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© Los Angeles Times Archive

interviews

Two Heads of the Same Monster

by Khalil Cumberbatch
July 8, 2020

This interview with Khalil Cumberbatch, Chief Strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice, was conducted and condensed by franknews. 

frank | Can you tell me a bit about your background?

Khalil | I am a native New Yorker. I pretty much grew up in New York City my entire life. I migrated here when I was four years old from my birth country of Guyana with my mother. We came as legal, permanent residents.

I am formerly incarcerated. I served six and a half years in the New York state prison system, from 2003 to 2010. I came home in 2010 and started to rebuild my life, just like most people do when they leave the criminal justice system. I had been home for four years, working the entire time and pursuing my masters, when Immigration Customs Enforcement came to my home to arrest me. My criminal conviction and the fact I am not a naturalized citizen was grounds for deportation proceedings. I spent what ultimately ended up being five and a half months in the detention system. I was released in October of 2014, and two months later I was granted a pardon by Governor Cuomo.

For the past five years, I have been doing policy work around immigration and criminal justice.

I am trying to bridge the gap between two efforts – changing the criminal justice system and changing the immigration deportation apparatus.

I am working to make sure that the two groups work in tandem and are aware of the consequences reform for one group may have on the other. 

What kind of work do you do with New Yorkers United for Justice?

I have been at New Yorkers United for Justice since November of 2018. Our goal is to pass legislation in New York state that would help to change the criminal justice system as we know it. 

One of the first issues that we became involved in was the pretrial reform efforts in New York - an effort to end the cash bail system that kept poor people in jail until their trial. The work had been going on for years, but it reached a boiling point in 2019. We worked with many other groups to pass the legislation that eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. We also pushed back on the false narrative about how the reforms affected public safety, and we educated the general public on the desperate need for the reforms. 

Recently, we have been pushing the Governor to expand clemency, and pushing DOCCS for a systemic plan around they are handling the COVID crisis in their facilities. Most recently, we were working with other groups to make sure that 50-A was fully repealed. There was a series of bills that passed in New York that really created a level of police accountability that unfortunately has never existed in New York state.

How do you see the prison system and immigration system working together?

The two systems feed off of each other. 

Immigration detention centers are essentially jails. They are run like a jail. They have the same policies and procedures as a jail. They have the same paramilitary structure, in terms of staffing, as a jail or prison. Many immigration detention centers are local jails. Local jails will contract those beds out to ICE. 

Most people understand that it was the Clinton administration and the passing of the "Omnibus Crime Bill" that ushered in the modern of mass incarceration. It financially incentivized states, and therefore local municipalities, to ramp up their arrest and imprisonment rates. It gave money to states to build prisons and expanded funding for local law enforcement. 

The reality is, under the same administration, immigration laws were dramatically revamped as well. They expanded the list of crimes that someone could be detained indefinitely and mandatorily deported. We have to make the connection that it was because of the Clinton administration, a Democratic administration, that we have these two massive systems that are not producing the outcomes that most people would believe they're tasked with producing.

We have to understand that we're not talking about two separate and distinct systems, we are talking about two heads of the same monster. 

Are your experiences within the prison system and the detention system comparable? 

The reality is that they are one and the same. The conditions are the same. In both, you are physically detained. Obviously, you can't come and go as you like. You are exposed to the same food, you have the same recreation activities, the same law library access, the same phone access, the same visitor access. It is the same dormitory-style settings. The lack of healthcare is prevalent in both. You can't do the things to stop the spread of a virus like COVID or any other communicable diseases. You are not given the basic sanitary to make sure that common surfaces are cleaned or to even make sure that you're protected. 

The only thing that makes immigration detention more complicated is the fact that there are people who speak many different languages. From my experience, it is overwhelmingly people who speak Spanish who are languishing in immigration detention centers, but there are also people that speak different tongues of Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. Those folks are the ones that suffer the most because the information is not readily translated into those languages. 

And I should mention that it is because of our foreign policies, that these people end up there. US policies have completely decimated local economies, and that has driven people to make the desperate decision to cross the border to make a living. We have entered into a new era of barbarism that I think is equivalent to what we saw with chattel slavery in this country.

Babies and young children are being completely, purposefully, systemically, and deviously separated from their parents with the goal of inflicting fear and pain into other people to make sure that they don’t come to this country, or in other words, to make sure they fall in line.

Do you feel like this current anti-police push incorporates enough of the discussion around immigration and policing?

No, unfortunately not. There has been a tremendous amount of attention being paid to the level of brutality and police misconduct that has been inflicted on communities of color. While those reforms are sorely needed, the reality is that conversation is being had within a limited context of policing. We are not having that conversation in a broader context of law enforcement. We are not having a conversation about how DHS uses the same militarized tactics in their immigration customs enforcement department, and in the way that they do apprehensions and arrests.

They use the same weapons as local law enforcement entities - they will use tear gas, fully automatic weapons, and full tactical gear for a simple apprehension. We are not having an in-depth conversation around the violence in other law enforcement operations. We are not talking about how quasi law enforcement entities are using violence that is unnecessary and counter to their mandate. 

It is well-documented that ICE uses deceptive tactics. They come to someone's door pretending to be police officers. They wear clothing that says "police", rather than anything about immigration customs enforcement. They lie and say that they only want to ask a couple of questions and that if they are let in, they can show their warrants. They do have administrative warrants, but you don't have to let them in with that style of the warrant. 

How can the two better be merged in advocacy work? 

When we say that we need to defund the police, we need to expand our definition of the police.

We need to include DHS, ICE, and other quasi law enforcement entities who have a proven track record of the same levels of brutality. That's the first thing.

The second thing is, we need to severely re-evaluate how we allow law enforcement entities to spend money. New York City is having a robust conversation removing a billion dollars from the budget. But places like DHS are essentially a black hole as it relates to how they are spending money and what they're spending money on. The immigration detention system in and of itself costs this country, billions of dollars a year in private contracts or public contracts.

Also, as advocates, there needs to be better communication between the two parties. Immigrant rights folks often do not work well with criminal justice folks, and vice versa. I'll give you an example: When the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to completely restructure the law enforcement, that was a win for anyone that cares about social justice. But, we didn't see many immigrant rights groups speaking up and saying that that was a step closer to the abolition of all quasi law enforcement entities. And then on the flip side, when the court ruled against the Trump administration to uphold DACA as constitutional, we did not see many criminal justice folks holding that up as a win. 

Again, the reality is that these systems are two heads of the same monster. They have more in common than not. They both dehumanize, criminalize, and brutalize the people on the margins of society.