Raúl A. Reyes: Leave Justin Bieber Out Of The Immigration Debate

With one raucous night of partying, Justin Bieber succeeded in turning the public’s attention back to immigration policy. On Thursday, he was arrested for allegedly drag racing in a residential Miami Beach neighborhood. Cue the media frenzy. News outlets from ABC News to CNN to USA Today weighed in on whether Beiber, a Canadian national, should be deported. The New York Times compared Bieber’s latest brush with the law to the plight of undocumented immigrants. 

Not so fast. Bringing Bieber into the immigration debate only clouds the issue. His status is unique and not at all illustrative of legal or undocumented immigrants. Using “The Biebs” to make points about immigration policy is a mistake.

There are hundreds of thousands of immigrants deported for much less than Bieber’s offenses, from the single father targeted for a missing license plate screw to the Arizona man who was tased at home while sleeping.

— Raúl A. Reyes

First of all, Bieber is not an immigrant. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he is here on an O-1 visa, which the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service specifically designates a “non-immigrant visa.” Think of it as an elite guest worker permit. O-1 visas are only available to individuals “with extraordinary ability or achievement.” Whatever you think of Bieber’s “ability,” his hit records and sold-out concerts qualify for him for this visa (Other recipient of O-1 visas include talk show host Piers Morgan and soccer superstar Pele).

Secondly, Bieber’s alleged crimes do not make him eligible for deportation anyway. As Zeke Miller of Time Magazine rightly points out, “under federal law only violent crimes and sentences longer than one year result in a re-evaluation of visa status.” Bieber was charged with drunken driving, resisting arrest, and driving without a valid license, none of which would trigger such a re-evaluation. While Bieber has already hired celebrity lawyer Roy Black to defend him, most foreign nationals do not have anywhere near his financial resources. That’s why the knee-jerk response of deportation to any alleged crime by a foreign national can be so dangerous. It disregards the presumption of innocence, one of the cornerstones of our legal system. Even if we are talking about Bieber, playing into the mind-set of “deport them all” simply does not serve justice.    

In The New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal opined that Bieber’s situation “is in a small way emblematic of the capricious, unbalanced and racially charged way in which immigration policy is conceived and enforced in this country.” Not really. There are hundreds of thousands of immigrants deported for much less than Bieber’s offenses, from the single father targeted for a missing license plate screw to the Arizona man who was tased at home while sleeping. These undocumented immigrants are far more emblematic of our broken immigration system than a 19-year-old international pop sensation. Yet because they are not celebrities, their stories are often ignored. Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to deport an estimated 1,100 people a day.         

True, nearly anything Bieber does generates headlines, and news organizations cannot be faulted for covering his antics. What is missing is an appropriate context for his behavior. Bieber’s situation is his own, the same as any other foreigner or immigrant. There are immigrants who commit heroic acts, like the New Mexico man who saved a child from kidnapping, and there are immigrants who commit horrific acts, like the New York man accused of killing his wife and children. No one person should be used as a symbol of all foreigners or immigrants, and certainly not a famous teenager who seems to be out of control.

Besides, consider the critical questions surrounding immigration that deserve our attention. Should Congress pursue comprehensive reform, or a piecemeal approach to overhauling our immigration system?  Should undocumented immigrants be granted a path to citizenship? How can we stem future flows of unauthorized migrants? Focusing on Bieber's transgressions threatens to crowd these questions out of the public arena at a time when we desperately need consensus on policy solutions. 

Justin Bieber did not ask to be the celebrity face for immigration reform, and he should not be turned into it. Let’s leave him out of our immigration debate.