The Downside of Separating “Good” Undocumented Immigrants from “Bad” Criminals

Source: Abigail Andrews – University of California-San Diego, Scholars Strategy Network, Basic Facts, July 2015

In recent decades, the United States has seen a spectacular rise in deportations, with local police forces authorized by the federal government to identify undocumented immigrants for summary removal. More than 11 million undocumented people across the country – including up to one in ten adult workers in the state of California – faced this threat in their daily lives. To assuage the human costs, President Barack Obama outlined a plan in November 2014 to provide temporary protection to many undocumented migrants. …. These well-intended steps are meant to alleviate the trauma that the threat of deportation has imposed on millions of law-abiding migrants. But how do the binary divisions work out in practice? My research, based on a year of observations in southern California plus 75 in-depth interviews with undocumented Mexican migrants, suggests that efforts to divide good from bad people in migrant communities can have pernicious as well as helpful effects. …. Protection from deportation helps alleviate fear – as well as psychological trauma, social isolation, and exclusion from services. Yet as long as protection seems conditional on quiet and deferential personal conduct, any approach that divides undocumented migrants into good versus bad categories tends to reinforce secondary status for all of them. Current presidential policies and Congressional bills are premised on continuing – indeed reinforcing – the good versus bad distinctions among undocumented migrants. As my work shows, this approach is bound to have unintended marginalizing implications even for migrants classified as legitimate residents. Deportation relief is a first step. But more substantive reform requires doing away with the second-class “criminal migrant” category of people subject to summary deportation, and instead treating all migrants as worthy of universal rights and protections. That uniform approach is the only way to fully integrate migrants into American communities….