Excerpted From: Jarienn James, Who Does America Want?, 35 Georgetown Immigration Law Journal 325 (Fall, 2020) (242 Footnotes) (Full Document)


JariennJamesWho does America want? Not the immigrant, not the poor, not the Brown, and certainly not the Black person. When America cannot kill Black and Brown people with its knees, it suffocates them with fines and fees. Black, Brown, and poor people are deliberately excluded from society through fines and fees for traffic offenses. If America treats its own citizens with such contempt, why should immigrants expect better treatment?

This paper juxtaposes immigration-related fees with the fines and fees for traffic violations to help the reader understand that America's racism and classism exist both at and within its borders. Most of the people in county jails for unpaid traffic tickets are Black and Brown. The fees for the H-1B visa (commonly referred to as the work visa) and naturalization through marriage, two of the main pathways to citizenship, are so excessive that the only message received by immigrants is: “Stay out.”

These fees originate from different areas of the law but still communicate the same idea: immigrants, poor, Black, and Brown people are unwanted in America. If unpaid, these fees combined prevent immigrants, poor, Black, and Brown people from driving to work, maintaining medical appointments, taking their children to school, walking the streets, marrying the love of their lives, and working to provide for their basic needs. The American system uses every opportunity to create unnecessary barriers for their progress and oppresses them enough to make them regret their birth or coming to America. This paper examines how the use of fines and fees in the United States reinforces those barriers and communicates that people of color and immigrants are unwanted in America. This paper specifically discusses the impact of fines and fees for traffic violations on Black Americans as well as the use of excessive fines and fees in immigration and naturalization--ultimately arguing that both systems result in the intentional exclusion of Black Americans and immigrants in the United States.

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America does not want Black and Brown people. They may breathe, but America will suffocate them with fines and fees for minor traffic violations that have nothing to do with safety. Their licenses can be suspended, or they can be placed in jail for failure to pay or appear. America makes poverty a valid reason for incarceration. America holds them captive, taking away their freedom to progress and fulfill the American dream.

America does not want the immigrant. America will crush that immigrant with fines and fees. America does not want the poor; they are kept from performing basic civilian duties because they are unable to pay. It does not matter if the immigrant came without a visa, with a visa but overstayed their time, or if the immigrant came with the visa and followed the endless rules. The immigration system is complex and expensive and shows no respect for the sacrifices of the immigrant. America does not want the immigrant. The time has come for immigrants to no longer be seen as threats but as allies for the growth of America. This is the time for immigrants to be recognized as essential to the fabric of America.

The United Nations' General Assembly proclaimed that we are in the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). The theme is “People of African descent: recognition, justice, and development.” Nevertheless, in 2020, Black people in America are simultaneously fighting the pandemic of racism and the pandemic of COVID-19. The time has come for America to recognize its Black people, give them justice and help them develop. This is the time to prove Malcolm X wrong: “There is nothing that the white man will ever do to bring about true, sincere, citizenship, or civil rights recognition for Black people in this country--nothing will they do, they will always talk it but they won't practice it.”

America is supposed to be the home of the free--yet the immigrant, the poor, the Brown, and Black person are trapped and excluded because of America's unjust fines and fees for immigration and traffic violations. The question remains: WhodoesAmericawant?


Jarienn A. James, LL.B., LL.M., J.D., is the Law and Justice Program Coordinator at New York Law School and Co-Chair of the Education and the Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association.