Transforming America’s Policing and Immigration Systems

Many Americans are considering how to transform their police departments in the wake of abuses against citizens, particularly African Americans. There have been numerous proposals to help ensure that the police do not mistreat people and do a better job fighting crime. These include ending overcriminalization and reallocating some police resources to other entities. These ideas for revamping the police also could be applied to transforming America’s immigration regime, which is similarly characterized by an overly broad set of laws to enforce and a misuse of resources. 

Transforming America’s Police

Ending Overcriminalization

To revamp policing in the U.S., overcriminalization must be confronted. As Seth Stoughton, Jeffrey Noble, and Geoffrey Alpert note, there are so many laws that violations are ubiquitous. If everyone is a criminal, officers have almost unfettered discretion to pick and choose which laws to enforce and whom to stop, frisk, search, or arrest.” (See also here.) This empowers the police to unfairly target minorities, among other problems. Christy Lopez of Georgetown Law School adds that “police themselves often complain about having to ‘do too much,’ including handling social problems for which they are ill-equipped. Some have been vocal about the need to decriminalize social problems and take police out of the equation.”

Decriminalizing or legalizing the use and sale of drugs that are currently illegal would be a significant step towards tackling overcriminalization. The war on drugs has resulted in violent interactions between the police and civilians, sometimes leading to deaths, such as the police shooting of Breonna Taylor. Furthermore, as I related in a previous post, minority communities have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs, with huge numbers of people imprisoned and permanently disadvantaged after their release from prison. (See also here.) Eliminating the laws on which the war on drugs is based would greatly benefit millions of people and save enormous amounts of money currently spent on enforcement and incarceration.

Reallocating Resources and Focusing on Actual Criminal Threats

Ending the war on drugs would mean that drug addiction would be treated by healthcare workers and counselors rather than involving the police, and drug commerce could be regulated by agencies not affiliated with the police. It also would mean that money previously used for enforcing the drug laws would be transferred from police departments to these other entities.

Drug use is not the only area where the police should defer to other professionals and where resources should be redistributed. Stoughton, Noble, and Alpert state that “for too long, the hammer of criminal law has been used against a wide array of social ills. The result is police over-involvement in matters that would be far better left to other government institutions and social-service providers, including school discipline, poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse.Cases in which people are in mental distress also could be better addressed by mental health providers and others rather than by the police.

After releasing police from the responsibility to address situations that could be better handled by others, police should focus on the few people in communities who commit most crimes. German Lopez states in a Vox article that

the vast majority of crime in communities is perpetrated by just a few people in a few specific parts of the city… If police focus on just these few blocks and, specifically, individuals — through policing strategies known as “hot-spot policing” and “focused deterrence” — they can stop and deter a lot of crimes in their cities.

This approach also “can limit who’s directly impacted by policing — by targeting a few people in a few areas, instead of sweeping whole neighborhoods with aggressive stops.”

Transforming the U.S. Immigration System

Curtailing the Scope of Immigration Laws

Due to the considerable legal restrictions on immigration, everyone who attempts to immigrate legally to the U.S. is scrutinized by the authorities to ensure that they a meet an extensive list of requirements which are full of virtual trapdoors, just as overcriminalization makes virtually everyone in the U.S. a lawbreaker and vulnerable to being targeted by the police. The limitations on immigration mean that most of the world’s inhabitants are ineligible to even apply to immigrate. Even those individuals who are candidates to immigrate because of a family connection, job offer, or other attribute must overcome “grounds of inadmissibility.” Furthermore, the Trump administration has made the grounds of inadmissibility even more challenging, as well as creating other barriers for immigrants. 

The consequences of the current immigration laws are devastating. They force large numbers of people to remain in other countries where they may experience economic deprivation, unsafe conditions, or separation from family in the U.S. Those immigrants who attempt to circumvent the barriers by crossing the border without authorization or by overstaying a temporary visa face potential physical abuse by immigration agents, detention, deportation, and mistreatment by non-government actors, as well as death in deserts and at sea. Like the frequent murder or mistreatment of civilians by American police stemming from suspicion of nonviolent misdeeds, such as selling cigarettes on the street or using a counterfeit bill, there is a glaring mismatch between the violence and coercion inflicted by immigration authorities and the mere movement of people from one country to another to, in the overwhelming majority of cases, improve their lives through hard work. (See also here.)   

In addition, like the police’s reliance on abundant legal foundations to profile minorities, the current immigration laws enable the stopping of individuals based on perceived unauthorized statusespecially with greater police involvement in immigration enforcement.    

Furthermore, just as the distrust generated by overpolicing has led to a reluctance of many civilians to contact the police when they are actually needed, many Latinos do not call the police for help out of fear that the police will inquire about their immigration status.

For over a century, immigrants and would-be immigrants have been negatively impacted by American immigration laws, immoral constructs that arose primarily based on racism. (See also here.) This has inflicted immense suffering on millions of people. At the same time, those who have managed to immigrate to the U.S. have enriched it economically and culturally. 

Eliminating most immigration restrictions would benefit the vast majority of people who wish to move to the U.S., end unnecessary suffering, and benefit the country.

Reallocating Immigration Enforcement Resources to Focus on Actual Threats to the Country

On land borders, at airports and other ports of entry, at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, and within the U.S. itself, American agents are tasked with extensively screening foreign nationals wishing to gain legal residency in the U.S. In addition, internal agencies such as ICE enforce immigration laws, and immigration judges are overwhelmed with immigration cases. Moreover, Customs and Border Protection agents patrol the border and apprehend immigrants. Every day thousands of immigrants are incarcerated. (CBP also daily screens hundreds of thousands of visitors and returning citizens and legal residents entering the country by land, air, and sea, checks for illicit or hazardous materials in cars, trucks, ships, planes, and trains, and processes and collects duties on merchandise. Many of these duties benefit the U.S., including the detention of wanted criminals, seizing products that violate intellectual property rights, preventing the entry of pests, plants, and soil that could harm farms and habitats, and stopping the trafficking of wildlife. CBP also helps to enforce quarantine orders to help stop the spread of communicable diseases.)

However, the current immigration system was unable to prevent the 9/11 attacks, which were perpetrated by temporary visitors to the U.S. As I have argued, an immigration system with few restrictions, but with rigorous screening to keep out people who could threaten the country by entering temporarily or permanently, might do a better job preventing terrorism than our current system. Without having to consider a multitude of requirements for allowing people to immigrate, authorities could better focus on screening entrants for their threat to national security. (At the same time, domestic right wing terrorism appears to be a threat that is not being adequately addressed.)

Currently, the greatest threat to the U.S. is the coronavirus.  Our current immigration system was unable to stop its entry into the country, although it is unlikely that any system could have prevented its entry, given its ability to spread asymptomatically and our initial lack of knowledge about the virus. A poor response by all levels of government and many individuals has magnified its deadly impact.

Resources are needed to develop an infrastructure that better controls the spread of coronavirus and that will provide a better response to future viruses. Given our increasing knowledge about the virus, it appears to be important to devote additional resources to better address it domestically through increased testing, tracing, mask wearing, social distancing, and targeted quarantining, as well as research on therapies and vaccines. Resources also need to be devoted to coordinating an international response and to monitoring the outbreak of new viruses in certain regions of the world.

With the largest number of people infected by the virus in the world, the U.S. should be more concerned about exporting the virus than importing it. Trump has used the pandemic as an excuse to bar most immigrants from entering the U.S. (while continuing to allow U.S. citizens and permanent residents as well as visitors from some countries to enter the U.S. from abroad). Instead of suspending immigration, the U.S. should focus on screening people entering the U.S. and people leaving the country for the virus. As the CDC notes, this “can be resource intensive.” 

The money saved by not checking immigrants based on extensive restrictions, by not arresting, detaining, and deporting immigrants, and by not adjudicating immense numbers of immigration cases could be reallocated to better screen for terrorist threats from abroad, to fight domestic terrorism, and, above all, to control the spread of the coronavirus and future viruses, as well as to bolster the current functions of the CBP which don’t involve immigration.

Sonia Shah, the author of The Next Great Migration, highlights the importance of migration for humans. She states:

… how did migration come to be such a prominent part of our history? It’s because its benefits outweighed its risks over the long-term. So this whole idea of migration as a crisis is what I’m trying to kind of interrogate. And it seems to me that it could be just the opposite, that migration isn’t the crisis, migration is the solution.  

If migration is the solution for people in countries who are experiencing deprivation, violence, climate change, and other hardships, and given the lack of justification for blocking their movement to another country in most cases, it is time to transform our immigration laws and reallocate the resources that are being used to enforce them. Both the police and the U.S. government should stop unjustifiably harming and harassing millions of people and focus on protecting the country from actual threats.

 

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

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