Scholarship That Seeks Justice: Sarah Tosh ’19 Investigates “Aggravated Felony” Deportations of Immigrants

Graduate Center alumna Sarah Tosh '19 Sarah Tosh

This fall, new alum Sarah Tosh (Ph.D. ’19, Sociology) will start a tenure-track position in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice of Rutgers University-Camden. Her dissertation — which she recently pitched at The Graduate Center’s Dissertation Showcase — explores the history and effects of the “aggravated felony” legal category of crimes, which has led to the detention and deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants over the last 30 years.

Although there is increasing awareness of inequities within the criminal justice system, there has been little sociological research on criminal deportation, and no previous studies that focus on the aggravated felony category, Tosh says. She recently spoke to The Graduate Center about her research.
What is an aggravated felony, and why are there so many misconceptions about it?
People think that aggravated felony is a criminal justice classification — and it’s true that there are crimes that are aggravated and crimes that are felonies — but aggravated felony is an immigration term only. Only a noncitizen can face this charge.
At the beginning, this category included drug trafficking, murder, and arms trafficking. In the ’80s and ’90s, especially the mid-’90s when we had really punitive immigration reforms, the category expanded to include many things that people would consider minor crimes and misdemeanors.
A lot of aggravated felonies are drug crimes, like selling $10 of crack or selling marijuana. Or being forced to backpack drugs across the border by cartels. You also see people in court who are deported for crimes they committed in the ’90s.
How is New York City offering “creative resistance” to these deportations, as you describe in your dissertation?
New York City is the only city in the country to guarantee lawyers for all detained immigrants facing removal. It also kicked ICE out of Rikers Island. They can’t pick people up there. But we’ve had some of the fastest growth in ICE enforcement.
Universal representation is what has allowed for legal resistance in New York City. Also, lawyers and advocates pressure local D.A.s to take into consideration the immigration consequences of charges, and they work to get immigrants pleas that won’t make them deportable. The criminal justice system can play an important role in deciding the fate of immigrants.
How did The Graduate Center help you pursue your research goals?
I’ve been very lucky to get funded, both with the Enhanced Chancellor’s Fellowship in the first five years of my program, and a Summer Fellowship from The Graduate Center and the Vera Institute, a criminal justice reform research and policy organization.
I also received two dissertation fellowships from The Graduate Center, which were invaluable to me. And being from Brooklyn, I’m just so thankful to be at CUNY and The Graduate Center. I’m part of a group called Social Anatomy of the Deportation Regime that’s based at CUNY, and we’re trying to link scholarship and activism. I appreciate that there’s a lot of like-minded people who have a passion for scholarship and making that scholarship have an effect.

Submitted on: MAY 21, 2019

Category: Alumni News | General GC News | Sociology | Student News