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Opinion: Over-policing Black immigrants can turn one mistake into deportation

June 30, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This guest column was written by Cathryn Miller-Wilson, the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania.
A young woman gets into a car with her friends in a Wawa parking lot when a police officer stops them. Her friend in the driver’s seat gets charged with a DUI while the rest of them get charged with disorderly conduct.

The young woman is confused — none of them were drinking, nor were they “disorderly” in any way — but rather than fighting the accusation, she pays the fine. A couple of years later, ready to naturalize, she comes to a citizenship clinic. After careful review, she is told she might get denied because of her disorderly conduct conviction and would then have to wait another five years before reapplying.

Another woman who fights back in a domestic dispute is charged with harassment. When she applies for citizenship, she is originally denied, even though she was the victim.

A man with one marijuana possession charge leaves the country to visit family; when he consults with us about applying for citizenship many years later, he finds out he is now deportable, even though the conviction is sealed.

It does not matter if the criminal record is a misdemeanor or under seal, in order to apply for citizenship, an applicant must have “good moral character.”

The women and men in these examples are all Black immigrants. Two are from Liberia and one is from Uganda. One has been here since she was a child, and all came here fleeing horrors and seeking the promise of freedom.

But freedom in the United States is not, in fact, accessible to all. As we know too painfully, freedom from over-policing is not something that the Black and brown community enjoys, and over-policing at its worst has fatal consequences.

As the stories of three of our clients illustrate, over-policing, even when not fatal, has dire consequences. A criminal record can prevent individuals from getting a job, being approved for an apartment, or the right to vote.

For Black immigrants it can cause an individual to reset their citizenship clock or render them deportable.

The “good moral character” required to naturalize, to receive other immigration benefits, to pass many employment tests too often means living in the right neighborhood and having skin light enough for police officers not to notice you.

For many Black immigrants, simply existing in the world can put them in the sights of the criminal justice system.

Over-policing is not simply caused by law enforcement having too much enthusiasm for their work. It is a euphemistic label for yet another systemically racist policy and it has serious consequences for the victims. We must lift up these consequences if we are to seriously address the impact of systemic racism.

From our Partners

There are serious and scholarly articles and debates about reparations for slavery. I don’t pretend to be an expert on solving for that cataclysmic institution of inhumanity. But I know that we don’t have to look to the past to begin remedying the future.

Continuing to permit policing of Black persons for the simple reason that they are Black and then resting all of our societal benefits on being free from criminal system involvement guarantees that we, as a nation, will never free ourselves from the shackles of our own unjust systems.

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