This is not a space where I usually indulge in writing about politics per se, except whatever happens to impinge upon science policy, research funding and so forth. Scientists have long been accused of inhabiting a rarefied ivory tower, detached from any engagement with the general populace, but the portents are that the current political climate in the United States makes it imperative for science professionals to hang up their lab-coats and get more involved with the grand American political process in order to bring their educated, informed and expert perspectives to evidence-based, logically-consistent policy-making. Indeed, within the past couple of weeks, I can recall at least two instances of scientists feeling impelled to attempt joining the fray for this nation’s governance— NASA scientist Tracy Van Houten,  and UC Berkeley evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen —a most encouraging sign.

For me, however, the view of politics is a lot more fundamental than merely engaging in policy making. Political engagement is not ordinarily something I would have time to consider during my regular working hours as a research scientist. But as an immigrant to this land and person-of-color, I do believe that in certain situations, as the one we have reached in this nation, the whole existence of mine and people like me became inevitably political, a state in which remaining neutral for the sake of some esoteric neutrality is not possible without being a hypocrite. I simply no longer have the luxury of remaining blissfully unaware of the rapidly-changing circumstances around me, whose impact on the lives and livelihoods of my family, my friends and me is potentially grave. The most recent example of this blipped onto my radar a couple of hours ago, in form of a report in the Gothamist on the extreme immigration enforcement guidelines released today by the Department of Homeland Security, yes, the same department that is the supreme arbiter of my life and status as an immigrant/Permanent Resident in the United States.

What is special about these guidelines? They contain the instructions for implementing ‘expedited removal’, meaning the enhanced efforts at deporting aliens (‘non-citizens’) under the Presidential Executive Orders. Under the previous administration, immigration enforcement was focused on convicted felons and individuals placed on terrorism watch lists; on the campaign trail, the current President had promised the swift removal of undocumented immigrants, immigrants arrested on suspicion of a crime even before due process and conviction, and any immigrant who overstayed the period approved on their visa. He had also called for recommendations on placing restrictions on legal immigration in terms of ideological tests for future success and historical immigration quotas.

As referenced in this afternoon’s report from Emma Whitford for The Gothamist, the guidelines for the expanded immigration enforcement are not only for the borders (such as ports of entry into the US), but also for the interior of the country. The interior guidelines include institution of civil fines and penalties, removal of privacy protections for non-Permanent Resident aliens, and severely restricting prosecutorial discretion. Prosecutorial Discretion (PD) is a long-used legal accommodation for deeming certain aliens (including Permanent Residents) convicted of non-violent, low-severity crimes as ‘low-priority for deportation proceedings’. As mentioned in a previous report from a few days ago by Whitford:

“PD is basically the idea that a judge can differentiate between a jaywalker and a bank robber,” Wendy Feliz, head of communications for the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant policy organization, told Gothamist.

But the Obama administration memos, written by then-ICE Director John Morton, marked the first time that ICE explicitly listed case characteristics deserving leniency. “What the administration was saying is: we have to build some grace into the system,” Feliz said.

Guidance issued that summer stated that ICE should give priority to a wide range of deportation cases, including those against suspected terrorists, individuals with a felony conviction or multiple misdemeanor convictions, gang members, and those who had crossed the border illegally in the last three years.

Non-priority cases, meanwhile, were to be taken off of the administrative docket. These included cases for people with a “very long-term presence” in the US, those with children who are US citizens, the young, the elderly, those with physical and mental disabilities, and legal permanent residents with a single conviction. People with “serious” misdemeanor convictions—sexual abuse, drunk driving, gun possession—were to take priority for deportation over, say, marijuana convictions. […]

Clarifications to PD in 2014 went further, explicitly directing DHS to consider the “totality of the circumstances” in each case, and potentially offer leniency in cases that don’t meet the PD guidelines.

Under the current Executive Order and the guidelines issues, there is no more grace, no leniency, no maneuverability. Whitford mentioned how immigration lawyers, long accustomed to bringing the benefits of PD to at least some of their deserving clients, are now being stymied, while the instances of aggressive immigration enforcement processes are on the rise, as reported in the news —such as the undocumented woman in Arizona, for whom an 8-year old removal order for a lowest-level felony was reactivated, and she was deported. Or, the fact that about one in every four of the 700-odd immigrants arrested in raids across the country earlier this month by immigration enforcement agents has no criminal record.

To clarify, as a legal Permanent Resident, I am reasonably secure within these immigration enforcement guidelines, especially since I am unlikely to commit a criminal offence. However, as we all know, nothing involving immigration law enforcement ever really goes straight forward, especially if one goes by the discriminatory events at the borders we have already observed, ominous analyses of this administration’s motivation for it, as well as the Congressional support such efforts are likely to receive. And these situations —especially confusion and uncertainty surrounding various orders responsible for them— are affecting even US citizens of color, including one right in my city.

The Presidential Executive Order on Immigration dated Jan 25 holds that any immigrant who had been merely charged with a crime could be targeted for deportation, and provides Immigration Enforcement with an over-broad, vague description for potential targets, namely, any immigrant who has “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense”. It is hard to imagine that these are not designed for intimidation, especially for attrition through intimidation.

Clearly, what these orders do not get, or perhaps do consciously ignore, is the plight of immigrant professionals: think about it. In this climate of fear and mistrust, with the uncertainties and doubts hanging over my head like the proverbial Damocles’ Sword, if I as a person of color don’t feel safe in this environment, can I continue to perform my daily professional duties as a scientist with the same efficiency and dedication as I have done for the past decade and a half? Can I go about my life pretending nothing has changed for me, my family and friends? And if I perform sub-optimally at my chosen professional field, how does it benefit the society and the nation to which I have been so long contributing?

Statue of Liberty - the New Colossus

Image courtesy screenshot from National Park Service website