Treating immigrants like criminals has a long history in the United StatesBreaking News
Melina Juárez Pérez is an instructor of political science and women, gender and sexuality studies at Western Washington University, specializing in immigration and intersectional Latinx politics.
After much publicity, the Trump administration did not carry through its plans to detain 2,000 immigrant families and children last weekend. Nevertheless, the planned raids caused fear among immigrant communities, and the threat of more raids remains. These enforcement tactics are just one way in which the Trump administration’s immigration policy has created controversy, leading many critics to call it overly punitive and even immoral.
But Trump’s policies are not a sharp break with the past. They are the continuation of a longer trend. As my research shows, U.S. policy toward immigrants has become increasingly criminalized, and this has important consequences not only for the immigrants crossing the border now, but arguably for policy even after Trump leaves the White House.
The long history of criminalizing immigration
The increasing overlap in criminal justice and immigration systems, or “crimmigration,” has its roots nearly 40 years ago. It began in the 1980s when War on Drugs rhetoric clashed with Cold War politics off the Florida coast.
In 1980, the Mariel Boatlift brought 100,000 Cubans along with 15,000 Haitians to U.S. shores. The arrival of the refugees compounded already tense racial, class, and political tensions among established Cubans, whites, and African Americans in Miami.
That same year, as a means to quell the growing conflict, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) opened the Krome Detention Center less than 20 miles from downtown Miami to hold asylum seekers during their asylum claims process. Krome became a prototype for immigrant detention centers we see today. And just as today, immigrant detainment was based on associations between criminality, drug use and race. Haitians in particular have faced negative stereotypes that were compounded by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s — long before Trump gave voice to those stereotypes by calling Haiti a “shithole” country.
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