminal from whom Trump wants to protect us. While regime buddy Rupert Murdoch cashes in on the Vice Guide to Doing Drug Crime or whatever, this old guy has his stuff stolen, gets thrown in a cell, and eventually will be shipped to another country for selling some weed. And what’s more, his government bragged about it. Unfair and unjust don’t begin to describe it; this is intolerable.

Groups (official and un-) all around the country are hard at work defending their communities from ICE, and it’s time their local governments had their backs. That doesn’t just mean not ratting people out, or gathering petitions on behalf of a kidnapped restaurant manager; it means exercising some sovereignty and telling Trump and his deportation force that they won’t take our neighbors.

If local leaders think picking a fight with the White House over “undocumented criminals” is automatically a losing proposition, they’re wrong. Many Americans are looking for backbone and leadership, and the lack thereof is a big part of what has allowed Trump and Co. to get this far. We as a people don’t find it hard to love undocumented criminals when we consider them as people (or even as characters); there’s plenty of evidence in our culture and our real towns. It’s the politicians who aren’t willing to take a real stand.

The Trump people won’t stop until they are stopped, and if we let them do whatever they want with “criminals” in the interest of law and order, we will have given them everything — no “first they came for…” progression necessary.