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Asylum-seeking migrants' families wait to be escorted by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico on May 8, 2021 in Roma, Texas. (Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Asylum-seeking migrants' families wait to be escorted by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico on May 8, 2021 in Roma, Texas. (Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Ocasio-Cortez Leads House Dems' Demand That Biden 'End the Carceral Approach to Immigration'

"Instead, we urge the Biden administration to pursue humane and just immigration policies that aim to end mass incarceration, criminalization, and deportation of immigrants."

Jessica Corbett

More than 30 House Democrats led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared a letter Monday that expresses concern about a temporary guidance for federal immigration enforcement and removal operations—and, more broadly, urges the Biden administration to replace the U.S. government's current carceral approach to immigration with "humane and just" policies.

"The Biden administration must meet this moment by pursuing policies to stop the criminalization of our immigrant neighbors and affirm the dignity and humanity of all people, regardless of immigration status."
—Rep. Ayanna Pressley

The guidance in question was issued in February to govern U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations until Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas issues new guidelines, which are expected imminently.

The lawmakers' letter (pdf), addressed to Mayorkas and ICE Director Tae Johnson, was dated last Friday.

"We are in a moment of racial reckoning in this country, with communities across the country calling for an end to mass incarceration and racist policing," the letter says. "It is time to end the carceral approach to immigration, which relies on these same flawed systems. Instead, we urge the Biden administration to pursue humane and just immigration policies that aim to end mass incarceration, criminalization, and deportation of immigrants."

"To that end, any final enforcement priorities memorandum must prioritize due process and human rights protections," the letter continues. "We urge the creation of guidelines and directives that welcome those seeking humanitarian relief, decarcerate ICE detention facilities, and allow for people to pursue lawful status without ICE prosecution before [the Executive Office for Immigration Review]. Any final memorandum should incorporate feedback from those most impacted by ICE's enforcement priorities, including community-based organizations and direct legal service providers."

This is not the first time since President Joe Biden took office in January that Ocasio-Cortez—whose district in New York is diverse and includes immigrants from around the world—has spoken out critically about the country's carceral approach to its immigration system. As the Biden administration struggled to process asylum-seekers, particularly children, in late March, she explained: "It's not a border crisis. It's an imperialism crisis. It's a climate crisis. It's a trade crisis. And also, it's a carceral crisis."

The congresswoman shared the new letter on Twitter Monday:

"For too long, our unjust immigration and criminal legal systems have driven the mass incarceration crisis, separated families, and harmed our communities for generations," said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), another signatory. "The Biden administration must meet this moment by pursuing policies to stop the criminalization of our immigrant neighbors and affirm the dignity and humanity of all people, regardless of immigration status."

The February guidance, the letter says, "does not provide adequate protection for the liberty interests of recently arrived immigrants seeking humanitarian relief and further criminalizes and dehumanizes immigrants by relying on the discriminatory criminal legal system." The Democrats advocate for new guidelines that "do not adopt flawed presumptions of what constitutes a threat to public safety and lay out a framework that focuses on protecting due process and human rights."

The lawmakers highlight three specific critiques of the temporary guidance. First, they assert that it "does not adequately protect the liberty interests of asylum-seekers," noting that "far from reflecting and honoring our treaty obligations, this memorandum presumes that any immigrant who unlawfully entered the United States on or after November 1, 2020 is a border security enforcement and removal priority."

"Second, the memorandum presumes that any immigrant who has been convicted of an 'aggravated felony' is a public safety enforcement and removal priority," even though the term, which is specific to immigration law, includes "offenses that are neither 'aggravated' nor 'felonies'—for example, this category has been interpreted to include many state drug misdemeanors," the letter continues.

"Third, the memorandum invites racial profiling by presuming that an immigrant is a public safety enforcement and removal priority if they have been convicted of an offense in which an element was 'active participation' in a gang or someone older than 16 who 'intentionally participated' in a gang," the letter adds.

Neither a potential "aggravated felony" conviction nor suspected gang involvement should be "left to an officer's discretion or 'good faith belief,'" the lawmakers assert, noting that "law enforcement's practices of labeling people as 'gang-involved' is often faulty, based on arbitrary and racist factors, and not subject to due process."

Rep. Judy Chu (Calif.), another signatory, said Monday that "seeking asylum is legal immigration, and those who do are deserving of due process and certain protections under our laws. Guidelines that ignore these basic protections and legal rights are based on the lie that immigrants impose a security threat to the U.S. This unfounded and xenophobic view has long been used to justify anti-immigrant policies."

Along with Chu, Ocasio-Cortez, and Pressley, the letter was signed by Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), Jason Crow (Colo.), Danny Davis (Ill.), Diana DeGette (Colo.), Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), Jesús "Chuy" García (Ill.), Sylvia Garcia (Texas), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Henry "Hank" Johnson Jr. (Ga.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (Calif.), Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), James McGovern (Mass.), Grace Meng (N.Y.), Grace Napolitano (Calif.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Adam Smith (Wash.), Mark Takano (Calif.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ritchie Torres (N.Y.), David Trone (Md.), Juan Vargas (Calif.), Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.), and Peter Welch (Vt.).

"Our immigration system is broken and we must ensure humanity lies at the core of our efforts to address the crisis individuals and families at our border continue to face," said Espaillat. "We have made progress in these first few months of the Biden-Harris administration, but more is needed."

Vargas emphasized that "immigrants seeking asylum are not criminals." Blasting the Trump administration's immigration agenda as "dangerous," the lawmaker added that he is proud to join a letter requesting that the Department of Homeland Security overturn the policies of Biden's predecessor.

"At a moment when we are seeing rampant human rights abuses accelerating across the globe, we have a duty to prioritize human rights in our own immigration system," declared Pocan. "Our immigration system should not be rooted in criminalizing refugees and immigrants. We should not be giving ICE power to dictate who is and who is not worthy of entering our country—period."


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