Opinion

Uneven justice for undocumented immigrants

By Melanie Van Orden |  

April 13, 2017 |  

(a katz/Shutterstock)

I was recently arrested arrested for civil disobedience during a protest in Lower Manhattan against our unjust immigration system as part of the Faith Over Fear Week of Action & Resistance.

It was my choice. I and 27 other clergy members and supporters had signed up for it in conjunction with Faith in New York. They prepped us, told us what to expect and coordinated legal help, so I was unafraid of any consequences, but that experience opened my eyes.

We were arrested for blocking traffic in front of an immigration detention center at 201 Varick St., as hundreds of protestors looked on, and were detained for five hours in a dehumanizing criminal justice system. The jail cells were uncomfortable and depressing, there was a jarring lack of privacy and the inescapable vulnerable feeling of losing all personal liberty. But as intense as it was, I know I had it incredibly easy. Too easy.

I was surrounded by friends, singing and chanting, while a supportive group of people waited for me outside. I couldn’t help but imagine how much more painful it would have been had I been detained by ICE for deportation proceedings, rather than booked in a local jail for a few hours as a U.S. citizen. 

People detained by ICE don’t have the same civil rights as U.S. citizens. They don’t have any right to legal representation if they can’t afford a lawyer. They don’t have the right to a speedy trial. They often languish for months in ICE detention centers without access to a lawyer, without a court date, and without any knowledge of what their options are for staying with their families.

Fortunately, the New York City Council funds the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which provides legal counsel to low-income immigrants who are in deportation proceedings. But this program desperately needs more financial support from the city as more immigrants are detained in Trump’s America.

The program also can be improved by assuring that legal representation begins from the moment immigrants are detained, rather than at their first court appearance, which is now often two to three months after being picked up. The detainees don’t have the basic right to a speedy trial and legal representation. Their citizenship status doesn’t make them any less human and they should not be presumed guilty until proven innocent, especially since many haven’t committed any crimes.

This gap in funding and the criminalizing of largely innocent people are only a couple of the major reasons why we need to stand up against deportations and our unjust immigration laws. We need to make New York a true sanctuary city by abolishing “Broken Windows” policing that disproportionately targets people of color and immigrants for criminal enforcement of low-level offenses.

Arrests for minor infractions like jumping a turnstile, can now lead to deportations and separation of families. Our city must stand up to the Trump administration’s policies that cause people to be harassed and detained at our airports and provide places of safety and refuge for people who are at risk of being torn from their families and exiled from their homes.

Experiencing a small taste of imprisonment opened my heart to the plight of the undocumented and those who are in danger of being thrown out or banned from our society because of their religious affiliation.  These are people considered to be “illegal,” because they came here to build a better life. Some are regularly threatened because they follow their religious beliefs and cover their hair or face, and others are constantly discriminated against because they may not speak English.

This is not the type of society we and our supporters and faith-based partners envision as we strive to build a beloved city in New York, where the vulnerable among us can be free from an unjust system that doesn’t honor the inherent dignity and worth of every person.

Melanie Van Orden is a member of the Justice Team at 4th Universalist Society and Faith in New York.

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