Simina Grecu, book review, Amanda Armenta, Protect, Serve, and Deport, AmeriQuests 14.1 (2017)

Amanda Armenta, Protect, Serve, and Deport: The Rise of Policing as Immigration Enforcement. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. 197 pp. US$25.14 (Paperback), ISBN 0520296303.

As an immigrant, and the wife of an Hispanic man whose family hails from Mexico, I like to think I’m not as oblivious to the plight of minorities in America as my fellow white native-born American counterparts. I wasn’t expecting this book to surprise me. If anything, I was only expecting it to confirm what I already knew: immigrants, particularly those who are not white, face marginalization, discrimination, hatred, and exclusion every day in America’s communities and on its streets. This timely and poignant book, however, reveals so much more. It exposes the frightening reality that discrimination against non-white immigrants is not only perpetrated by a handful of racist xenophobes—it is built into a complex and interwoven system of criminalization, which Armenta and other experts have come to call “crimmigration.”

This book explores the role of 287(g), a program implemented in Nashville in 2006, as a tool used by the local police to pursue, identify, criminalize, and deport undocumented immigrants, most of whom posed no threat to their communities. This program’s adoption in Nashville was justified, among other reasons, by pointing to a Tennessee traffic accident in which an undocumented immigrant named Gustavo Reyes Garcia crashed into a vehicle and killed a couple. In addition to being undocumented, Garcia had already been arrested dozens of times and had a 0.34% blood alcohol level at the time of the crash. When the story about the accident broke, the sole focus was Garcia’s immigration status, and the idea that if he had just been identified as an illegal immigrant the first time he was arrested, he could have been deported and the accident would have never happened. Instead of focusing on the DUI, which had been the real cause of the accident, the media highlighted his undocumented status, and through this focus, aimed all the blame at unauthorized Latino immigrants.

Davidson County sheriff Daron Hall immediately started looking into the 287(g) program, which had already been implemented in several counties throughout the United States. Just months later, Nashville became part of 287(g), and began training police officers to use traffic stops as a means to identify potential unauthorized immigrants, put the “ICE” stamp on them, and plug them into the state’s deportation machine. Under 287(g), if an officer pulled over a person who outwardly had the features society has learned to associate with unauthorized immigrants (dark skin, a Hispanic-sounding name, or the inability to speak perfect English), regardless of how minor the reason for the stop was, that person became a suspect of a much more serious crime. Thus, stops for minor traffic violations ceased being about making Nashville’s streets safer and became instead a mission to create a mass exodus of undocumented immigrants before they would all presumably commit serious crimes. Turning the local police into the government’s on-the-ground immigration enforcers sent a message to Nashville’s Latino community: the police aren’t here to protect you; they are here to protect your neighbors from you.

This book describes the government’s efforts, even before the 287(g) program, to ensure that undocumented immigrants became criminals simply by existing in the United States. In Tennessee, this was accomplished by no longer allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Of course, not being able to obtain licenses did not eliminate the need for undocumented immigrants to drive—they still had to earn a living, support their families, and live normal lives. Denying them the right to obtain a license simply trapped them in a net of criminality brought on by the fact that driving is a necessary part of living in almost every American city. This made it easy to label undocumented immigrants as criminals and make them instantly deportable on the pretext that once an individual has committed a crime, he or she is dangerous to the community. Today, it’s driving without a license. What will it be tomorrow? It wasn’t important that the state gave its undocumented immigrants no choice in the matter: driving without a license is illegal regardless of whether the government has actively dictated that you do not have the choice to obtain a license.

One of the brilliant points this book illustrates is that, deep down inside, everybody involved in the 287(g) program was aware of how innately wrong it was. This book is often comical in spite of its very serious topic, and one of the funniest phenomena it records is the perpetual finger-pointing that was taking place at all levels of Nashville’s 287(g) program. When speaking with the police officers making the stops, Armenta describes various ways in which the officers sought to absolve themselves of all blame connected with the program. They made themselves feel better by sometimes giving potentially undocumented residents a “break” and only issuing a citation instead of arresting them. They comforted themselves by reminding her that, after all, they were not immigration officials. They were not ICE. They did not complete the deportation process; they were only the innocent messengers. Inside the jail, which housed the deputized officers who reviewed arrestee files and sent those of undocumented immigrants to ICE, those officers, too, found ways to cope with the sad truth about their jobs. After all, they weren’t the officers who arrested these people. They were just sitting at their desks completing paperwork for their demanding bosses. One officer found comfort in the fact that, at least when he was interviewing arrestees who would most likely get deported, he made them laugh. Another described with great pride that she was actually very respectful to the people who were sent to her office, as if expecting to be commended for showing basic respect to other human beings.

Some of this book’s most gripping moments come at the end. Armenta tells the disturbing story of a woman named Juana who was pulled over in Nashville for “careless driving.” The almost nine months pregnant woman had been driving with her three children when officer Coleman pulled her over. What started as a routine traffic stop turned into a nightmare when Juana was only able to present a Mexican ID and no driver’s license. The officer became hostile and very angry, arresting Juana and repeatedly telling her and her brother-in-law that she would be deported. Over and over again, he yelled “kiss your baby!” at Juana before putting her in the back of his car, insinuating that this would be the last time she would see her children. Once in jail, Juana went into labor. Though just a day before she had only been suspected of careless driving, when she went into labor, Juana was labeled a medium-security prisoner due to her immigration status. As a medium-security prisoner, Juana was handcuffed and shackled. She delivered her baby in chains, devoid of dignity, and being treated like a dangerous criminal instead of a person who, at most, was only guilty of driving inattentively.

In case you somehow managed to miss this along the way, the book ends by reminding the reader that no one who bears the physical attributes of a Latino person is immune to the presumption of criminality that led to programs such as 287(g). In the final pages, Armenta describes an incident in which she was the victim of exactly the type of traffic stop this book is about: a stop intended to find a way to make a criminal out of her. She details being pulled over, being accused of having contraband in her car, and having to wait for hours by the side of the road for a K-9 unit to come and clear her of the suspicion of criminal activity.

This book is an essential read in the age Donald Trump. As the country starts feeling more and more like the stereotypical cliquish high school cafeteria, this book reminds us of the inequity and unfairness brought about by an “us vs. them” wall-building mentality. Making undocumented immigrants per se criminals will never solve the country’s “immigration problem;” it will only add to our criminal problem.

Simina Grecu, Vanderbilt University Law School