The Criminalization of Poverty Intrudes on the Immigration Debate


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At midnight last Friday, the United States federal government shut down.

This was not, as Republicans would have you believe, because Democrats refused to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Everyone wanted to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program – though it clearly wasn’t a priority for those congressional Republicans who let the program go 114 days without a budget when a straightforward bill giving it just that would have passed with a several-hundred vote cushion.

The shutdown, which ended with the passage of a continuing resolution funding CHIP on Monday, wasn’t about any of that. It was about DACA.

On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s plans to repeal the program – which has allows people brought to the United States illegally as children to stay in the country – in six months time.

Since then, Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have been pushing to pass legislation that would protect the some 800,000 beneficiaries of the program from deportation.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans agree that DACA recipients should be allowed to stay in the U.S. The problem is that Stephen Miller and John Kelly, the men who appear to be running the White House, functionally don’t want Dreamers in the country at all – and neither does the nativist right wing of the Republican congressional caucus.

What would the nativist, we-want-more-Norwegians wing of the Republican party do with DACA recipients and the immigration system? There’s a bill, written by four House Republicans and endorsed by the president, that tells us.

In its 414-page entirety, the Securing America’s Future Act is an ugly, unwieldy piece of legislation. It would, among other things, slash legal immigration, make it exponentially harder for those in need to attain asylum, federalize the e-verify program, and dump $124 billion over the next five years into border security at a time when illegal immigration is steadily declining anyway.

But the perhaps the worst thing about this bill – as outlined furiously by the Charles Koch-founded Cato Institute, of all think tanks – is that it would make it illegal for Dreamers to fall into poverty.

That’s right. Adult DACA recipients not enrolled in college who fall below 125 percent of the federal poverty line for more than 90 days could lose their legal status and be subject to deportation.

The bill would, literally, make it a crime for certain people to be poor.

Not A Crime To Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America, happens to be the name of a new book published last year from Georgetown law professor and former Clinton administration counselor Peter Edelman.

The era of mass incarceration is best understood as a backlash against the progress of the Civil Rights Era. But what Edelman’s book meticulously documents is that it has also been about something else.

“To understand America’s new impulse to make being poor a crime,” Edelman writes, “one has to follow the trail of tax cuts that began in the Reagan era, which created revenue gaps all over the country.

“The anti-tax lobby told voters they would get something for nothing: the state or municipality would tighten its belt a little, it would collect big money from low-level offenders, and everything would be fine.

“Deep budget cuts ensued, and the onus of paying for our justice system – from courts to law enforcement agencies and even other arms of government – began to shift to the “users” of the courts, including those least equipped to pay.”

Nowhere was this shift more evident than in the Department of Justice’s groundbreaking report on policing in Ferguson, which was published in the spring of 2015 in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown.

There, the the DOJ found, the mission of the police department was plainly financial – to pay for itself, and whatever else it could. “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices,” it stated, “are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than public safety needs.”

It linked the emphasis on revenue to “a pattern of unconstitutional policing” in a city where people were routinely thrown in jail for failing to pay a fine on time or in full and then were released owing exactly as much money as they did before they were jailed.

In a country where black people are arrested five times more often than white people, and especially in a city like Ferguson, where the city’s 67 percent black population accounted for 97 percent of the arrests by its 83 percent white police force, this approach is deadly.

Once you’re ensnared in the criminal justice system, you better have means. 43 states charge you for your use of a public defender. 44 charge you for the cost of your probation or parole – be it an ankle bracelet, or drug tests, or home supervision, or all of it, or more.

In California in 2014, running a red light cost you $100 – and then $449 more in fines and fees. Bail, even for the most minor of offenses, can cost thousands of dollars. If you can’t pay it, you go to jail.

A study published Journal of Legal Studies last February found that the assignment of bail alone – in any amount – makes a conviction 12 percent more likely. Why? Partially because defendants who can’t afford bail have to choose to either accept a guilty plea or stay behind bars. They often opt for the former, whether they are guilty or not.

It’s coercion. The practice of arresting people for minor offenses, assigning them exorbitant bail, and locking them up was especially common in Ferguson. There, in 2007, one woman went to jail for six days and had to pay some $1,000 all for the heinous crime of parking her car illegally.

If you can’t pay a fine, you might get hit with another fine. Plus interest. Or you might have your driver’s license suspended. If you can’t drive, you can’t get to your job. If you can’t get to your job, you’re likely not going to be able to pay your now-mounting fines. Or you might just get thrown in jail.

If you do have financial resources, you’ll be fine. You’ll be able to pay and move on. But if you don’t have money, a speeding ticket can destroy your life – and which communities in America have both been historically impoverished and targeted by police?

If you’re homeless, good luck. If you’re mentally ill, good luck. There’s no money for mental hospitals, but there are jails to put you in – plenty of them privately operated – and laws like those against noise and trespassing that will put you there.

That’s how you criminalize poverty. That’s how you get an officer in Ferguson calling an African-American woman’s abortion “crime control”. It’s how you get the senior editor of The American Conservative writing that public housing imports “the destructive culture of the poor”.

Republican policy and rhetoric has changed little in the Trump era. It’s just gotten more explicit. Instead of “state’s rights” and “forced bussing,” it’s “rapists,” and “shitholes.”

Instead of a $1,000 parking ticket, it’s we will simply deport you if you have the audacity to be an immigrant and poor in this country at the same time.

The Securing America’s Future Act won’t become law. But the thinking it reflects has corrupted nearly every aspect of the justice system, and countless American lives.

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