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Police and ICE: Systems of Oppression

The ultimate system of oppression is a fully legal one that is embraced and normalized by the culture and society it resides in. It hides behind the notion of fear from other human beings standing behind imaginary borders and marked by superficial differences. It hides behind billions of dollars and the name of “progress” and enterprise. It hides in imposed ignorance, in the pretentious elevation of politics, complex terminology, and convoluted levels of bureaucracies that belittle the average individual and make them feel and believe that the major decisions being made in the world are beyond their understanding and reach. 

We have taken these systems to be what is “best for us” when they are in truth compromises on our moral values and betrayals of our basic notions on what it means to be a good human being. Essentially, we are saying “it is what it is” (a particularly useless and unproductive phrase by the way) and moving on with our lives. While I could make this argument with many USFG (United States Federal Government) programs, I’d like to focus on a few particular systems that are just begging to be exposed. 

First, I want to discuss the police. The notions of decreasing police power or abolishing it all together have existed relatively quietly for some time, but now due to the murder of George Floyd and the revived Black Lives Matter movement, it has taken its place on the forefront of politics and social media, resulting in actual, tangible changes. Before this had taken place, I would have honestly laughed in the face of anyone who said that police could be banned or replaced. As someone who firmly believes that no one should be exclusively defined by a single part of their identity, the “All Cops Are Bastards” mantra seemed off-putting and radical to me. And it’s easy to grab onto an all-encompassing slogan and roll with it: they are short and sweet and offer magical and immediate solutions. I had my doubts because most cops are fundamentally here to protect our communities, right? So, over the course of the week, I did research and tried to understand where I should place myself on the spectrum, and ultimately the reason that the police force should be dissolved is that its flaws are too intertwined with its very existence, its structure, and its history to be fixed through reform. 

Dismantling the police system is like breaking up from a very long-term, dysfunctional relationship. You’ve grown so used to someone that you see them as your only future, and you’ve taken all the things that are wrong with them and called them normal. You’ve ignored the red flags, the drinking problem, the fact that they hate your friends, their obsession over every part of your life, etc., etc. In case I’ve gone too far, I’d like to remind you that these are all metaphors for the police and not at all about my own dysfunctional relationships. 

Point being, there are other options and other fish in the sea. We don’t need to hang on to a system that mostly protects rich people and puts poor ones in prison. We don’t need to protect a group notorious for disproportionately targeting people of color with countless cases and reports of white supremacy. We don’t need to depend on something so flawed that it requires an entire article of its own. For a nice comprehensive list of replacements for the police, check out this article from the Rolling Stone, but here are just some of the ideas currently circulating: Social workers can replace the cops in high schools and many other settings where vulnerable individuals need help to reform their lives, not to be placed in the hands of someone that can muddy their record and leave a scar on their life forever. CHP can remain to be a separate system, just with fewer guns and more negotiation tactics. Neighborhoods can install independent community patrols based on the notions of local direct democracies. The good cops people love to talk about can continue to do good work in a good, not racist, and truly impartial system.

If we need to stick with the police, (which might be the way to go judging by the pace at which our government works, and its reluctance to accept “radical” change), then we need to seriously reform it. Why not require officers to earn degrees in criminal justice, or create a pre-law enforcement degree? We make doctors go through at least 10 years of schooling and training after high school because we entrust them with our lives, why not do the same for people who walk around with guns in hand and immense freedom to use them?

We must also shrink the size of the police and reallocate funds to low-income neighborhoods, which also tend to have the highest crime rates (and are often communities of color) because they are over-policed and vulnerable to falling into crime. This would allow us to eradicate part of the problem instead of trying to treat the symptoms. (Quick side note, how come the petty crimes of poor people are always placed at such priority when corporation owners have been using our immensely capitalistic system as a justification to steal money from everyone and buy up the entire United States government?)

I’m sure you’ve already heard plenty about these reforms so I won’t bore you, but one note that tends to be missed often is that this change will most effectively and efficiently take place at city and county levels. The bottom line is that the present form of law enforcement is not some kind of eternal, god-given, and end all be all system. It can change. We can change it. 

Second, I want to dive into the not so distant cousin of the police: ICE. Trump’s booty call and the latest addition to the arsenal of the land of the free, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was only founded in 2003, the same year as the release of Finding Nemo! (Turns out Nemo wasn’t the only one fated to be ripped away from his father) Despite being very young, ICE has already worked up a reputation and again, seems completely necessary; even I can’t deny that drug cartels should not be able to bring meth across the border.

The discussion about ICE is not complete without a background on immigration in the US in general, which I’ll try to summarize, but I suggest doing some research of your own. In summary, there are millions of undocumented immigrants in the US predominantly from Mexico and the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). They have immigrated here because of economic hardship, immense violence and gang activity, and political unrest (for which the US is largely responsible due to its political and economic exploitation of those countries, especially in the Northern Triangle). Due to the huge influx of those immigrants and the circumstances under which they leave those countries, the legal methods of coming to the US, which involve decade long waits in some cases and a very small number of spaces, are oftentimes cast aside. 

A majority of undocumented immigrants tend to keep a low profile to stay out of crime and out of ICE’s radar and have very low unemployment rates. Of course, there are lazy, criminal, and dangerous immigrants too, but not disproportionately more than the all-American, pure-white, couch-surfing bums and school shooters. And while I would love to argue for that exact reason that all humanity is fundamentally the same and that borders are simply constructs imposed to keep a sense of identity and incentive for nationalism, and thus no one should be deported, I understand that people that pose a real threat to the US can be kindly escorted back to their country of origin. That, however, is not what ICE is spending most of its time and $7.6 billion annual budget doing. 

There are problems in the system that is supposed to let people in in the first place, but I’ll leave that for another time and instead discuss the treatment of undocumented immigrants that are already in the US. ICE treats all undocumented immigrants like they are dangerous criminals while being present in the US without papers is only a civil offense. ICE agents take advantage of the fact the undocumented immigrants have little to no protection in the US to do whatever they like. This means terrorizing and mistreating them, violating their constitutionally ensured rights as human beings by Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, and the 4th Amendment, and disregarding basic human rights that I incorrectly assumed everyone understood and protected. This means barging into people’s homes, cars, and workplaces even though they need a warrant. It means overcrowded detention centers even amidst a pandemic and sexually abused detainees with no proper reporting system in place to find help. It means working with the police to create an attitude of rightfully placed distrust and fear towards law enforcement. 

To summarize, we as a nation have decided that the existence of a human being on the other side of a largely imaginary line is so horrid that they must be subjected to relentless fear, human rights abuses, and the undying risk of being uprooted from your life as you know it. Immigrants are not going to stop coming to the US as ocean levels begin to rise and climate change destroys already vulnerable areas of the world. We have to be ready for an influx of new migrants searching for safety, and as of now, we don’t appear to be very accommodating hosts.  

How do we fix this? ICE as it stands must be dismantled and reconstructed to focus on predominantly, or nearly entirely, on actual criminal immigrants. Detention centers cannot continue to have these conditions, they cannot have little to no oversight and run as for-profit prisons. ICE agents should be required to read detainees their Miranda rights and stop raiding neighborhoods and workplaces. And finally, there must be a way for undocumented immigrants already in the US to have a pathway to legal citizenship. 

We have come to terms with the fact that people in need on another part of our little wet pebble floating through space are not welcome into our designated zone that we stole from other people in the first place. Is this an oversimplification? Perhaps to an extent, but it does highlight the fact that we have taken the existence of borders and divisions, and internalized and ingrained them into our understanding of the world so deeply, that we fail to recognize just how petty it all is to divide human beings like that. 

What blows my mind is that the insurance of basic human rights and plain old decency is a very partisan, political, and highly controversial issue. At the end of the day, police and ICE are systems that we have accepted into our culture without questioning their shortcomings. We have compromised our moral standings and thrown our hands up in weak defeat. We have hidden behind legalities and claimed that these individuals are simply rightfully enforcing the law of the land, while history has proven legality has never equated to morality. We must stop normalizing systems of oppression and relinquishing our power to the fear of each other and defying tradition. No more hiding, it’s time to seek change.

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The Morality and Legality of DACA

(Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The question of DACA can be discussed in two spheres. 

There, of course, begs the question of morality, what is just based on our own understanding of what is just and unjust. And then, there are the legal aspects of the fate of DACA which in our world is what will ultimately decide the final verdict. In this article, I’d like to tackle both of those perspectives and perhaps demonstrate the connections between the two. 

In its most glorious and elevated condition, the law is meant to be solid, unbreakable, fair, and unbiased. The tradition of precedent aims for consistency and the US Constitution aims for timelessness. However, in many aspects the constitution is outdated, and this isn’t simply anti-traditionalist banter, it’s based upon the fact politics itself has completely changed since the time the ancient document, that we worship like the bible, was created. A primary, and very relevant example, is the growth of presidential power over centuries. As Benjamin Ginsberg, a Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University argues, “talented and ambitious presidents have pushed the boundaries of the office adding new powers that were seldom surrendered by their successors”. 

Not to mention, that every administration, and I mean every administration, and every party will interpret the constitution and other laws to their advantage. 

Now let’s place that in the context of DACA and talk about how this policy was first enacted. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)  is a policy that gives individuals with unlawful presence in the US after being brought to the country as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit in the U.S These are individuals who (in summary):

  1. Are at least 15 when they apply and have been under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012. 
  2. Are in school, a high school graduate or holder of a high school completion certificate or GED, or an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces or Coast Guard. 
  3. Are not convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more misdemeanors are ineligible for the program. 

Former President Barack Obama brought DACA into existence through an executive order in 2012 after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act. Since then, over 700,000 received DACA and another million are eligible. Now, Trump and other Republicans are arguing that this was an overreach of power on behalf of the executive branch and used it in their justification to get rid of DACA. What I find amusing, and perhaps it is a simplistic perspective, is that presidents in past have waged wars (unofficially, of course, the Vietnam war is a prime example) that have resulted in the death of thousands, but legislation designed to provide a chance of a normal life without the fear of deportation, is a disgraceful overreach of power. Many argue that per Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, complete authority is given to Congress to determine our nation’s immigration rules. However, if something was so blatantly unconstitutional, it wouldn’t have been enacted in the first place. Quite simply, “DACA is within the scope of presidential authority because it does not change the law, and does not legalize anything that would otherwise be illegal” as Ilya Somin argues in several articles

In their attempts to challenge DACA, Trump and his Republicans have been successful in stopping new applicants from receiving DACA, however, older recipients can still renew it thanks to many lower court challenges. Why didn’t Trump simply get rid of DACA? Because after all, if one president can place an executive order in place, then the next one can simply remove it. However, Trump hid behind the argument of unconstitutionality instead to avoid even more backlash from politicians and the public because a direct stance against DACA, based on moral disagreements is not a smart political stance, even for Trump. In fact, this is one of the reasons why the lower courts were able to challenge his decision: he didn’t provide an adequate reason as to why it was a bad policy. Simply put, the Trump Administration cannot provide a moral argument as to why DACA should be destroyed. 

However, the fate of DACA is no longer in the hands of the executive branch and will be moving on to the Supreme Court in June by the request of Donald Trump. This court hearing will not be deciding the constitutionality of DACA, but instead, the validity of the lower courts challenges to Trump’s decision. And, this decision is going to outlast any presidential executive order. Here are the possible outcomes of this hearing summarized from Vox’s coverage

1st: The Court could affirm the lower court decisions, meaning that handing a narrow victory to the Dreamers. This outcome is unlikely, given the Court’s Republican majority and the views expressed by several members of that majority in a similar 2016 case.

2nd: It could affirm Trump’s decision and deem the Trump administration’s reasoning regarding its decision to wind down DACA are adequate, and thus the administration can move forward in shutting it down while leaving the door open for future administrations to potentially revive it with good enough reasoning.  

3rd: The Court could decide that the DACA program is, itself, unlawful. In this last scenario, the Court would not just allow DACA to be wound down under Trump — it would forbid any future president from reviving it. 

The court is presently more right wing, so a victory for Trump is more likely and a fully revived DACA is nearly impossible.  In the crossfire of legal battle after legal battle are the lives of Dreamers themselves. 

While the political world is having a shouting match over who is right and who is wrong, the 700,000 individuals who have built their lives in the US, who have made deep impacts in their community, and who are now fighting on the frontlines of the COVID 19 outbreak are waiting to see if their safety is in jeopardy, for a choice that they did not make. The USFD could never deport the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the US, it only has the resources to deport 400,000 per year. What I find baffling, from a moral standpoint, is that from all the battles the Trump administration could choose to fight in immigration it chose a group of young, working, educated individuals who have no criminal background and cause absolutely no harm. Dreamers had placed their trust in the US Federal Government, giving them personal information that, if in the wrong hands, could lead ICE right to their doorstep.

To forget the people behind the policy, to justify jeopardizing the lives of thousands of people, is simply a consequence of the trend of dehumanization of immigrants in the US. If this concerned any other group of people there would be public outrage across the country.

Because the ball is now in the Supreme Court (no pun intended) there is very little the rest of the country can do. One can only hope that whatever the outcome, Dreamers can continue to dream.