Op-Ed: How local D.A.s can help protect immigrant families from dangerous federal policies
In response to mounting pressure to address the influx of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, President Biden introduced a slate of new harsh policies earlier this month. That includes the expansion of a Trump-era policy to turn away asylum-seekers escaping persecution, an approach that Biden had previously criticized.
This decision comes amid historic levels of migration to the U.S. and at a time when the response to this crisis by federal and state elected officials has been cruel and chaotic. Rather than grapple with a serious and pressing problem, some have instead used migrants as political pawns by busing them across the country and initiated baseless efforts to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas.
As immigrants ourselves, we understand the devastation that inhumane and uncertain policies will bring. Like our own families, many migrants working their way through Latin America right now in the hopes of entering the U.S. may not have wanted to leave behind family, friends and the only homes they have known. They left because they had no other choice.
While immigration is an issue that can be solved only with bold federal leadership, local elected prosecutors have a critical role to play in responding to policies that can erode trust and thus endanger public safety.
One of us is currently a prosecutor, and the other is a former prosecutor. We know that anti-immigrant policies aren’t just inhumane; they’re also dangerous. Our criminal legal system depends on all members of the community to report crimes, cooperate with investigators, testify in court and join efforts to prevent future violence — but we cannot expect people to collaborate with a government they don’t trust.
Research has shown that Latinx people in the U.S., including both immigrants and U.S.-born citizens, are less likely to contact or offer information to the police if they have been the victim of, or witness to, a crime if they are afraid that officers will look into their or a loved one’s immigration status.
In Los Angeles, 60% of violent crimes never lead to an arrest. We must break down any barrier to detecting, solving and preventing crime, including cruel mandates that could deter participation from the third of the city’s residents who are immigrants, and the estimated 2.2 million non-citizens in the L.A. area who are at risk of deportation.
Elected prosecutors should prevent their local criminal legal systems from becoming a tool to target immigrants. They can do so by making sure immigrant victims, witnesses and defendants are able to enter courthouses without fear of being apprehended by immigration authorities, and by ensuring that witnesses aren’t asked about immigration status. And they can work with others to enact legislation or judicial orders barring immigration agents from making courthouse arrests; assign victims’ advocates to escort fearful undocumented witnesses or victims through the courthouse; and encourage law enforcement partners to refuse to participate in inhumane immigration arrests.
Further, noncitizens who are convicted of nonviolent misdemeanor convictions, which typically carry minimal penalties for citizens, often face a host of penalties beyond their actual sentences, such as apprehension by immigration authorities and deportation.
Several prosecutors’ offices, including the L.A. district attorney, have addressed this problem by requiring that prosecutors consider the immigration consequences of charging decisions and, wherever possible, try to avoid or mitigate immigration penalties. These policies are key in guaranteeing that immigrants, like other community members, are held accountable for what they’ve done, not punished for who they are.
District attorneys should also establish fair, transparent policies for U visas, which provide a legal pathway for noncitizens who report crimes to law enforcement to stay in the country. Federal law grants local prosecutors significant discretion to determine who is able to receive U visas in their jurisdictions, and they should use that power to make U visas widely accessible for eligible crime victims.
As our nation’s immigration debate rages on with no resolution in sight, we think about the individuals and decisions that made it possible for our own immigrant families to come to this country. While addressing national immigration challenges will require the president and Congress to grapple with needed reforms, there are others who have the power to make life-altering decisions that affect individuals now. We hope that every elected prosecutor will embrace their role in protecting and building trust with the immigrants in their communities, and promote everyone’s safety and well-being.
George Gascón is the Los Angeles County district attorney. Miriam Aroni Krinsky is founder and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor.
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