IJN engages in advocacy, education, technical assistance, training, communications, and litigation to address the needs of those caught in the intersection of the criminal justice and immigration systems. We have established multi-faceted programs to assist criminal defenders, immigration advocates, community based advocates, and immigrants and their loved ones to effectively expand rights and challenge mass detention and deportation.
IJN strengthens the quality and scope of criminal and deportation defense. By articulating and circulating innovative, expert legal arguments and leading the effort to help criminal defense and immigration practitioners understand the intersection of criminal and immigration law, we help keep noncitizens in the U.S. with their families, communities, and loved ones. We provide strategic assistance and support for grassroots and larger immigrant rights advocacy groups on criminal immigration and immigration enforcement issues. We help to shape and define anti-deportation campaigns in ways that we hope will impact immigrant rights organizations’ policy asks and decisions now and in the coming years so that they are inclusive of all immigrants.
Since 2008, we have worked with organizations, coalitions, and networks regionally and nationally to create alternative models and policies at the state and local levels that can and have been used across the country to mitigate and/or stop mass detention and deportation efforts. Our work in campaigns instituting some of the first anti-immigration detainer policies in the nation has helped spark and support a national anti-detainer organizing movement, with the eventual enactment of approximately 300 local and state anti-detainer policies across the country and the federal government’s announcement to end Secure Communities (S-Comm).
In addition, we have been building support and power amongst groups who could be aligned with our values, but are not always part of the larger immigration discussion. This includes criminal and juvenile justice reform advocates, drug policy advocates, those fighting domestic violence and trafficking, and LGBTQ organizations. We have expanded the range of voices who weigh in on these policies, including prosecutors, criminal court judges, immigration judges, and law enforcement officers. We also seek to support the work and increase the connections with the growing movement against mass incarceration.
Finally, advocates in Washington D.C., Congressional staffers, and the Administration, aware of the technical expertise and availability of our collaborative, frequently ask for guidance regarding the impact of proposed legislation and executive actions.
Analysis of the Problem
In the 12 years of its existence, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has fueled the most massive surveillance, policing, prosecution, detention and removal of U.S. residents in history. In its mission to “Keep America Safe,” DHS and its champions justify ever-increasing levels of intrusion into many realms of US society by invoking a number of threats, with the emphasis shifting with the political moment. National security is so broadly defined that it has been used to justify funding the detention and deportation the greatest number of immigrants in U.S. history. In the past 10 years, the U.S. had deported more people than in the previous 100 years combined.
Under the veil of protecting national and public safety, the massive “homeland security” apparatus is increasingly drawing on the ideologies and practices, such as hyperpolicing and criminalization, of the decades-long War on Crime. DHS was created under George W. Bush to ostensibly “defend against another terrorist incident on U.S. soil,” and the Obama Administration has honed in on the “criminal alien” — a label for people with a wide range of offenses, some convicted decades ago — as the key threat to public safety. On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced a number of Executive Actions. Among other actions, the Administration created a deferred action program for eligible undocumented parents with citizen or lawful permanent resident children, and also revised the current immigration enforcement paradigm by discontinuing use of immigration detainers in most circumstances, and by eliminating of the Secure Communities program, at least in name. Despite these shifts in federal immigration policy, the President vilified immigrants in contact with the criminal justice system, naming “felons, not families” as the priority for the government’s mass deportation program. This statement further reinforced a longstanding dominant narrative of the immigration debate – the deserving versus non-deserving immigrant.
The President’s statement targeting “felons, not families” presents a false dichotomy. Exclusively focusing on people based solely on their criminal history oversimplifies the complexity of the social and human reality. It disregards who these people are (a father, a mother, a son, or a daughter), where they come from, and why they were targeted by the criminal justice system. In a nation that systematically targets black and brown communities by racial profiling, over charging, and over incarcerating, it is undeniable that many individuals are falsely labeled “criminals” or “felons” based on class, race, ethnicity, and even citizenship. Immigrants who have had contact with the criminal justice system are part of families too and deserve the opportunity to contribute to our society. Unfortunately, once branded with a criminal record, thousands of immigrants are cast into the shadows with little to no opportunity to meaningfully participate in our society. The U.S. can ill-afford the wasteful loss of this creative and productive energy.
The false dichotomy set up by the Administration means that many immigrants who have had contact with the criminal justice system will not qualify for the DAPA/DACA programs and instead will become priority targets for harsher immigration enforcement. Those who are ineligible for DAPA due to criminal records and those who have legal status, such as longtime lawful permanent residents with criminal records, are facing a new kind of immigration enforcement – one that is harsher and for which there is little to no recourse, including exercises of prosecutorial discretion. Following the framework put forth in Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposals, the Executive Action programs offer protection to a subset of the immigration population while intensively targeting those left out for arrest, detention, and deportation. This new era of heightened immigration enforcement requires robust advocacy responses from local communities and close monitoring of the new and evolving tactics that ICE will employ.
This new landscape will create new subclasses of immigrants, which in turn may contribute to further divisions within immigrant communities themselves. While good state actors may continue to expand protections for immigrants, this new era will allow bad actors, such anti-immigrant states and local and state law enforcement agencies, to flourish.
Effective responses to this new era of immigration enforcement will hinge on nationally connected local battles, impact litigation, strong communications, and informed and activated communities. These local battles will require greater capacity for grassroots organizations, the recruitment of new stakeholders, and the expansion of current ones. Public defenders, who are often the last lawyer an immigrant may see before facing jail and then deportation, play a crucial role both in protecting people from the mass deportation dragnet and monitoring shifting ICE tactics on the ground. As we fight for broader changes in policy, on the litigation front, courts remain a critical bulwark against the abuse of immigrant rights and government overreaching in the criminal justice and immigration systems.
Finally, in the larger picture, we recognize that the exclusion of “felons, not families” from federal protection and the corresponding enforcement backlash on those branded criminals, are symptoms of an overarching problem of over criminalization and over incarceration in this country — one that demands a broader response. Our country’s obsession with mass incarceration has driven our nation’s current war on immigrants. Now, more than ever before, the interconnectedness of the struggles of the criminal justice and immigrant rights movement are apparent and there is an emerging recognition that we cannot take down the deportation and detention machine without addressing the larger framework upon which it was conceived. In particular, it is critical to unite the struggles of black and brown communities, seek accountability of rogue federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, including seeking remedies for law enforcement misconduct, and pursue comprehensive criminal justice reforms that address the root causes of over criminalization of all communities of color, including citizens and noncitizens.
About the Coalition
The Immigrant Defense Project promotes fundamental fairness for immigrants accused or convicted of crimes. IDP seeks to minimize the harsh and disproportionate immigration consequences of contact with the criminal justice system by working to transform unjust deportation laws and policies; and educating and advising immigrants, their criminal defenders, and other advocates.
Contact: Alisa Wellek,
The National Immigration Project provides legal assistance and technical support to immigrant communities, legal practitioners, and advocates working to advance the rights of non-citizens. NIP seeks to promote justice and equality of treatment in all areas of immigration law, the criminal justice system, and social policies related to immigration.
Contact: Paromita Shah,
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center provides legal trainings, educational materials, and advocacy to advance immigrants’ rights. ILRC’s mission is to work with and educate immigrants, community organizations, and the legal sector and advocate for better policies in immigration law, health care, community safety, and other issues that affect immigrant communities.
Contact: Sameera Hafiz,