By Gabriela Flora, AFSC Regional Project Voice Organizer

The criminalization of immigrants continues to reach new heights and enforcement programs expand and justify themselves in the mainstream by saying they are going after “criminals.” Members of Coloradoans for Immigrant Rights, a project of AFSC, have been having some intense discussion on challenging this view that it is ok to target and deport people labeled as “criminals.”

The discussion has been challenging at times because there is often pressure both within and outside the movement to highlight the worthiness of “good immigrants.” This perspective ignores that more and more basic activities (like working and driving) have been criminalized, that all groups of people have members who engage in a range of activities and that people should not be labeled and targeted their whole lives for a misstep.

To help us explore this issue of criminalization and how to counter it, last week we brought in Art Way from the Drug Policy Alliance to discuss the intersection between flawed drug and immigration policies. We explored how labels have been used to dehumanize both immigrants and people who use drugs (words like “illegal” and “addict”).

We explored how militarization of the drug war is deeply connected to militarization of the border. The 18 participants in the CFIR "skill share" found it powerful to learn about how historically drug laws have mirrored immigration law to maintain power; such laws are not actually about the substance or “public safety.” Drug laws were targeted against different immigrant and ethnic groups (e.g. anti-opium den laws targeted Chinese immigrants and anti-marijuana laws targeted Mexican workers).

Both immigration and drug laws throughout the US’s history have criminalized everyday behavior, but are selectively enforced and target only certain populations for doing these things. The fact that people of color comprise 13% of drug users, but represent 78% of drug convictions deeply highlights this point. Tens of thousands of legal residents and other noncitizens are deported every year on drug-related grounds. In 2010, 25% of all deportations of people with criminal records were for drug charges, of which the vast majorities were due to minor possession of marijuana. Deportees often are held in for profit detention centers miles away from family members without adequate due process for a drug conviction that may have occurred years ago.

The disproportionate emphasis placed on targeting illicit drug use and distribution in communities of color and urban environments where noncitizens are concentrated increases the likelihood of interaction with law enforcement authorities. The imposition of drug sweeps and zero tolerance policies in schools, drug-free zones and the high prevalence of public drug selling invite a heightened law enforcement presence in communities of color, where noncitizens reside in great numbers. Once a noncitizen enters the criminal justice system, there is a substantial risk that the outcome of prosecutorial proceedings will have immigration consequences.

We ended the discussion with what we can do to make change. This discussion included looking internally and addressing the shame and stigma around drug use:

  • Support drug policy based on science and compassion, human rights and health;
  • Educate ourselves and others on the consequences of guilty pleas for deportation and push for pre-plea judicial programs and paying a fine for drug use rather than criminal conviction;
  • Raise awareness around drug propaganda; and
  • Work to end the war on drugs and militarization of the border.

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