Now is the Test of Our Resolve

“For more than 200 years, our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities –- people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose. But today, our immigration system is broken — and everybody knows it.” President Obama, November 20, 2014

“Today we remind the rest of the nation that California is different,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles). “We respect immigrants and recognize the contribution that they have made to this state from the very beginning.” April 7, 2015

This was set to be a banner year for immigrant rights in the California state legislature. Legislators acknowledged that California, the most immigrant-rich state in the nation, could no longer afford to wait on the federal government to fix the nation’s broken immigration system. Policymakers decided to be “big and bold” in promoting and advancing immigrant rights in every arena this legislative session: access to health care, criminal justice reform, and civil rights. No one thought it would be easy. If it was easy, the federal government would have taken action already but, “We intend to set the model. We intend to set the tone,” declared a resolute Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.

Now that resolve is being put to the test. The tragic death of Kathryn Steinle at the hands of an undocumented immigrant has been twisted and distorted by opportunists intent on turning a horrific, chilling, and entirely unpredictable murder into a cudgel to beat back anything connected to protecting immigrant rights, including years of hard-won gains in acknowledging the unconstitutionality of ICE holds.

Mural by Martin Travers
Mural by Martin Travers

Though the release of Kathryn Steinle’s murderer from federal custody into local custody and from local custody into the public surely presents an opportunity for ICE to rethink its refusal to pursue warrants to arrest individuals who may be targets for deportation, we are doomed if we let this incident infect every area of our state and local policy efforts. Fear is rampant among immigrant communities, with rumors circulating rapidly of upcoming ICE raids and the potential for federal and local lawmakers to introduce legislation that will foster more collaboration between ICE and local law enforcement. Already we have seen this impact the advancement of certain components of the state immigrant rights legislative agenda.

But the public is more sophisticated than this and we expect our policy makers to be as well. The shooter in this case has become the Willie Horton of the immigrant rights movement. Horton, who was paroled from prison and then committed assault and rape, became the cautionary tale from which every politician sought distance. In reaction, politicians were lulled into a tough-on-crime stupor under which they passed law after law that led to an epidemic of mass incarceration, the consequences of which we’re only now beginning to wake up and confront. We have already seen this event influence some local, state, and federal lawmakers, afraid they’ll be labeled soft on immigration.

Though this incident could just as easily have been about our country’s deficient mental health services, the need for more drug treatment programs, gun violence, or problems presented by outdated warrants, it has instead spiraled into something poised to destruct so many important gains, including the tremendous will to push forward an immigrant rights agenda in the state legislature.

We cannot scapegoat an entire community based on the actions of this individual. We understand that our state thrives or withers by the success of our immigrant population. Try as he might, we cannot afford to let Donald Trump’s insidious diatribe drive our immigration policy.

“It is prosperity that gives us friends, adversity that proves them.” In these times of adversity it is clear that the resolve of our commitment to immigrant rights is now being put to the test. It is not too late for legislators and policy makers to have the good sense, commitment, fortitude to see past the smoke and mirrors and towards a more safe and just future for all.

Rose Cahn is a Senior Soros Justice Fellow and the founder of the Immigrant Post-Conviction Relief Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.