by Claire G. Gastanaga, Executive Director
Some question why the ACLU is engaged in the national conversation about immigration reform, or why the ACLU of Virginia has worked in coalition with other groups against anti-immigrant legislation proposed in the General Assembly. The answer is simple. Immigrant rights are civil rights.
The fundamental constitutional protections of due process and equal protection embodied in our Constitution and Bill of Rights apply to every “person” and are not limited to citizens. Thus, the ACLU seeks to protect the civil liberties and civil rights of all persons, regardless of their immigration status.
Sadly, we have witnessed throughout American history the abhorrent consequences of creating an “underclass” of people living without the Constitution’s full protections. Immigrants have long been exploited in employment and have frequently been the targets of abuse.
The broken immigration system continues to contribute to the existence of this underclass of people — many of whom are from communities of color — who are marginalized and subject to abuses by service providers, domestic partners and employers, and who are not afforded the full protections of the Constitution or laws of the United States either in criminal courts or during detention proceedings.
At the state level, anti-immigrant legislation is often inherently discriminatory, subjecting people of color or different language traditions to discriminatory policing or other violations of the Equal Protection clause, including employment discrimination. Such legislative measures are antithetical to our basic notions of fairness and justice. Moreover, they are counterproductive and undermine community policing efforts in which law enforcement officers and departments work to build trust with victims and witnesses. How can immigrants trust and help police in reporting or solving crimes if they fear they will be deported and their families will be torn apart?
At the national level, immigrants are often deprived of due process in the name of national security. In the last year, hundreds of thousands of people were detained administratively without an adequate bond hearing and without access to counsel. Migrant criminalization has fueled our pipeline to mass incarceration. Federal prisons are 40% over capacity, due in large part to indiscriminate prosecution of individuals for crossing the border without authorization, often to rejoin their families.
Finally, the push to create a national ID or employment verification system using biometric identification threatens our right to privacy and increases the risk of data breaches and identity theft and can lead to harassment and denial of access at TSA checkpoints, voting booths or gun permits.
These threats to civil liberties negatively impact all of us as they offend the basic tenets on which our country was founded. Legalization of aspiring citizens will help restore fairness to an immigration system under which 1.5 million people have been deported at a staggering cost in the last four years, leaving hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizen children without parents, and tens of thousands in foster care. Fundamental fairness as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution requires that we bring all aspiring Americans living in and contributing to the U.S. within the legal embrace and legal protections afforded by U.S. citizenship.