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How cash bail ruins immigrants’ lives

An immigrant rights rally at Foley Square in

An immigrant rights rally at Foley Square in Manhattan on Feb. 10. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Kena Betancur

In 2008, when I was 17, my mom was arrested for driving without a license. As an immigrant here without authorization, she was not eligible to apply for one, but we lived on Long Island and there is simply no other reliable way to get around.

At my mother’s arraignment, the judge set bail at $1,000. It was just the three of us — my mom, 13-year-old brother and me — and we did not have $1,000. A friend offered to help, but when we went to pay the bail with a credit card, a judge told us the bail could only be paid in cash.

Two days later, our community across Long Island raised the money. But it was too late. Because the Suffolk County jail chooses to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement these two days meant that the immigration agency had taken my mom’s case. I was a high school junior, and my brother was in middle school. My mom was held in the Suffolk jail for six months. During that time, my brother and I were evicted from our Wheatley Heights home, and I was forced to leave Half Hollow Hills High School to work and pay for rent. After six months, my mom was deported to Peru, and our family was permanently separated.

Since 2017, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other state elected officials have spoken against the many injustices by the Trump administration. But my story did not happen in some far-off state. It occurred here in New York. The laws and policies that led to my mother’s arrest, her incarceration because of bail we could not afford, and ultimately, her deportation remain in place today.

Many immigrant New Yorkers continue to be barred from obtaining driver’s licenses, ensnaring families in the double jeopardy of the criminal legal system and the immigration enforcement system. New Yorkers continue to be subjected to a system of money bail that makes freedom contingent on access to cash. And too many New York jails choose to collude with President Donald Trump’s deportation agenda. The laws of our state continue to criminalize black and brown communities, immigrants, and low-income New Yorkers, with unjust consequences.

That’s why immigrant and criminal justice organizations have created The Justice Roadmap — a set of bills lawmakers in Albany must pass in the legislative session that starts this month that would guard against the trampling of our rights and the tearing apart of our communities.

As we speak out for the human rights of all people who move, cross borders, and seek new homes, we urge Cuomo and the State Legislature to ensure the basic human dignity and core constitutional rights of all New Yorkers. We urge not just for rhetoric, but for action.

Angel Reyes is the Long Island coordinator for the Rural & Migrant Ministry, a nonprofit that advocates on migrant worker issues, and a leader of the #FREEnewyork campaign, which advocates for the overhaul of New York’s bail, discovery and speedy-trial laws.

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