This was originally published on The Huffington Post.
“A Better Life” is the latest in—and among the best of—a series of excellent films portraying the lives of undocumented immigrants. This new offering from Chris Weitz drops the viewer into the life of a day laborer’s struggles to make “a better life” for his son. The movie has received well-deserved critical acclaim for its beautiful filming and the brilliant acting. But I’m no movie critic and have nothing to add to the scores of smart artistic reviews already out there. Instead, I’m writing to illuminate an issue that loomed ominously throughout the movie’s storyline but was never revealed: the harsh impact on hard-working families of one of the Department of Homeland Security’s most highly touted immigration enforcement programs, “Secure Communities.”
This initiative is purportedly aimed at identifying undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes. That is a sensible objective and a smart way to prioritize agency resources. But “A Better Life” demonstrates, albeit silently, how far the program strays from that goal.
Now I personally hate to know what happens in a movie before I see it, so I will tread lightly on the plot’s details. It should suffice to say that the central challenge confronting the main character, brilliantly played by Demian Bichir, is one shared by most undocumented immigrants: living without a driver’s license.
The inability to get a driver’s license triggers a host of fraught choices. And the movie poignantly shows that logistical issues that are at worst annoying to most of us can become agonizing life decisions for the undocumented. How do I get to work, school, or the grocery store? How do I seek medical attention? If I drive and get pulled over what will happen to me? What will happen to my family? What will happen to my car or truck?
These dilemmas are the unfortunate but unsurprising byproducts of our broken immigration system. When 5 percent of the U.S. workforce lacks papers, driving without a license is pervasive. Pervasiveness, of course, is not a justification. Still, like the extraordinary size of the undocumented population, it is a fact. There are 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country. More than half of them have been here for at least 10 years and more than 4 million U.S. citizen children have at least one undocumented parent. As a result, driving while undocumented has become a misdemeanor incident to immigration status.
The logistical challenges related to everyday life have always been significant for undocumented immigrants, but the aggressive expansion of Secure Communities to jurisdictions across the country has raised the stakes. This is because individuals arrested for misdemeanor traffic offenses like driving without a license are no longer just fined and processed through the local court system. Instead, their fingerprints are run through DHS’s database to determine their immigration status. If it turns out that the individual is unauthorized, DHS automatically initiates deportation proceedings against them.
In other words, being stopped for driving without a license in a Secure Communities jurisdiction will lead, almost inexorably, to the initiation of removal proceedings. The Obama administration has deported in the neighborhood of 1 million people, a staggering figure. And Secure Communities—which the administration is attempting to deploy to every jurisdiction by 2013—is one of the accelerants in this supercharged enforcement effort.
But like the father in “A Better Life,” a majority of the people swept in to deportation proceedings via Secure Communities have at most committed a traffic violation. They lack any resemblance to the high-priority violent criminals DHS has conjured to justify the program. And when the program starts sweeping up parents who are doing nothing more than working hard to provide for their families the human toll starts to mount person by person.
As the number of broken lives and families climbs, the moral authority behind this enforcement effort wanes. And, ironically, by eroding the confidence of the community being served, it subverts the ostensible goal of the program: increased community safety. Turning every traffic cop into an immigration agent is a surefire way to undermine community-based policing initiatives. This is precisely why several states attempted to opt-out of participating in the program and why DHS’s recent refusal to authorize the opt-out is misguided.
The movie accurately shows that undocumented victims of crime won’t come forward to report the crime and seek assistance for fear of being deported. They are forced to accept their victimhood, leaving criminals on the street to prey on others. Or they take matters in to their own hands, undermining community safety further still.
Most people watching “A Better Life” will walk out of the theater asking why we’re doing this. It seems incomprehensible that we can’t figure out a better way to deal with people who have been working hard in this country than to scare them into a frightening Hobson’s choice.
Immigration restrictionists, however, support this dragnet approach to immigration enforcement. Deputizing local cops as immigration agents may destroy families and make communities less safe, but in their view this is an acceptable tradeoff if it advances their mass deportation agenda.
I personally don’t believe that this administration intended for this program to fuel a mass deportation strategy. I believe they legitimately thought this program was a neutral way to identify and remove serious criminals. But the truth is that the majority of people identified through the program, like the father in this movie, have committed at most a traffic offense. In the face of this disconnect, if DHS fails to rein in the program, the president will be accused by the immigrant community of pursuing the restrictionist goal of mass deportation. And the community won’t be wrong.
It does not have to be this way. DHS recently formed a new task force of police officers, immigration agents, and community stakeholders to recommend reforms to the program. That task force has come under fire by advocates who want Secure Communities terminated. But the task force could still come out with strong recommendations limiting the program’s purview to identifying for removal only those who have been convicted of felonies or serious misdemeanors.
The likelihood of such a recommendation being issued and adopted would go way up if the task force members and DHS leaders were required to watch “A Better Life,” a movie that has nothing—and yet everything—to do with “Secure Communities.”
This was originally published on The Huffington Post.
Marshall Fitz is Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.