How America Could Become a ‘Papers Please’ Country for Brown People

Not enough attention has been paid to why citizens of this country who happen to have “brown” skin are terrified of Donald Trump’s immigration policies—especially the detain and deport ’em all approach to undocumented immigrants. This report by Paige St. John and Joel Rubin demonstrates why they have a reason to be afraid.

Immigration officers in the United States operate under a cardinal rule: Keep your hands off Americans.

But Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents repeatedly target U.S. citizens for deportation by mistake, making wrongful arrests based on incomplete government records, bad data and lax investigations, according to a Times review of federal lawsuits, internal ICE documents and interviews.

Since 2012, ICE has released from its custody more than 1,480 people after investigating their citizenship claims, according to agency figures. And a Times review of Department of Justice records and interviews with immigration attorneys uncovered hundreds of additional cases in the country’s immigration courts in which people were forced to prove they are Americans and sometimes spent months or even years in detention.

Victims include a landscaper snatched in a Home Depot parking lot in Rialto and held for days despite his son’s attempts to show agents the man’s U.S. passport; a New York resident locked up for more than three years fighting deportation efforts after a federal agent mistook his father for someone who wasn’t a U.S. citizen; and a Rhode Island housekeeper mistakenly targeted twice, resulting in her spending a night in prison the second time even though her husband had brought her U.S. passport to a court hearing.

Think about it for a moment: if ICE detained you or a loved one because they assumed you were undocumented, how long would it take you to round up documents to prove your citizenship…drivers licenses don’t count. Those of us who have been privileged to travel abroad would probably have quick access to a passport and/or birth certificate. But that doesn’t apply to millions of Americans who have never done so.

Besides, notice that in some of the cases described above, the burden of proof of citizenship fell on the person detained—not the officers who locked them up. That means that, as ICE becomes much more aggressive in their approach, we run the risk of becoming a “papers please” country for brown people.

I remember being horrified in 2008 when the Bush administration performed this country’s largest workplace immigration raid in Laurel, Mississippi. The ACLU reported that workers in the plant were “segregated by race,” meaning that if your were brown, you had to produce your papers and if you were white, you were free to go.

That is the kind of hell that is unleashed on all brown people in this country when anti-immigrant fears are flamed. I can’t speak for everyone else, but that is not the kind of country I want ours to become.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.