A young woman gets into a car with her friends in a Wawa parking lot when a police officer stops them. Her friend in the driver’s seat gets charged with a DUI, while the rest of them receive charges of disorderly conduct. The young woman is confused — they were not drinking, nor were they “disorderly” — but rather than fighting the accusation, she pays the fine. A couple of years later, ready to naturalize, she comes to a citizenship clinic. After careful review, she is told she might get denied because of her disorderly conduct conviction, and would have to wait another five years before reapplying.
Another woman who fights back in a domestic dispute is charged with harassment. When she applied for citizenship, she was originally denied, despite being the victim.
A man with one marijuana possession charge leaves the country to visit family; when he consults with our team about applying for citizenship many years later, he finds out he is deportable, even though the conviction record is sealed.
It does not matter if the criminal record is a misdemeanor or under seal — in order to apply for citizenship, an applicant must have “good moral character.”
The women and men in these examples are all Black immigrants, who were served by my legal staff at HIAS Pennsylvania. Two are from Liberia and one is from Uganda. One has been here since she was a child. All came fleeing horrors and seeking the promise of freedom. But freedom in the United States is not, in fact, accessible to all. Black and brown communities are not free from over-policing — which, at its worst, has fatal consequences.
Even when not fatal, over-policing can be dire. A criminal record can prevent individuals from getting a job, being approved for an apartment, or voting. For Black immigrants, it can reset their citizenship clock or render them deportable.
All too often, the “good moral character” required to naturalize, receive other immigration benefits, and pass employment tests means living in the right neighborhood and having light skin, so police officers do not notice you. Just existing can put many Black immigrants in the sights of the criminal justice system.
Over-policing is not simply caused by law enforcement having too much enthusiasm for their work. It is a euphemistic label for yet more systemically racist policy, with serious consequences. It’s certainly not just a problem in our region: Recently, the U.N. human rights chief released a report calling on countries to hold police accountable and engage in transformative, multifaceted reforms to end the violation of the rights of people of African descent.
This is no easy task. But it starts with recognizing domestic policies and practices that reinforce the traps our laws create for Black and brown people, regardless of their immigrant status. If you are Black or brown, you are deemed “suspicious” and can be stopped, arrested, and charged with a crime. Given the costs — in time and money — of defending yourself, these charges often result in a guilty plea that prevents you from getting a job, which prevents you from receiving public benefits and so supporting yourself.
For Black and brown immigrants, it’s the same merry-go-round: You are stopped because of the color of your skin, which all too often results in an arrest, a charge, a guilty plea and then a finding under our immigration laws you are not eligible to stay here. You cannot work and may get deported back to a country that you left because you could not work and support yourself (or were threatened with death) — round and round it goes.
We have to break this toxic cycle at every level, including overhauling police practices, funding criminal and immigration defense attorneys, and reforming immigration laws. Migration itself is not a crime, so truly minor crimes should not render you deportable or inadmissible. If a judge or jury has determined that someone’s record should be sealed or expunged because the terms of the sentence have been met or for humanitarian reasons, immigration law should honor those determinations.
Continuing to permit policing of Black persons for the simple reason that they are Black — and then resting societal benefits on being free from having any criminal history — guarantees that we, as a nation, will never free ourselves from the shackles of our own unjust systems.
Cathryn Miller-Wilson is the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia-based organization that provides immigration legal and social services.