ON THE EVE of his release after serving a five-year sentence in El Paso, Texas, for assault, Lorenzo Palma got some bad news. Just as the 40-year-old was about to be paroled in 2014, immigration authorities whisked him away to yet another cell in Huntsville, Texas. This time he found himself in a detention center--a glorified term for a prison where immigrants, authorized and unauthorized, are warehoused pending deportation.
This turn of events took Palma by surprise. He is an American citizen who has lived his entire life in this country and has no accent. His mother went to Mexico for her delivery to be near her family, so he never acquired a U.S. birth certificate. But that hadn't been a problem until he was suddenly asked to provide proof of citizenship--from behind bars.
His late grandfather Lazaro Palma's U.S. birth certificate, the only thing he could get his hands on to back up his citizenship claim, wasn't enough. Apparently, Lorenzo also needed to prove that Lazaro had lived in the country for five years after Lazaro turned 17 in order to validate his own claim of citizenship. That proved virtually impossible for Palma to arrange while in detention, especially since he was not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer--immigration is considered a civil rather than criminal matter--and he was too poor to hire one himself.
Palma's case is not unique. Jacqueline Stevens, a political scientist at Northwestern University and an expert on deportation law, estimates that in 2010 alone, over 4,000 U.S. citizens were detained or deported as aliens. Between 2003 and 2010, more than 20,000 Americans suffered the same fate. At any given time, Stevens maintains, about 1 percent of the inmates in immigration detention nationwide are American citizens. That figure may sound unbelievable, but in fact it is a conservative estimate.
In principle, it is illegal for immigration authorities to detain U.S. citizens, much less deport them. But the reality is very different, Stevens says. Once someone is swept into the Kafkaesque nightmare of the immigration system, they are effectively assumed illegal until proven otherwise. What's more, the standard due process protections that are afforded to ordinary criminals aren't extended to suspected illegal immigrants. As Palma learned, people accused of a civil offense aren't entitled to court-appointed lawyers. Worse, suspected illegal immigrants aren't typically accorded individual trials. Instead, overworked immigration judges often hold mass hearings where they rubber-stamp the recommendations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys.
Deportation is arguably a more severe punishment than mere imprisonment since it lasts a lifetime. It is a kind of "legal death," Stevens argues, where Americans are stripped of their rights and exiled to another country. She has documented many cases where citizens, who have lives and loving families in the U.S., are forced to live as destitutes in foreign countries. In one instance, she discovered a homeless American in Mexico bathing in the Tijuana River and rummaging through garbage to feed himself. She tracked another American drifting among shelters in various Latin American countries. "In a surreal reversal," says Stevens, "there are even Americans trying to eke out a living as day laborers in Mexico."
Although the U.S. has been illegally deporting citizens for over a century, the number started soaring when Congress eliminated the right to judicial review for criminal aliens in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The idea was to remove the barriers to ejecting immigrants who posed a danger to Americans. But the result was a general weakening of legal protections and the rise of an unaccountable immigration bureaucracy that itself has become a danger to Americans.
Lorenzo Palma got incredibly lucky. He was moved from the docket of Judge Richard Walton, known for his impatience with such cases, to that of Judge Saul Greenstein, who actually took Palma's claim of being an American citizen seriously. But what really changed his fate was that on the day he appeared before Greenstein, Stevens was in the courtroom watching the proceedings for research purposes. Greenstein asked if she'd be willing to help Lorenzo, and she did. She put him in touch with a pro bono immigration attorney who helped arrange the requisite paperwork. Two years after Lorenzo was put in detention, he finally became a free man.
"I'm blessed that I'm out," Palma told NPR. "I'm blessed for the people that helped me. I'm blessed, but I feel that the system is not on the right track. They just do whatever they want to do to you."
While the deportation of American citizens is the most egregious outcome of an overzealous immigration crackdown, millions of citizens are getting caught in the government's dragnet in other ways too. And things are likely to get worse before they get better. Indeed, if President Donald Trump keeps on his aggressive anti-immigration path, he will fundamentally shift the balance of power between the government and its citizens. He may not be able to overcome the economic forces that bring unauthorized aliens to America's shores. But he will erode the economic and civil liberties of ordinary Americans, leaving few immune from the long tentacles of the immigration enforcement regime.
FEAR OF ILLEGALS
AT THE TURN of this century, thanks partly to 9/11 and partly to an influx of migrants from Mexico, American anxieties crystallized around the threat allegedly posed by undocumented immigrants. This fear brought with it an increased willingness to tolerate incursions on the rights and liberties of Americans in the name of catching people who entered or remained in the country illegally.
The vast majority of these people did not come here to commit terrorist acts or even petty crimes. They came to work. The wave of immigration tapered off in 2008, almost entirely for economic reasons.
But the preoccupation with finding and deporting undocumented immigrants only intensified with the economic anxieties of the Great Recession. And then Donald Trump swept into the White House promising to escalate the war on illegal immigration to previously unimaginable levels. "Anyone who is in the United States illegally is subject to deportation," he declared during his campaign, pledging to restore the notorious Eisenhowerera program Operation Wetback, which rounded up Mexicans and ejected them from the country.
Since assuming office, Trump has doubled down on his calls to build a wall on the southern border. He has tried to ban travel from several Muslim-majority countries, backed a plan to slash family-based immigration, and demanded "extreme vetting" of all foreigners.
But the most insidious weapon in Trump's anti-immigration arsenal is "interior enforcement." It sounds innocuous, as if it's some kind of program aimed at conserving wildlife. But it actually involves cleansing the country of the 11 million unauthorized aliens settled inside America by targeting them wherever they live or work. Public opinion on the strategy is divided, but most Americans, especially white native-borns, don't imagine that it will have any impact on them.
They are wrong. There is no way for the government to conduct the policy equivalent of drone strikes and cleanly remove millions of immigrants from the midst of America without major collateral damage to everyone's rights. Interior enforcement is more like carpet bombing; its effectiveness depends on decimating Americans' liberties.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Arizona--ground zero for the war on immigration over the last decade. Thanks to both state and federal laws, interior enforcement has already affected Arizonans of all income levels, hues, and political persuasions, from archconservatives to ultra-progressives.
Arizona's 2010 "Your Papers, Please" law (S.B. 1070) is notorious for subjecting the state's Latino community to widespread racial profiling and harassment. Less well known is that this law--along with its 2007 predecessor, the Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA)--also targeted American businesses.
Firms that "knowingly" hire undocumented workers face all kinds of consequences, including the loss of a license to operate at all, or what is dubbed the "business death penalty." The law mandated that all Arizona employers use...