People With Felonies, Criminal Records and Gang Affiliation Are Our Friends and Family
Every single bit of positive change that comes from President Obama’s executive order on immigration is a testament to directly affected grassroots organizers who have been creative and relentless. The activism of radical “undocumented and unafraid” people, particularly civil disobedience and direct actions including taking over Obama for America offices and infiltrating detention centers, and the courage of the “Bring them Home” and “Not One More” campaigns are major interventions that embarrassed the administration — the first efforts pushing President Obama to first grant DACA and now temporary relief to an estimated 3.7 million “deserving” people, potentially. At the same time, after years of risky activism, the parents of brave young undocumented organizers will not be covered — that’s a cynical, willfully cruel choice by the President and a blow to the heart of the movement. Their exclusion is unjust. The exclusion of individuals with criminal convictions continues. Families for Freedom members have convictions, many of them felonies and we continue to be labeled as undeserving. So while we are glad for our friends and allies who fought with integrity and achieved temporary relief, the spirit of “celebration” is not what our families are feeling, but rather the spirit of resistance and revolution. We celebrate organizing and creative action — we celebrate the activism and self-determination of people who fight for the human rights they are denied — we celebrate fierce love in the face of hate.
Families for Freedom (FFF) is comprised of current and former detainees/deportees and their loved ones. Our lives have been directly affected by the intersection of the criminal legal system and the U.S. deportation machine. We believe everyone has the right to remain and reintegrate into their communities and be reunited with their families with their human rights intact — we believe the same is true for those who were born with U.S. citizenship and had contact with the penal system and we also believe that for people who were not born in this country. People are born with human rights — these must not be denied or bestowed upon people by nations under the guise of citizenship.
President Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya, who is part of a mixed status family who had an undocumented aunt and has a formerly undocumented uncle with a conviction, says, “If you’re a criminal — you’ll be deported… Felons, not families … Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” We denounce the President’s statement and the insensitive and criminalizing language that needlessly pits people, families, communities and movements against one another. People with felonies have families. People with criminal records have children. Working mothers and their children have been criminalized through gang databases. We are all family and friends.
Blacks and Latinos disproportionately represent the largest number of people apprehended, convicted and incarcerated in the criminal legal system. Nearly 95 percent of all felony cases result in guilty pleas. More than one in four adults in the U.S. have an arrest or criminal record that shows up in routine criminal background checks. In the era of mass criminalization and incarceration, dubbed the “New Jim Crow”, there are more black people convicted and locked up now than there were enslaved before the civil war. It’s known the world over that due to mass incarceration the United States’ human rights record is shameful. The “New Jim Crow” and the normalization of such suffering hinges upon the language championed by President Obama. It is the shaming language of respectability, and it denies both redemption and the context in which people of color are criminalized in the U.S.
Sadly, President Obama’s recent speech fits a historic and racist framework through which we can describe the exclusion and banishment of people with felonies who are detained and deported. It is simply felony disenfranchisement that further strips people of their human rights. Felony disenfranchisement has been normalized in the United States denying “one in every 13 black persons of the right to vote — a rate four times that of non-blacks nationally.” According to a New York Times article, state felony bans championed by white supremacists exploded in number during the late 1860s and 1870s, particularly in the wake of the Fifteenth Amendment, which ostensibly guaranteed black Americans the right to vote. Today, people with felonies do not have meaningful access to housing, employment, and education, and they are denied the right to actively and safely participate in social, economic and political life. And now non-citizens with felonies are denied the right to remain with their families and to reintegrate into their communities. Even while some parents of citizens will be eligible for relief through Executive Action — parents with felonies and their families will remain vulnerable.
President Obama’s speech and policy are completely regressive and disconnected from reforms happening in the criminal justice system. The nation is making some progress on reintegrating the formerly incarcerated into communities, supported by the Justice Department’s Second Chance Act. The directly affected people leading the criminal justice movement are assisting individuals to reenter society after incarceration by gaining back voting rights and access to education and curbing discriminatory hiring and housing practices. The criminal justice movement is fighting back against blatant violations of civil and human rights. We will not let the President’s words break our solidarity.
If more of us build and organize based on confronting the root causes of oppression our work will just look much different. It will be difficult, but it is already difficult now. For example, we should return to the conversation of repealing the 1996 immigration laws; we can denounce mass incarceration and the corporations that profit from it; we can organize globally against policies that displace us from the global south. We must denounce further criminalization and banishment and remain focused on creating a human rights agenda with our own solutions that address lasting systemic change.