Good evening. I’d like to begin by saying that “[W]e are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by [Putin], but from within. So any citizen of this country who figured himself as responsible—particularly those of you who deal with the minds and heart of young people—must be prepared to ‘go for broke.’ Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty…you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.”
These aren’t my words. These are the words of James Baldwin, who wrote them in an essay entitled, “A Talk to Teachers,” in 1963. And with the exception of exchanging the name Putin for Khrushchev, these words reflect the time in which we are living, and the precarious state of our civil liberties and human rights, particularly as they relate to immigration but not exclusively so.
My name is Jessica Rofé, and I am an attorney and the Immigrant Defense Fellow at the NYU School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. At the Immigrant Rights Clinic, we engage in local, state and national struggles for immigrant rights. We do so by participating in litigation in immigration courts and federal courts. In our work, we collaborate with immigrants to advance access to due process and justice, commitments that this country has made to all those live here, commitments that are sacrosanct, and commitments that make this country great. We also work with movement building organizations, supporting them in their advocacy for immigrant rights in communities nationwide.
Historically, our Clinic has really grappled with a concept we call “crimmigration,” an issue that sits at the intersection of criminal and immigration law. It is really the child of two unfair laws that were passed in 1996 that dramatically changed the immigration landscape for the worse. These two laws make the immigration system so severe, so harsh, that a single marijuana offense can be enough to deport a green card holder, regardless of the fact that they call this country home, or how much time they’ve spent here, or of their contributions to their families and communities, or any other positive facts about them. The story of crimmigration is the story of racial profiling. It is the story of stop and frisk. Because, as we know, those that are targeted by our criminal legal system are more likely to be subject to these harsh laws.
The story of crimmigration is also the story of double punishment. And the story of members of our communities being plucked from their neighborhoods, placed in civil detention, in jumpsuits, shackled, and labeled immigration violators.
I litigate these issues because I believe they are unfair. They do not reflect the ideals of this country, but reflect what our laws and policies can do when they go unchecked. They can tear apart our families, disrupt our communities, and create intergenerational trauma.
Beyond crimmigration, there is another story. The story of the over 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. without a pathway to permanent status or citizenship. Our laws are written in quirky ways, such that some of these folks are married to U.S. citizens, with U.S. citizen children, and yet cannot seek status, because our laws do not permit it.
And there is the story of over 300,000 people with Temporary Protected Status, granted to those who hail from nations designated for protection because of an environmental disaster, like an earthquake, flood or drought, or an armed conflict, or some other extraordinary condition. Since January 2017, many of these designations have been terminated.
These are only a few stories and as you can imagine, there are a number of issues both to organize around and litigate.
Much of my work takes the form of individual representation. A child, a parent, a family, is placed in deportation proceedings, tasked with justifying their presence in the U.S. before an immigration judge and to defense themselves in cross-examination by a trail attorney that represents Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as “ICE”. I’ve asked myself countless times why we sanction this process. Why a young man, finishing college, with a U.S. citizen girlfriend and family members can be placed in deportation proceedings for jumping a turn style. Or a grandmother of 10 U.S. citizen children who shoplifted twenty years prior when she was struggling to find work can find herself on trial. Or why a family who sought immigration help from a “lawyer” who turns out to be a fraud suffers the consequence of immigration proceedings.
I ask myself these questions, and the only thing I can attribute it to is an unjust and unfair immigration system, that has grown more inequitable and destructive over time. IT breaks up families and banishes people from their homes, sometimes sending them back to impending danger, sometimes sending them back to languages and cultures unknown.
When I consider these injustices, I’m reminded of another Baldwin instructive. That our job is to examine society and try to change it. That is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.
I am committed to this mission, and I encourage you to do so as well. There are opportunities to become involved—not just as a lawyer, but as an advocate and friend. There are rallies to attend. Elected officials to call and demand that they take a stand about passing legislation that is “clean”, that does not use immigrant lives as bargaining chips. There is a New Sanctuary Coalition with which to volunteer, to accompany immigrant friends to proceedings and check-ins and bear witness to injustice.
Because we must never make peace with injustice.