There are countless ways the criminal legal system in America makes us ask, “Is this fair?” One of the most overlooked injustices is the way that immigrants with criminal convictions — from the undocumented to permanent residents — can serve their sentence but never escape punishment. My character, Maritza, and her friend Blanca bring this story to life in the final season of “Orange is the New Black.”
No need for a spoiler alert: Martiza’s and Blanca’s story isn’t anything new. It has been happening in America for the past 20 years. They say the best fiction mirrors reality. If that’s true, then America should take a hard look at its reflection.
In the show, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests Maritza at a nightclub raid and picks up Blanca directly from prison after the completion of her sentence, sending both to detention facilities. Neither woman knew she was at risk of apprehension, detention and removal. Maritza, whose parents brought her to the United States at a young age, always assumed she was a U.S. citizen. Blanca — a green card holder — didn’t realize that her guilty plea for involvement in a prison riot, entered into on the promise of early release, would threaten her permanent legal resident status.
But in real life as well as on screen, if you are born outside the country, the type of offense you commit matters little and serving your sentence doesn’t matter at all. As an immigrant, even a lawful resident who has done his or her time, your immigration status can be taken away even after you’re released and are back contributing to your family and community — no matter how many years have passed since your offense. ICE can swoop in and deliver a punishment that’s often far worse than the original criminal sentence: deportation.
The sad fact is that this isn’t a flaw of the system; it’s the intentional design. It is a system created by two specific laws passed in 1996 that bulldoze over justice, due process and second chances.
The laws — the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) — vastly expanded the type of offenses that mandate immigrants’ detention and the criminal grounds for deportation, fast-tracking some cases without any due process. A drug possession offense from decades ago or several petty thefts can trigger detention in ICE boxes and cages. They create a situation where even lawful residents are fearful that any misstep could render them invisible, behind bars, exiled from the country or otherwise unable to see their families.
These are laws we must join together through legislative action to repeal.
The inhumane 1996 laws are exacerbated by an administration that has consistently attacked immigrants. When detention and deportation are mandatory for so many, as it continues to be, the courts become little more than a funnel that spits immigrants out to countries that may be unfamiliar or dangerous for them.
There is rarely any examination of evidence or rehabilitation or consideration of individual circumstances and the immigrant’s ties to the U.S. It’s nearly impossible to provide such evidence without an attorney, and even with counsel, the 1996 laws have tied judges hands in many cases. We’re left with a system where even children as young as 3 take the stand for themselves. Since deportation proceedings are civil cases, immigrants aren’t automatically provided legal counsel, and many can’t afford it.
Worse yet, there is an entire private industry that profits off this draconian and aggressive deportation and incarceration system. Federal funding for detention centers is up, paying the company $150 per day per detainee. Private prisons, like the one in the show, are able to profit from more ICE agents on the streets (thanks to the Trump administration’s aggressive enforcement), a huge list of deportable offenses that keep detention beds full, and mandatory detention and deportation rules that ensure rapid turnover.
I saw the impact of these laws and of immigrant detention on my own family. When I was only 14, I came home one day after school to a table full of food and an empty house.
In an instant, ICE had taken my entire family. My mom, dad and older brother were ripped from my life. Unlike me, they hadn’t been born here and lacked citizenship status. They were taken to a detention center and I was left to fend for myself.
I visited them often in detention as they were going through their deportation proceedings. At first, I held out hope, but as we see on “Orange Is the New Black,” the government isn’t required to provide legal counsel or a public defender in deportation proceedings. My own family couldn’t afford or even access a lawyer, and they were soon sent back to Colombia.
Luckily, I was taken in by one of my friend’s parents. But my relationship with my family was now limited to phone calls and annual visits to Colombia during the summer. Growing up, every major moment in my life that I look back on with joy — recitals, proms, graduations — I also look back on with heartache because my family wasn’t there.
Like hundreds of other immigrants, I was caught in a system where there’s no such thing as a fair day in court, one that doesn’t provide legal representation and doesn’t care about the impact of leaving millions of children without their family or caregivers.
America doesn’t have to be this way. We can chart a new way forward by limiting the type of offenses that separate our families, restore the ability of judges to thoroughly examine immigration cases and abolish detention entirely.
I’ve joined the Immigrant Legal Resource Center campaigning for A New Way Forward, demanding that Congress right their past mistakes and dismantle the 1996 laws that tear families apart. I hope you will join me.
“OITNB” is a great show, but remember — while the show ends, the reality continues. Let’s create a better justice system that respects the dignity of all so that stories like mine and Maritza’s will someday only be fiction, and the snapshot of our country will reflect what we want it to stand for.