America Should Think Hard Before Deporting Undocumented Immigrants Like Me

01/18/2016 06:59 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2017
A barrier at an immigration point
A barrier at an immigration point

As Congress continues to debate whether to deport undocumented immigrants back to "where they belong," let's pause to consider what such a statement means. If you're anything like me, it should leave you perplexed.

Where exactly should undocumented immigrants reside? The truth is that removal is less of a question of where they belong but rather, where we think they belong. I'm talking about the millions of undocumented immigrants who are, like I once was, a product of poor decisions made by their relatives in an effort to secure their safety or give them a better life in America. Immigration and Customs Enforcement created a division specifically to target these people, put them into custody, and get rid of them. This is the process of deportation, otherwise known as removal proceedings.

I don't deny that there are illegal immigrants who have threatened our national security, but they should not have permission to taint the reputation of an entire group. For the handful of true perpetrators we have, we have far more people who are subjected to criminal treatment simply for being placed into circumstances beyond their control as minors. Almost a decade ago, I was one of those people. That memory will never leave me.

My charges were brought on by the Department of Justice. Standing at 5'4", 21 years of age, with a bachelor's degree under my belt and a masters degree on the way, the immigration judge ordered my deportation. It didn't matter that I had been raised in the U.S. for over 17 years, or that I was an orphan putting myself through school with the support of private funding.

What mattered to the U.S. government was getting rid of me to teach my deceased parents a lesson for failing to secure my status. But since my birth country of Zambia rejected me, and since returning to my parents' native Democratic Republic of Congo was unthinkable, it wasn't clear where I could go.

Echoing in my ears were the words of the immigration judge who threatened to deport me by sending me to where (he thought) I belonged. He thought I should be sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo despite its human rights violations such as systematic rape of women specifically in Eastern Congo and war taking place there. While my story is compelling, it is not unique. Thousands of other undocumented immigrants have been rejected by their birth country, don't identify with it, or are afraid to return to it.

"Well, there is a chance of going to a third country," my attorney at the time said matter of factly as if he expected me to make sense of his comment. What did he mean by a third country? A third country would be used to host me until I was able to convince either my country of origin or my destination country, the USA. When I asked my attorney for an example of a third country that would take me, he looked at me incredulously as if I had just asked him the most benign question. A third country for me could have been anywhere in the world that the U.S. could pawn me off, regardless of safety conditions or my fluency in the main language. While being deported to Mexico was a possibility for me, I knew that my experience would be the opposite of vacationing in Mexico City or Cancun.

What happened if a third country was unwilling to take me? The alternative was being sent to a detention facility indefinitely. Judging by the pace of the immigration process, being placed in detention would be a dead-end. This is where I would go to be forgotten. Because an average of 30,000 immigrants are in detention on any given day, The Department of Homeland Security often runs out of space in their facilities and people like me are placed in prisons with real criminals.

Being sent to a detention facility with prison-like conditions where allegations of physical abuse have been reported and where legal recourse is limited is just as dangerous as being deported to the Democratic Republic of Congo. I feared for my safety. If I was lucky enough to get a lawyer while in detention, I would have to compete with the cases that took precedence over mine.

At the time I was a student at the Maxwell School of Public Administration at Syracuse University, which provided me the access to educate myself about my rights and act as my own legal aid. I learned it would cost me an average of $85 per day to attend a four-year college, versus costing the government anywhere from $95 to $120 a day to keep me detained.

Our impulse is to want to send illegal immigrants back to where they belong, but it's imperative for us to be well-informed before making such decisions. Let's first consider the circumstances in which they ended up in our nation. We ought to also recognize the possibility that some of them may in fact belong in the U.S.

We should also admit our ignorance about the process of sending them back. If we were aware that their journey was most likely wrought with misinformation, delay, human rights abuses, and was expensive for the government involved, we might consider an alternate solution. It all begins with humanizing undocumented immigrants rather than seeing them as "them."