The Making of a Removable Alien

On Tuesday (February 21), the Trump administration issued a pair of memos outlining a more aggressive stance on immigration enforcement.  These memos followed January 25 and January 30, 2017 executive orders related to immigration. Executive Order 13676 is titled “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements”, and the second, Executive Order 13769 is titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.” These actions have already had major implications for immigrant communities across the United States.  A lesser known aspect of the efforts are their dangerous implications for TransLatinas.

In 2013, the TransLatin@ Coalition published The TransVisible Report to document the social conditions of TransLatinas. For the report, the researchers surveyed one hundred and one TransLatinas living across the U.S. In the report, TransLatinas refers to adults that were assigned male at birth who migrated to the U.S. and identify as women. TransLatinas constitute a diverse group of people; while some were brought to the U.S. as children and developed their sense of gender identity in the U.S., others migrated as adults searching for a safe place to live, work, and thrive while honoring their sense of self.  When asked why they chose to migrate to the U.S., 61% reported that “running away from violence and seeking better economic opportunities” were top reasons for migrating. In addition, 99% of TransLatinas stated that having a legal status was “very important” and that they did not want to return to their country of birth.

However, obtaining legal status has proven to be a challenge for a community that lacks the financial means to pay for legal representation in the U.S. immigration system. Seventy percent of TransLatinas in the study did not have a driver’s license and 91% did not have a job that provided them with health insurance.  Without papers, most TransLatinas are relegated to the informal economy in order to make a living. Their working conditions are usually risky and their labor underpaid because their jobs are criminalized.

Poverty, undocumented status, and criminalized employment situate them as one of the most vulnerable populations under the current administration.

Executive order 13768 describes undocumented immigrants, including TransLatinas, not as victims of globalization momentarily unable to adjust their status, but as dangerous and removable aliens. The executive order reads, “many aliens who illegally enter the United States and those who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas present a significant threat to national security and public safety.” As a result of this narrow and criminalizing lens, the orders seek to “make use of all available systems and resources to ensure the efficient and faithful execution of the immigration laws of the United States.”

 Indeed, some of these systems and resources were recently utilized when Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officers made 600 arrests across 11 states in the week following the signing of this executive order. The number of arrests will likely continue to rise as the Trump administration enforces this policy and punishes states that offer sanctuary to immigrants.  Executive order 13768 explicitly denies federal grants to and threatens enforcement against “jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply” with the order. In essence, every state is being asked to use its law enforcement as a collaborating agency for mass deportations.

For states and cities, the price of seeing undocumented immigrants as humans seeking a better life and providing them shelter is the potential loss of Federal funds.

An unruly state will lose its allowance except when it comes to policing. Under this economic pressure, most states will comply with the executive order and the number of incarcerations will rise.

Although part of executive order 13767 is designed to “remove promptly those individuals whose legal claims to remain in the United States have been lawfully rejected, after any appropriate civil or criminal sanctions have been imposed.”

It is unlikely that “removal” will be a prompt endeavor.

In her New York Times article “Deluged Immigration Courts, Where Cases Stall for Years Begin to Buckle” Julia Preston, explains that immigration courts are “weighed down by a backlog of more than 520,000 cases.”  And [they] are “floundering, increasingly failing to deliver timely, fair decisions to people fighting deportation or asking for refugee [status], according to interviews with lawyers, judges and government officials. With too few judges, overworked clerks and an antiquated docket based on stacks of paper files, many of the 56 courts nationwide have become crippled by delays and bureaucratic breakdowns.” Ultimately, Preston anticipates that “the courts will be a major obstacle for President-elect Donald J. Trump and his plans to deport as many as three million immigrants he says have criminal records. Many of those deportations — at least hundreds of thousands — would have to be approved by immigration judges.”

What is likely to happen is that undocumented immigrants who are apprehended will be incarcerated indefinitely until their decision date arrives. Incarceration is emotionally, financially, and socially devastating for all detainees and their families. This is particularly true for families living below the poverty line. Yet, for TransLatinas incarceration has yet another horrific outcome.

TransLatinas are often detained in all male cells and/or locked away in solitary confinement.

While incarcerated with the male population, they are often raped or sexually harassed by prison personnel and other detainees.  And, when they are placed in solitary confinement, they suffer the isolating and damaging consequences of having no human contact.

These alarming and dehumanizing outcomes have thus far been normalized and even encouraged because the public is being asked to treat undocumented migrants as if they are not people.

What is needed in order to see that migrants are refugees and not aliens? Decision-makers need to comprehend that individuals migrate for many reasons – they may be pushed to migrate by economic despair, sexism and transphobia in their home countries, but are also often pulled to the US by demand for their labor and promises of a better life. Most of the time migrants are refugees seeking peace and prosperity but are often denied papers to access mainstream employment. What many don’t anticipate is that migrating marks the beginning and the end of their humanity. Through their engagement with underground economies they become the “removable aliens” “deserving” to be detained, arrested, separated from families, and violated in every possible way.  It is time to bring back humanity to our immigration system.

Karla M. Padrón is a Lecturer in the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota

Photo by TransLatin@ Coalition