Last week, a top Justice Department official announced that its important grant-making unit, the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), would cease to refer to people convicted of crimes by stigmatizing labels such as “felon” or “ex-convict.” Instead, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who heads the OJP, wrote that the OJP would “replace unnecessarily disparaging labels with terms like ‘person who committed a crime’ and ‘individual who was incarcerated,’ decoupling past actions from the person being described and anticipating the contributions we expect them to make when they return.” People, Mason seemed to say, should not be judged solely by their criminal histories. More directly, governmental policies should recognize that people who make mistakes deserve an opportunity to move on.
This is a significant step by the Obama Administration. As linguists, legal scholars, activists, and others have long recognized, words matter. Indeed, as Mason’s article in the Washington Post noted, “Our words have power. They shape and color our estimations and judgments. They can build up or tear down.” To describe people’s experiences and actions as distinct from their identity is key to recognizing their humanity—muddled, complicated, contradictory, and imperfect as it usually is, whether or not a criminal record exists.
Now if only the Obama Administration would apply this humanizing insight to immigration law. The Administration has consistently used language that does exactly what Mason criticized. When President Obama famously referred to his administration’s immigration enforcement actions as focused on “felons, not families” he, first, implied that those categories are binaries (felons don’t have families, and families don’t include felons). Secondly, he distilled migrants with criminal histories down to a single feature of their life story—their conviction for a felony. Likewise, President Obama’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency routinely touts its apprehension of “criminal aliens.” President Obama would do well to sit down with Mason to hear her explain that the rhetoric of criminality, as I have previously described this and similar characterizations, makes it much more difficult for people who have been punished for engaging in criminal activity “to rebuild their lives.” Following Mason’s lead, ICE could instead talk about migrants who have been convicted of any crime (including, as is frequently the case, nothing more serious than the crime of coming to the United States without the federal government’s permission).
Even in the waning days of the Obama Administration, this is unlikely to happen. Mason’s Washington Post article was timed to coincide with the Justice Department’s recent National Reentry Week. In her own National Reentry Week remarks, Attorney General Loretta Lynch touted President Obama’s decision to formally establish a Federal Interagency Reentry Council. Though the Council involves twenty federal agencies, one key unit is missing: the Department of Homeland Security and its principal immigration policing agencies, ICE and Customs and Border Protection.
Why exclude immigration policing agencies that rely heavily on imprisonment when discussing reentry policies across the country? Because the Obama Administration, like many scholars and advocates, have decided that migrants are not part of “our” communities thus they aren’t worthy of reentry initiatives. They are instead imagined to serve their prison time, get handed over to ICE for civil immigration detention, and soon enough end up on a bus or plane headed to wherever they came from. To be sure, this happens a lot—more than 400,000 times every year in fact. But this simple formulation is empirically incomplete and normatively troubling. First, many migrants return to the United States. This is especially true of people who have deep ties to this country in the form of spouses, children, work, or property.
Secondly, to discount migrants from conversations about reentry suggests that their presence or absence doesn’t affect people who are undeniably members of our communities no matter how narrowly those communities are conceptualized. The spouses and children of migrants who are tossed into the immigration imprisonment and deportation pipeline are just as affected by incarceration as the families of United States citizens. To discount the people who spend time behind bars indirectly affects all of the people to whom their plight makes all the world of difference.
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