This paper will take a look at how the criminal justice system, race, and immigration all relate to each other, and the outcomes of each, with examples from the films 13th and Documented. It will analyze mass incarceration within the criminal justice system and discuss why there are so many people locked up, and some locked up for crimes they did not even commit. It will then elaborate on race in the criminal justice system, and talk about the proportionally different amount of blacks and Latinos locked up compared to whites.
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Finally, the paper will focus on immigration, and how immigration plays a role in not only being viewed as “different” within society but also the detention centers for immigrants wishing to become official citizens of the US. Through all of these 3 factors that will be discussed within the paper, there will be a better understanding on how race is a huge factor within the criminal justice system and society, and how immigration can be viewed as a criminal act to many.
Keywords: mass incarceration, race, immigration
Why is it difficult for immigrants to enter the U.S. legally, and if they do it illegally, they get locked up for it? Why are there so many people locked up in prison and some locked up for crimes they didn’t even commit? Those are just a few questions of many that are often times asked quite a bit today. The reason that these questions are asked is that of the fact that the US has many people locked up, many of which are not white, and are of different race, and also that immigrants are sometimes frowned upon, and the legal ones are discriminated by law enforcement. While the criminal justice system and immigration laws can be useful for keeping actual criminals off the streets, there should be less discrimination within law enforcement and mass incarceration because it does not allow people to excel in life, it can end up setting people back even farther than they were prior to the crime, and when race is a factor, it can cause a lot more harm than help.
The criminal justice system was created to enforce the law within society to keep good order and justice. While it still does that today, many argue that the criminal justice system is now sometimes used as a means to mask slavery, and still keep people in labor working for virtually no money at all. The film 13th by Ava DuVernay talks about the 13th amendment which states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (U. S. Constitution). In plain English, this means that no one can be a slave for anyone unless they commit a crime and are locked up as a result, in which they can be treated as such. DuVernay goes into the history of racial inequality within the United States and emphasizes the strange reality that our countries prisons are unfairly occupied with African-Americans.
Mass incarceration is the way that our nation has put a huge population in state and federal prisons, as well as the local jails. The film 13th talks about this idea of mass incarceration and that it can be seen as an unfair way of punishing people harshly rather than focusing on rehabilitating them or aiming to help them succeed and become better people for society. Mass incarceration affects families and communities in a negative way because if a father or mother is locked up, then their children will be forced to grow up without a parent or even both parents, and may not do well in life as a result of no direction and poor life decisions. This is mentioned many times in the film and is told as a way to inform people about the reality of mass incarceration. Furthermore, Golash-Boza talks about mass incarceration in her book, “Race and Racisms: A Critical Approach”. She mentions how “incarceration rates have soared because the laws have changed, making a wider variety of crimes punishable by incarceration” (Golash-Boza 2015, p. 297). This means that people can now be locked up for crimes that are less lethal and dangerous, and can also be sent to prison for longer amounts of time. This can affect people with not so serious crimes, for example, drugs, mentally and emotionally and even sometimes physically because they are around people that are actually in prison for real deadly crimes. The reason for the laws changing and widening crimes to be punishable by incarceration has been the “War on Drugs” phenomenon that was first stated as such by former President Richard M. Nixon in 1971. This scared the American people, and they were quick to favor the idea of being hard on crime, which was mostly drugs, and to not let the users or sellers get off easy for an offense with it.
Discrimination in the criminal justice system can be seen through the fact that there is a huge majority of African-Americans in prison compared to other races. Why is that? The reason is no other than discrimination from law enforcement. This can be seen by police officers driving in certain neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American, and seeing any of them that are breaking a law, arrest them right then and there. Unfortunately for most of them, they are not given many rights either at that point due to the officer being racist or just not caring. Although there are obviously many officers that do the process correctly and fairly, there are still many that do not. Furthermore, the ones that are locked up and are parents are then not able to be role models for their kids, and their kids end up growing up with no direction and commit the crimes that their parents did, and there is a never-ending cycle. The reason why this is bad is that the prison system does not usually do anything to help the inmates, and just treats them like slaves and laborers that do jobs for little to no pay.
Immigration is when people from another country move and come to a new country in which they are not natives or do not have citizenship to reside there. Immigration is an interesting topic when it comes to law enforcement and how it is handled. It is usually supervised by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) which is under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. I.C.E.’s job is to carry out immigration laws of the U.S. and to inspect unlawful and terrorist activity of foreign nationals residing in the U.S. The film Documented by Jose Antonia Vargas talks about this in more depth. The film itself is about Vargas’s journey in trying to become a U.S. citizen the legal way and campaigning for cause for immigration reform. It is the idea of what will really happen if you come out as undocumented and let everyone know that you are not legal. To his surprise, he does not get deported, but that is primarily due to the fact that he is a high profile, and if I.C.E. were to deport him back to the Philippines, there would be a massive outrage from many people.
Immigration detention is essentially the form of containing people suspected of visa violations, unlawful entering of the U.S., and those that are sent to be deported from the U.S. and are either awaiting a decision from authorities to grant them a visa to stay in the U.S. or send them back to their native residency. Tanya Maria Golash-Boza in 2011 wrote about an incident from Robert Bautista who was denied due process. It reads how “immigration agents arrested Robert Bautista…was placed in detention without the possibility of a bond hearing” (Golash-Boza 2015, p. 358). The reason for his arrest was due to the fact that he was coming home from a vacation to his country of birth in the Dominican Republic back to the U.S. He was a legal permanent resident of the U.S. though and had been living there for 25 years. He was placed in detention which had negative reproductions on his life in the U.S. This is an example of how the immigration detentions can cause harm for many immigrants that have been living in the U.S. for virtually all of their life, but may commit a crime that is not lethal, and then be held in detention without any hearing until authorities decide the outcomes for them. Vargas in Documented talks about this and brings up the problem with this and how many parents are taken away from their children and family, which like mass incarceration, causes an negative experience for the children with no role models.
When someone has already been living in the U.S. for most of their life, it is not as easy to become a U.S. citizen as many think. Especially if they are not here on a visa or green card. There are steps that must be accomplished, which can be very long and costly. Not only that but when someone is here lawfully residing, and they make any minor offenses with law enforcement, they can easily be sent to detention and their whole process can be derailed. Luckily, in Vargas’ case in Documented, he is not sent to detention and is not sent back to the Philippines. He even goes as far as the call I.C.E. and speaks to them on the phone about why he is not being deported or arrested and sent to detention. The viewers are unknown of what they are saying in the call though because I.C.E. did not give consent to being recorded, but one could only imagine it is because he is of high profile in the U.S. When he tries the process of becoming a U.S. citizen as well, he runs into problems and is still to this day an undocumented resident of the U.S., but still contributes positively to society.
The main connection between 13th by Ava DuVernay and Documented by Jose Antonio Vargas is the fact that both are about race. 13th is about the disproportionate amount of African-Americans in prison compared to whites and Documented is about immigrants having a hard time becoming U.S. citizens because of the fact that they are a different race than American. Both paint a clear picture of how many people in the U.S. view race and immigrants, and how the law enforcement treat both as such. While it is unfair to many, others see it as right and not wrong at all, and justify that by the fact that they are just ‘criminals’ or ‘illegals’ which then gives a negative connotation to them, and then the ripple effect begins with many agreeing with that. Many people are also ignorant to the subject and do not understand the struggles for these people, and these films allow for a learning experience to anyone that watches. Both are documentaries and both demonstrate a clear understanding of what they are about. They are films that are knowledgeable and show facts, not emotion, which really helps drive the message home and show people of the truth.
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