Immigration is a notoriously complex and hotly contested issue, now more than ever.
To make matters more complicated, harmful myths surrounding immigrants and immigration frequently find their way into mainstream rhetoric, especially since the Trump administration’s rise to power, further obscuring the common perception of immigrants and immigration policy.
Many of these myths — such as that immigrants don’t pay taxes or that they take jobs from American citizens or that they are criminals and terrorists — have been repeatedly proved as simply untrue. The problem with such frequent use of “alternative facts” and myths promulgated by our leaders is that they tend to be repeated.
Which is why I was more than concerned to find that one of these common myths — that all persons without current immigration documents are criminal law breakers — had infiltrated an editorial in the March 4 edition of The News Tribune.
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The editorial discusses the Tacoma City Council’s ordinance temporarily restricting new or expanded corrections and detention centers in the city. The city ordinance is a preemptive measure in response to President Donald Trump’s call for increased apprehension and deportation of persons without current immigration documents.
The editorial, which I might add was highly critical of both expanding the detention center and Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda, said this about the illegality of our undocumented immigrant neighbors: “Let’s be clear: It’s a criminal act to enter a country without permission or to violate a visa by extending a stay.”
It’s a statement that most would likely take no issue with, except perhaps an immigration lawyer.
But is it true? Can we simply throw the “criminal” label on all undocumented immigrants? Not according to the law.
Let’s be a bit more clear: Overstaying a visa is not a criminal act. According to some estimates, the majority of undocumented immigrants actually come from among persons who enter the country legally and stay past their visa expiration. But staying in the country after a visa has expired, also called “unlawful presence,” is a civil violation, not a criminal act.
To provide some perspective on whom and what is “criminal,” most states consider traffic violations a criminal offense. Approximately 41 million Americans receive speeding tickets each year alone. I and many other Americans are more worthy of the “criminal” label than the majority of undocumented immigrants in our country.
So what is considered criminal when discussing undocumented immigrants? The act of entering the country by unlawfully crossing the border, including avoiding inspection by Customs and Border Patrol agents or providing falsified documents, is a criminal misdemeanor.
For several years I was an immigration detention officer at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center, one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country. It’s a history I’m not proud of, but I learned some valuable information during my tenure there.
I initially discovered that it was much easier to perform my duties when I and my co-workers viewed the individuals we were hired to confine as criminals. This shift in perspective provided the excuse to feel like we were protecting our community from “criminal aliens” instead of separating family members.
I was only able to live under the comfort of ignorance for so long. Once I let myself recognize that the majority of immigrants are not criminals and are actually some pretty great people, life became much more difficult.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Douglas Epps sits on the board of directors for the nonprofit Advocates for Immigrants In Detention Northwest. He’s edited two books, “The Immigrant Other” and “Detaining the Immigrant Other,” and several peer-reviewed articles. He works as a testing coordinator at the University of Washington Tacoma.