Justin Bieber’s Immigration Story: An Opportunity to Engage

Author: on 01/27/2014


shutterstock_161450657How should we respond to the Justin Bieber story; as an organization, as leaders of that organization, and as individual members?  The first reaction would probably be to not respond at all.  It’s irrelevant, it’s beneath us, it’s a fluff piece with no relevance to us as either attorneys or as an organization of immigration practitioners and advocates.

But perhaps we are missing an important opportunity to engage people who don’t always bring up the issue of immigration reform, or think about things like detention rules, ICE holds, prosecutorial discretion and other issues that are the daily reality of our own professional lives and many of our clients’ personal lives.  And even more than using this as an opportunity to discuss immigration law and equal justice, it is a rare opportunity to ask people with whom we engage why they feel the way they do about our nation’s policies on immigration.  We can also ask why it took a young white pop-star from Canada to get so many people to think about it.

Quite a few people, both attorneys and non-attorneys, have asked me about this story because of the immigration component.  The same is probably true for many of us.  Here is one way to approach it when someone else brings it up:  Start with the immigration facts, including his specific status as an O-1 visa holder and the potential consequences of his recent run-ins with the law.  But then present them with a parallel story: strip away the celebrity coating and look at the facts of what Bieber did, applying them to other aliens, and see what we come up with.  Let’s say someone from another country, maybe Mexico, is living in the U.S.  Justino is mid-20s, only speaks his native language, works as a gardener.  Ask the person you’re engaging to create a picture of Justino in his head.  Perhaps Justino makes the local paper because he was also arrested, driving without a license, under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana.  He was with a group (gang?) of friends who were racing down a residential street, and these menacing hooligans even blocked off the street to prevent anyone from messing up their plans to tear up and down the block at twice the speed limit.  When police showed up, he cursed and yelled at them and resisted arrest.  What is the reaction at the local diner the next morning when someone points out that news story?  Would the expectation be that Justino got a low bond and walked out of court, or would such a suggestion be met with disbelief and outrage?

This lesson in disparities is an important one, but it doesn’t need to be the limit of how far we are willing to tread into the world of paparazzi and twitter A-listers.  But we can do even more than point out inconsistent application of immigration law or use this as just a lesson in equal justice.  We can also engage the person asking us questions about why it is that they asked the questions in the first place; why now?  We can talk about how this one story of a Canadian popstar has caused so many people to examine issues that they never raised before, even though they knew that thousands of aliens are deported every year.

That may seem like the same thing as raising the equal justice issue, but there’s a subtle difference.  One approach points a finger at the system, deriding “them”, the authorities and enforcers and politicians, for allowing disparate treatment based on things that shouldn’t matter as much as they do.  The second approach holds up a mirror and challenges each person to ask what his or her role is in that inequality.

So why not take this opportunity to challenge individual people we come in contact with daily, especially when they ask us about the Bieber story, and what may happen to him, and why it may be different than how others are treated.  In addition to pointing out the issue of equal justice, let’s also ask those individuals why they are bringing up questions about the system now, but never thought to bring them up before.  When they heard stats on the news about the number of deportations, why didn’t they ask who those people were, or how they got in that situation, or if they were given a chance to stay or not, and how that’s decided, and by whom.  Ultimately, what does this tell us about the harm of not bothering to try to learn about people and, as a result, dismissing them or falling back on stereotypes.

It’s easy to focus on the power of AILA as representative of more than thirteen thousand attorneys, with our unique access to national leadership within the Beltway.  But this organization is made up of so many individuals who interact with people every day, including clients, family members, colleagues in other areas of the law and friends.  These people ask us, as individual immigration attorneys and advocates, about immigration issues because of our individual expertise and experience.  That is an incredible opportunity for us to extend the work of our organization beyond the Beltway and into the communities, right into local coffee houses and dining rooms.

If the vehicle for that discussion starts with someone asking us about Justin Bieber, so be it.  That is still a unique opportunity for all of us, from the new AILA member to the Chapter Officer to members of the national Executive Committee and our organization’s employees.  We can shoot for the hearts and minds of individuals spread out in every corner of the country, where the discussions taking place are as important, if not more important, than those taking place on Pennsylvania Avenue and the halls of Congress.

Let’s use not just our collective power, but also our individual power to inform, challenge and inspire every person with whom we interact, using the opportunities that present themselves.  Yes, even the Justin Bieber story.

Written by Andrew Nietor, AILA San Diego Chapter Secretary

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