Justin Bieber is Lucky That He's Rich. Poor Immigrants Don't Get Off so Lightly

Bieber will likely be fine, but most other legal immigrants convicted of a felony are detained and deported

Anytime I feel called upon to devote column inches to the antics of a teenage pop sensation in meltdown mode, I die a little. But after seeing a petition to the White House calling for the deportation of Justin Bieber for allegedly egging his neighbor's mansion and subsequently driving under the influence has already gathered nearly 80,000 signatures, it seems necessary to take up his cause. This is not, I assure you, because he turned in what must be the sweetest mugshot ever or even because I'm so terribly concerned about his ultimate fate - I think we all know he's going to be just fine - but simply because many other legal immigrants in the same position would almost certainly not be.

Since Bieber came under investigation earlier this month for the egg throwing incident, lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and elsewhere have been trying to use his case to highlight the fact that, if convicted, the potential consequences could be much more severe for Bieber, who is a legal immigrant from Canada (he has a US visa for his extraordinary ability in the arts), than they would be if he were an American citizen. As the ACLU's Diana Scholl pointed out in a recent blog post, if the damage to his neighbor's property were found to be over $400, Bieber could be charged with felony vandalism under California law and, if convicted, could be subject to mandatory detention in a privately run immigrant prison before being deported back to his native Canada. This is because under US immigration law, any legal alien convicted of an aggravated felony faces mandatory detention and deportation and many Americans might be surprised to know just how many crimes are classified as "aggravated felonies" when they are committed by immigrants.

Before any concerned Beliebers start flinging their bras over the barbed wire fences of one of our many immigrant detention centers that are mostly run by for profit corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, Inc, I should stress that it's highly unlikely that Bieber will end up in one of them. Although his neighbors have claimed the damage to their property is in the region of $20,000, well over the threshold that would make the egg attack a felony, investigators who subsequently searched Bieber's home unsurprisingly failed to uncover any evidence against the performer. (As the Guardian's Marina Hyde succinctly put it, "What were they looking for? An omelette?") But even if the police had unearthed a nest of egg bombs in the star's kitchen, chances are Bieber would still be safe, simply because the kind of immigrants that get deported do not tend to be either Canadian or rich.

In the past 20 years or so, thanks in large part to the 1996 Immigration Act, record numbers of legal immigrants, even those convicted of the most minor of crimes, have been detained and deported, usually without any representation and without recourse to judicial review or repeal. Before the 1996 Act passed there were only four categories of crimes that could result in removal. That law expanded the number of crime categories that would lead to mandatory deportation to over 50 and so broadly defined their terms that a combination of loitering and writing a bad check could be more than enough to get a person sent back where they came from for good. Broad as the law is, however, it tends to be applied very narrowly to immigrants who are mostly Latino and poor.

In 2012, for instance, a "record year" for removals and deportations (pdf), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) apprehended 643,000 foreign nationals, 70% of whom were Mexican. In the same year nearly 200,000 criminal aliens were removed, which was reported as an all time high. Of those who were removed, according to the DHS report, it was Mexicans again who far outnumbered any other group, but almost all expulsions were of immigrants from Latin American countries. (Canada did not even make the top ten.) The crime categories for which these immigrants were removed should, in an equal world, give Justin Bieber pause - criminal traffic offenses, including DUI's accounted for over 23% of removals, disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace accounted for a further 1.4%.

So why is Justin Bieber not sitting in an immigrant detention cell enriching the shareholders of the private prison corporations, which are profiting handsomely from the mandatory detention laws, while he awaits deportation? Well first of all, he hasn't been convicted of anything yet and it's quite likely that most, if not all, the charges against him will be dropped. (Sky News reported earlier that the DUI charge has already been dropped.)

But most of all, it's because as a wealthy guy, he could easily afford to pay the $2,500 bond for the DUI and related offenses and he can afford the best quality legal representation available. So even if he did end up in deportation proceedings, he would have the luxury of a lawyer to fight his cause. I say "luxury" because statistics show that 84% of immigrants in detention have no legal representation whatsover. Unlike in the criminal justice system where the state must provide indigent defendants with counsel, there are no similar safeguards for immigrants in custody. As the statistics show, it's the immigrants who can't afford an attorney who are the immigrants who get deported.

I think it's fair to say then that if Bieber's neighbor's mansion had been egged by an aggrieved Mexican gardener who was earning minimum wage, it's quite likely that said gardener would not have been free a week later to go drag racing while intoxicated with his hip hop friend in Miami. So while it's all very well for aggrieved citizens to use the democratic tools at their disposal to set up an online petition calling for the removal of a misbehaving megastar, it would be far more useful to exploit this situation to call for a fairer justice system where all immigrants are treated equally under the law regardless of the size of their bank balance.

I could get behind a petition that would demand legal representation for all immigrant defendants regardless of their ability to pay. That may not satisfy Bieber haters, but it would mean something good would come of a teenage meltdown that has been shoved in the faces of Beliebers and non-Beliebers alike.

© 2023 The Guardian