The “Crimmigration” Conversation

The intersection of criminal and immigration law is complicated. That’s why several academic departments joined to host “Crimmigration in the Era of Trump: A Conversation on the Deportation Consequences of Criminal Conviction” on Thursday, April 13. 

The sociology department, along with the anthropology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies departments, held the conversation as part of an event series this semester. The series aims to show solidarity and resistance in support of Latino students during a time of racism and xenophobia in the United States, according to anthropology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies professor Ben Junge. 

Students, faculty and community members participated in the talk in the Honors Center from 1 to 3 p.m. Guest speakers Khalil Cumberbatch of JustLeadershipUSA and Robert Horne of Legal Aid Society in Westchester gave their insights on the topic, with sociology professor Dr. Alexandra Cox moderating the discussion.

“They both have distinguished themselves as people working in the trenches trying to address this pressing concern around immigration,” Cox said. “It’s the hardest work, and that’s why I wanted to bring the best of the best here to talk about it because it really impacts our region and our students.”

First, Cumberbatch offered his personal story to the group. He is manager of trainings at JustLeadershipUSA, an advocacy and policy reform organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. He said he approaches his work “as someone who’s been directly impacted.”

Cumberbatch served 6 and a half years in the criminal justice system for a felony conviction. In 2010, he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He had been out of prison for four years at that point, and in that time earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and was gainfully employed.

“Here I was four years after being home and doing everything the system asked me to do and even more, and the system was still dragging me back in,” Cumberbatch said. 

Cumberbatch was able to stay in the country due to prosecutorial discretion, which was granted to him by the federal government after friends advocated on his behalf and past professors sent letters vouching for his character.

According to Horne, who provides legal assistance to attorneys in criminal cases related to deportation, the law is complicated and Cumberbatch certainly got lucky. He said that, in Cumberbatch’s case, an aggravated felony conviction, would normally lead to deportation for a noncitizen. 

“Unfortunately if [Cumberbatch] were in the system today [he] would have a completely different story,” Horne said. “Paying attention to deportation consequences of criminal convictions has never been more relevant.”

As far as the actual law goes, Horne said that nothing has changed since President Donald Trump took office. In 1996, the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRAIRA) significantly expanded immigration law, including changes in which criminal offenses are considered deportable and in removal procedures. 

“Every president has enforced immigration laws and it’s increased with each presidency,” Horne said. “Obama actually deported more people than anybody else.”

The country still operates under the 1996 law, however under Trump, Horne said that enforcement has increased and the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), created under the Obama administration, is no longer policy. Therefore many more noncitizens are a priority for deportation, and there is “a much greater ICE presence.” This includes in courthouses of sanctuary cities, where confrontations have occurred, according to Horne.

To wrap up the discussion, Cox asked: “What can we do?” 

Cumberbatch argued that shifting the narrative is key. 

“We’re talking about people in the criminal justice system, we’re talking about men and women who face deportation, men and women in detention centers,” he said. “That language is surprisingly the thing that’s going to shift the narrative.”

He stressed that he is not an exceptional person and the fact that others do not have access to the opportunities he did is “a crime in itself.” He also said that advocates need to pressure government officials to get things done, noting the “Close Rikers Island” campaign as a successful example of this.

“It has to be a grassroots effort,” he said. “If you wait for states or federal government to do anything, you’re waiting a very long time.”