Last month, I was privileged to attend the “Defend, Defy, Expand” conference in Philadelphia, organized by Mijente, BYP 100, the Undocublack Network, DRUM, and others, where we met leaders from Muslim, South Asian, Black, immigrant, Latinx, and trans communities, who are taking unprecedented action to build new alliances across multiple movements with the goal of advancing and expanding the concept of sanctuary. This means making our shared communities safer for all of us, in particular for those who are most at risk. At the heart of the expanded sanctuary concept is the need to end criminalization, a shared threat that extends across communities.
What is criminalization?
Simply put, “criminalization” refers to the stereotyping and treatment of whole communities as “criminal” or “terrorist,” rather than responding to the actions people take as individuals. The experience of being “criminalized” is something that at-risk communities – trans, undocumented, Muslim, and Black – have in common. For communities who directly encounter the immigration enforcement, criminal justice, and national security systems every day, the reality of this problem, and the need to combat it, are readily apparent.
How communities are criminalized
The Movement for Black Lives has brought national attention to the way in which Black neighborhoods are over-policed and subjected to unfair and invasive law enforcement tactics like “stop and frisk,” which violate constitutional rights and fuel mass incarceration. Similarly, Muslim people have faced racial profiling and invasive surveillance through various programs, including a notorious post-9/11 New York City Police Department program that infiltrated Muslim houses of worship with a network of informants and which was ultimately halted by court order because it violated civil rights protections.
Undocumented immigrants meanwhile are being increasingly threatened with federal criminal charges for “illegal entry,” “illegal reentry,” and other crimes that are related solely to immigration status, and which already make up a majority of federal criminal prosecutions nationwide. The current administration has even started threatening to lock up immigrant parents on “human trafficking” charges if they hire a coyote, or smuggler, to bring their children to the United States—even though this is often the only way for asylum-seekers and others to reach safety, since criminal networks control most of the border crossings.
Grassroots organizations like the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project describe the way in which transgender and gender non-conforming people are often profiled and harassed by police on the false assumption that they are sex workers. Stereotypes and prejudices about trans people as “dangerous” has likewise been central in recent attempts to roll back trans civil rights through various state “bathroom bills.” One recent ad campaign, funded by an anti-LGBTQI hate group in Texas, depicts trans people as sex offenders who will use gender inclusive bathroom policies to attack women and girls.
Trans people also face exceptionally high rates of housing and employment discrimination, which forces many into poverty and homelessness and leads, in turn, to what advocates describe as “crimes of survival.” These are offenses like loitering or public urination that while technically criminal offenses, are almost impossible to avoid for people who are denied a decent place to live and a chance for lawful employment.
Persecuting at-risk communities
The cruelest irony of criminalization is that it treats as dangerous the very people who are often most at risk. Black Muslim immigrants, including the large Somali refugee community in the United States, endure stigmatization as potential “terrorists” and “criminals” due to intersection of their multiple identities. Yet, they are themselves at grave risk of suffering terrorism and violence in the form of hate crimes for precisely this reason. Earlier this year, a group of white supremacists plotted to bomb an apartment complex because its residents were Somali immigrants. Fortunately, the plot was foiled before it could be carried out, but it is a terrifying reminder of the potential for violence set off by government policies that stereotype and stigmatize whole communities.
Politicians and lobbyists have long exploited the rhetoric of criminalization, often because there are powerful interests with a stake in maintaining systems of mass incarceration, detention, and deportation. For example, criminalization benefits the private prison industry; airlines that contract to carry out deportation flights; and international telecom companies that rely on the cheap labor of English-speaking deportees to work in call centers. The Trump administration has carried this discourse to a fever pitch, demanding a national “stop-and-frisk” policy on the campaign trail and creating an office to monitor crimes committed by “illegal immigrants,” as if offenses are somehow worse when committed by undocumented people than when they are done by citizens.
Why should we resist and take action against criminalization?
Criminalization is a threat to our values as people of conscience. We resist the criminalization and stigmatization of whole communities because we believe that every individual has worth and dignity as an individual. This means that we all have the right to be judged on the merits of our actions, not on the basis of stereotypes about our identities. Not only is this a minimal requirement of fairness, it is also crucial to the right to due process.
For those of us, like myself, who grew up in privileged settings where federal agents and law enforcement were not a daily feature of life, the concept of “criminalization” is not always intuitive. Meeting community leaders who are on the front lines of the struggle for dignity and sanctuary, has shown me why it is so important to gain a clearer understanding of this term and resist efforts to legalize discrimination. Confronting criminalization and ending it is key to creating communities that will be genuine sanctuaries for all.