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The View from New York

The following post is from Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality.

Growing up, when the evening news reported a crime committed by a Goldberg or a Cohen, my parents would groan.  That combination of shame at the misdeeds of one of our own, mixed with anxiety that it would reflect badly on us all, flooded over me when I heard that an immigrant had been arrested in the Times Square bombing.

We are on the cusp of real immigration reform, and accusatory headlines like "Suspect is Naturalized U.S. Citizen," feel like a knife in the back.  We all need reform so desperately – everyone from the gay man who is spending his life savings to keep his partner in school here, to the teenager who grew up and came out in the Bay Area but can't go to college or get a job for lack of status, to the single lesbian mom who has been waiting years for her sister to immigrate and help her raise her son – to the millions of other people with whom we share this struggle.

I want to believe most Americans – 98% of us once immigrants ourselves – are not so foolish as to conflate the actions of one crazy individual with all immigrants, or all South Asians, or all Pakistanis . . . but when I read the vicious comments online, I'm not so sure.  

What a roller coaster week.  Just yesterday, I was so proud New York Governor David Patterson showed that pro-immigrant states can play Arizona's game.  He announced that New York will create a special pardon board to consider vacating minor crimes that can cost long-time New Yorkers their green cards, with absolutely no way for the immigration judge to exercise discretion.  Immigration Equality sees the results of this policy, because it affects some of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people we represent.

  • We represented a gay, HIV-positive man who was going to be deported because, after the bank mistakenly deposited money into his account, he spent it. He was charged with grand larceny and was going to be stripped of his green card and deported to an anti-gay country.
  • "L," a Columbian gay man with AIDS, was about to lose his green card because of shoplifting arrests.  He stole Tylenol and nutritional supplements from a drugstore – the only "treatment" he was getting for his illness.
  • We are also currently representing "F," a 19-year-old from Jamaica who may be deported for shoplifting a scarf – because he was cold – and jumping the subway turnstile.  For those two offenses, he was considered a "mandatory detainee" who was held in immigration custody until we took his case.

I want to be clear:  It's wrong to steal, be it from the bank, a store or the Metropolitan Transit Authority.  I hope that when my kids are F's age, the fog of adolescent bad judgment doesn’t lead them to do stupid things like that.  However, if they do, they won't be exiled from their country as a result.  

One of the many great things about our system is that we believe in proportionality – that the punishment should fit the crime. The Eighth Amendment protects all of us against excessive or cruel and unusual punishment.  (And please don't say that non-citizens aren't covered by the Bill of Rights! The first ten amendments tell the federal government – not its subjects – what it can and can't do.  Citizenship wasn't even defined until six amendments and 90 years later.)

Yet, when current law wrenches people from their families for petty crimes – in many cases retroactively, for crimes that had no immigration consequences at all when they were committed – the Eighth Amendment is being ignored.  Thus Governor Patterson offer another, this time humane, example of what so many have been saying for weeks: Congress must act to fix our broken immigration system.

In the meanwhile, though, I fear for my South Asian friends . . . and pray we don't see a resurgence of the murderous hate crimes their community faced after 9/11.

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