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February 11, 2017

After the end of slavery, painting African-Americans as lawless, animalistic criminals quickly became a tool of choice for Whites who were intent on maintaining their power. The recent documentary 13th effectively recounts this history. It’s a history that continues to this day, with our current epidemic of aggressive policing and mass incarceration that disproportionately targets black communities.

Tools of oppression can be used against all kinds of vulnerable and marginalized populations, so it’s no surprise that the same criminalization strategy has also been effectively used against immigrants in the United States. Well before the Trump administration, immigration enforcement agencies purported to prioritize “criminal aliens,” particularly felons, for targeted deportation. This is something that seems difficult to disagree with to most Americans – it is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that felons, who have done very bad things, are very bad people. In fact, it’s this collective belief that has enabled the criminalization of black and brown communities and the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

What’s more, illegal reentry into the United States – crossing the border more than once without documentation – is actually a felony. So many of these felonious immigrants, whom some might think of as hardened criminals, are actually just people who came to the United States, started families, were deported, and came back to be reunited with their kids. And many other “criminal aliens” are simply folks who were caught using fake IDs or other infractions that are simply necessary to live without documentation.

During the swearing in of new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he said of immigrants, “We need to end this lawlessness that threatens the public safety.”

It’s almost irrelevant that this is a false premise. Immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants. The point is that Mr. Sessions is using a rhetorical framework that justifies ever-more aggressive and potentially violent targeting of immigrant populations. Mr. Sessions has a sordid history of being openly racist, and he is bringing very familiar tools used against African-American communities to this administration’s war against immigrant communities.

He also has a history of being anti-immigrant, winning the dubious award of “Amnesty’s Worst Enemy” from National Review in 2014.

We have long known this would be a priority of the Trump administration. On January 25, Mr. Trump signed two executive orders on immigration enforcement. The major effect of one of these is to massively expand the list of priorities for deportation, by expanding the definition of what is considered “criminal” until it encompasses essentially the entire undocumented immigrant community. In the executive order’s deeply troubling and possibly unconstitutional framing, criminals are not only those who have been convicted of crimes, but also:

  • Those who “have been charged with any criminal offense, where such charge has not been resolved”;
  • Those who are believed to “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense”;
  • Those who “in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.”

These are obviously excessively broad categories that ignore due process and “innocent before proven guilty” and devolve a terrifying amount of power into the hands of individual immigration enforcement officers. And given that the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement union enthusiastically endorsed the Trump campaign and embraced its neo-fascist rhetoric, this is not an encouraging thing. But the bigger play here is to expand what the government can call “criminal.”

Many Americans are uncomfortable defending the rights of “criminals,” especially when the word conjures images of murderers and rapists. The Trump administration knows this and is attempting to capitalize on it in order to ensure that their attacks on immigrant communities – which have already begun en masse, and have already split apart families – are not met with mass opposition.

We know from our own history the impact that painting an entire group of people as “criminals,” and leveraging the full strength of law enforcement and other state institutions against them, can have. Indeed, Mr. Sessions has had an active role in the ongoing repression of African American communities, as poignantly illustrated by the now-famous Coretta Scott King letter, so he knows this firsthand.

Given his own history it is deeply alarming that he is now Attorney General – charged with leading the Justice Department, which has been a critical player in the recent fight against police brutality, and is generally responsible for the administration and enforcement of federal immigration law.

The confirmation of an open racist and anti-immigrant firebrand to the office of the Attorney General is part of this administration’s open antagonism against black and brown communities. It’s an antagonism that has gone well beyond rhetoric – which is harmful enough on its own in its empowerment of far-right and neo-Nazi hate groups – and has already gone terrifyingly far into policies that will directly harm our families and communities.

Mr. Sessions’ appointment further delegitimizes the current administration and means that ActionAid USA and our many allies will work even harder to resist, to empower vulnerable communities, to push for policy changes wherever possible, and to organize broad-based opposition.

ActionAiders around the world have long years of experience in struggling against increasingly authoritarian and oppressive regimes, and we will bring this experience to bear in our struggles for justice here in the United States.