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Immigration

After the Inferno, Undocumented Workers Find Themselves Without Federal Help

Co-published by Newsweek
Undocumented laborers who worked in Wine Country vineyards are now finding the only assistance they can hope for, following Northern California’s recent wildfires, is mostly private charity.

Gabriel Thompson

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Coffey Park, Santa Rosa. (Photo: Michael Short)

For undocumented immigrants who have lost jobs or homes in the Northern California fires, the road to stability will be especially steep. Many are ineligible for federal aid of any kind.


Co-published by Newsweek

By 11 o’clock in the morning, as smoke billowed down a nearby hillside, Tesorito began to wonder if he ought to be in the vineyards. It was Monday, October 9, and he was harvesting wine grapes near the town of Sonoma. He was accustomed to the challenges of the job: the cold mornings, the snakes that hid beneath rocks and the double shifts during harvest time, when he could labor upwards of 90 hours a week. But when he paused to look north, he saw something he’d never seen before: a wall of flames.

Tesorito pointed the flames out to his friend, Lalo, a row over. Though both men could feel the heat on their faces, they turned back to the grapes. This was la pisca—the harvest—when they were paid by the amount of fruit they clipped, so every second counted. They had left for work at 5 a.m. and hadn’t heard about the fires that had begun to spread across Sonoma and Napa counties. At one point, Tesorito realized that the flames threatened to encircle the vineyard. In an instant, he and the rest of the panicked crew bolted for their cars and raced down the bumpy country road, using their windshield wipers to push away the falling ash.

“It was crazy, absolutely crazy,” Tesorito said in Spanish. He cleared his throat, which had gone raspy. He had picked up a hacking cough from the smoke, which he couldn’t seem to shake. It was a Saturday in late October, and he and Lalo were seated on folding chairs in the middle of a school gymnasium in Santa Rosa, attending a Spanish-language meeting about resources available to people affected by the fires. They hadn’t worked in two weeks, because roads to the fields were closed.

“My rent’s due soon and I don’t have it,” Tesorito told me. The 37 year old is short and stocky, with broad shoulders and callused hands. Lalo is 58, though he looks at least 10 years younger. Collectively, the friends have spent more than two decades in California’s famed Wine Country, part of an immigrant workforce that props up the state’s $57 billion a year industry.

“Everywhere we go, people have told us, ‘If you don’t have papers, we can’t help you.’ There is nothing for us.”

Both men are undocumented Mexican immigrants, but tell me that until recently their status hasn’t been much of a concern. (“I don’t cause problems and I do good work,” said Lalo.) The fires changed that. Neither man is eligible for the various forms of federal disaster aid, which ranges from unemployment benefits to housing assistance. This was their fourth meeting in eight days of searching for anyone who might be able to help.

After sitting through the 90-minute forum, the men approached a table staffed by a representative of a local Legal Aid office and explained their predicament, but while the woman listened politely, she had no advice for them. “Everywhere we go, people have told us, ‘If you don’t have papers, we can’t help you,’” Tesorito said as he walked out. “There is nothing for us.”

Vineyard workers Tesorito and Lalo seek help at a Santa Rosa meeting. (Photo: Gabriel Thompson)Vineyard workers Tesorito and Lalo seek help at a Santa Rosa meeting. (Photo: Gabriel Thompson)

The Nuns Fire that nearly engulfed Tesorito and Lalo was the largest of the recent California wildfires, consuming 54,000 acres, destroying at least 1,300 buildings and killing two people. But it wasn’t the most destructive. The Tubbs Fire, which began outside of Calistoga and roared south into Santa Rosa, killed at least 22 people and transformed entire neighborhoods into surreal hellscapes. The various Wine Country fires turned the sky black for days and rained ash across the Bay Area, sending folks scurrying to the nearest hardware store in search of protective masks.

For undocumented immigrants who have lost jobs or homes, the road to stability will be especially steep. Many are ineligible for federal aid of any kind. Others may qualify for assistance if they have children who are U.S. citizens, but that would require turning over personal household information to the federal government.

Photo: Michael ShortPhoto: Michael Short

At the forum, one audience member asked an official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to promise that it wouldn’t share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The official stated that FEMA had never done so in the past, but that he couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t happen in the future. Several days earlier, ICE’s acting director, Thomas Homan, released a statement that appeared to link the wildfires to the unrelated arrest of an undocumented immigrant. In response, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano slammed Homan’s statement as “inaccurate” and “inflammatory.” (Breitbart News also reported — then retracted — that the undocumented immigrant was suspected of starting the wildfires.)

The forum, which was attended by about 100 people, was held in Roseland, a neighborhood just south of downtown Santa Rosa. This is the heart of Sonoma County’s Latino community, and although the fire didn’t reach Roseland, the neighborhood has been deeply impacted. A day earlier, I had visited Roseland’s library, where dozens waited to speak to representatives of the Mexican consulate. One woman, Trinidad, said that her husband was a gardener and that the homes of half his clients had burned down. Another woman, Nayeli, cleaned five large homes; all five had burned down. It went like this down the line: dishwashers, hotel housekeepers, landscapers and nannies, all without work because their workplaces no longer existed.

Less than a mile from the library, Jonathan Bravo sorted through food donations at Bayer Farm, a community garden that has become a refuge for immigrants during the fires. “The tragedy has been immense,” said Bravo, a 63-year-old former math teacher in Mexico. “People are scared, especially our undocumented residents. We try to tell them: Don’t have fear. We are all together on the same boat.”

Several days after the fire started, Bravo and a group of volunteers began feeding meals to anyone who showed up. “We couldn’t just watch the smoke—we needed to respond,” said Bravo. On the first day, they served eggs, beans and handmade tortillas to 30 people. The next day, they fed 80. Since then, they’ve dished out three meals daily to an average of 250 people, all cooked by volunteers. As word about the meals spread, donations started to arrive: organic produce from the food bank, bread from a local bakery, checks to defray the costs of running what amounts to a restaurant for the unemployed.

One recent donation came from the Graton Day Labor Center, located in the small town of Graton, west of Santa Rosa. “We serve the people who fall through every safety net—the day laborers and the domestic workers,” said director Christy Lubin. On the other side of the office, a group of men chatted quietly in Spanish, hoping to be sent out. “We’ve only dispatched 12 folks today, when we’d normally send out 25 or 30,” Lubin said.

The Coffey Park neighborhood damaged by the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, Calif, on Monday October 16, 2017.Photo: Michael Short

Donations soon began to arrive from people who knew that the day labor center could get money into the hands of people who needed it. “We gave out about $5,000 in cash—just money for cellphones, gas and food,” said Lubin. “But people wanted to give more, and so I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Together with the North Bay Jobs with Justice and North Bay Organizing Project, Lubin launched UndocuFund to provide disaster relief to undocumented immigrants. Within 24 hours they had raised more than $100,000. To date, they’ve brought in $750,000. The fund, whose advisory committee includes undocumented immigrants, will soon begin to accept applications for financial assistance.

Photo: Michael Short

Photo: Michael Short

At Bayer Farms, about 50 people were seated at picnic tables eating dinner. This was the 11th day that the garden had provided free meals to the community, but with school starting back up soon, it wasn’t clear how much longer the experiment would run. Jonathan Bravo had also started to get pressure from the city, which wasn’t entirely pleased about the unlicensed operation.

Not that he had any regrets. “We say that we don’t grow tomatoes or lettuce, we grow people,” he said. The fire had provided a chance to prove it. He picked up a walnut from the ground, cracked it open, and handed me a piece. The nut was from a black walnut tree that rose high above the garden. Bravo told me that last year, nearby construction had damaged the roots of the tree, and an arborist had suggested that they cut it down while the wood was still salvageable. Instead, they decided to see if they could nurse the tree back to health. Each week, classes of schoolchildren work in the garden, and when they learned that the tree was sick, a few made a habit, before leaving, of speaking words of encouragement to the tree and giving it a hug.

“There is hope,” Bravo said. “We can’t minimize the suffering that the fire caused. Twelve of our garden teachers lost their homes. Four of our volunteers lost their homes. But we still have families and we still have children and we are still here. So there is hope.”


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Immigration

South Asian Asylum Seekers Find Healing and Hope After Sheridan Heartbreak

Co-published by Law at the Margins
An Oregon community rallies around immigrant detainees.

Shannon Luders-Manuel

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Advancing democracy in Oregon. (Rural Organizing Project)

Editor’s note: This article is co-published by Capital & Main and Law at the Margins. It is part of “We the Immigrants,” a Community Based News Room (CBNR) series that examines how immigrant communities across the United States are responding to immigration policies.  The five-part series is supported by a Solutions Journalism Network Renewing Democracy grant.


Navneet Kaur, from Salem, Ore., was part of a team of 56 to 60 drivers from the Post Detention Respite Network who waited in shifts outside the federal prison in Sheridan to pick up detainees after they’d been released. “It shocked me because it’s not part of the country where people would send detainees,” she said. “Reflexive action was to jump in and help in whatever way I could.”

Kaur is a Sikh from Punjab, India, and also provided translation services. She has been in the United States for 18 years, and in Oregon for 15. She is a member of the Sikh Center in Salem, where many of the detainees found shelter following their release.

The Sheridan detainees were first apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border and transferred to prison in Sheridan in late May. While not all the detainees were South Asian—some were from Guatemala, Mexico and China—the recent plight of South Asian asylum seekers has been kept out of the public consciousness.

According to the Willamette Week, “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed the men in the federal prison because the federal immigration agency ran out of space in its detention centers designed to house asylum seekers and other immigrants who have not been convicted of a crime.” About half of the detainees are from India, and many from the Sikh tradition.

Five of the first immigrant men released from Sheridan prison in August. (Doug Brown / Portland Mercury)

Sikhs first immigrated to Oregon (mostly via Vancouver, British Columbia) around 1905, escaping British colonialism that ravaged India. Queen Victoria had declared their equal status with Britain, no matter where they traveled, but they didn’t experience this equality in the States. Many relocated to Oregon from California and Washington, due to Oregon’s quasi-peace with Indian laborers.

“Oregon started a specific social pact, starting with the Chinese laborers in the late 1800s, and then extending to Indians and Filipinos, that called for racial peace in order to ensure a labor force,” states Johanna Ogden, an independent historian. “Of course, that didn’t hold.”

With the advent of the First World War, Indians in America saw an opportunity to return to their homeland and fight for independence. The Hindustani Association of America was formed in Portland, Ore., in 1912, and a second chapter was started in the small town of Astoria. By 1913, the members had shifted their mission from sponsoring Indian youth in America to returning to India themselves and forming a United States of India.

Ogden provides detail in her Oregon Historical Society article, “Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging.“ She writes, “From March 31 through April 14, 1913, local men and others traveling from Portland and St. Johns gathered in Bridal Veil (twenty men), Linnton (one hundred men), and Winans, a whistle stop in the woods south of Hood River (one hundred men). By late spring, they were ready for the culminating meeting in Astoria.”

The Ghadar rebellion—seizing India back from British rule—was officially proposed and passed at this meeting. This political action resulted in a mass exodus of Indians from Oregon. Small pockets remained, though most who didn’t return to India migrated to British Columbia and California. While ultimately unsuccessful, Ghadar was instrumental to India later gaining self-governance.

This important history was erased until the publication of Ogden’s research.

“No one knew until Johanna published her article, and until the city council of Astoria decided to celebrate the Ghadar Centennial,” Kaur says. “Even in the history books of India, there is no mention of Ghadar’s roots in Astoria.”

Sikhs working the railroads in the Pacific Northwest, late 1890s. (Oregon Encyclopedia, a project of the Oregon Historical Society)

Now, the Ghadar Party history will soon be taught in Oregon public schools, marking a step toward better representation.

In 1923, another political event prompted a change to national policies in the United States. Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh from Punjab, applied for citizenship after fighting for the U.S. in World War I. Such citizenship had been promised to him, as well as millions of other immigrant soldiers. Thind received and lost his citizenship in Washington and Oregon, with his case making its way to the Supreme Court. Since the Naturalization Act of 1906 restricted citizenship to only “free white persons” and people of African descent, Thind argued in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind that since Aryans had invaded Punjab and subsequently intermixed, he possessed Aryan blood as a high-caste Hindu. The court denied his appeal, changed its racial classification of Asian Indians, and denied and revoked a plethora of naturalization certificates.

With the Refugee Act of 1980, Sikhs once again settled in rural Oregon, as well as in other parts of the country. Though the Sikh community was relatively unaware of their prior history in the region, their local presence was invaluable in aiding the Sheridan detainees, many of whom needed translation assistance. A complete lack of common language between detention employees and those detained added to the already deplorable conditions inside the cells.

“Those early days had been bleak, the migrants said,” according to The Oregonian. “There were housed three-to-a-cell, sharing a common toilet, and restricted to their quarters 22 hours a day.”

Interpreter Navneet Kaur speaks at a September news conference in Salem, Ore., after eight South Asian asylum seekers who were locked up in a federal prison were released. (Doug Brown / Portland Mercury)

The Innovation Law Lab—a nonprofit in Portland, Ore., that helps attorneys win tough immigration cases—has been able to take over 90 Sheridan cases pro bono thus far. This work came after the Oregon ACLU won a lawsuit of habeas corpus in federal court, declaring the prison detainment conditions unconstitutional. Before President Trump’s Executive Order 13769 of 2017, colloquially known as the Muslim ban or travel ban, immigrants had access to lawyers and worked with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to process applicable paperwork.

“That’s how things worked in the past,” Kaur explains. “You passed your credible fear, you’re out, and your case goes on, for however long it goes on. But that didn’t happen this time.”

Indefinite detention without representation is not a new problem. Suman Raghunathan, executive director at South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) works to amplify South Asian immigrant voices in the U.S.

Suman Raghunathan, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)

“We are seeing a rising tide in South Asian detainees over the last four or five years,”she says, “spanning individuals originally from India (largely Sikhs, in our experience), Bangladesh and most recently a wave of Nepalis. Many of these folks are fleeing political and/or religious persecution and/or discrimination in South Asia and making the decision to, in some cases, make the arduous crossing through Latin America and cross the U.S.-Mexico border.”

In 2015, detainees in Florida, Alabama and Orange County (Calif.) participated in hunger strikes to protest being denied basic rights, such as translators and timely credible fear interviews. During April and May this year in Georgia, migrants at the Stewart Detention Center also participated in hunger strikes, while migrants at the Folkston Detention Center did the same in June. Both of the Georgia detention centers are for-profit and located in remote areas, just like Sheridan.

Vân Huynh, a supervising immigration attorney with Advancing Justice-Atlanta, notes the challenges the detainees in Georgia face. “It’s much more difficult for them to be able to send documents, or gather documents from their families to support their case,” she says. “Given just how remote those areas are, being able to get access with them and get a base of attorneys to even contact is really difficult.”

In Oregon, nonprofits worked together with the Sikh community to aid the Sheridan detainees. The Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) partnered with Innovation Law Lab to provide legal counsel. Their success was due to the combined efforts of not only advocacy groups, but also community members of different faiths.

According to Raghunathan, “Jai [Singh of APANO], who is Sikh American, was instrumental in coordinating and leveraging broader support from the local Oregon Sikh and South Asian community and played a crucial role in mobilizing Oregon gurdwaras [places of worship for Sikhs] to help provide some translation and interpretation, as well as support from local religious leaders. In a combined effort, the community rallied for, housed, fed, clothed and transported the detainees as they were released.”

The Rev. Ron Warner Jr., a Lutheran pastor and organizer with the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice (IMIJ) in Portland, Ore., has been advocating for immigrant rights the past 12 years. “We are made up of about 140 faith communities around the whole state of Oregon from many different faith traditions,” he says.

A rally outside the federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., to support the asylum seekers being held there. (ACLU Oregon / Twitter)

Volunteers with IMIJ protested at Sheridan and the ICE headquarters. Christians moved their worship service outside the detention center in protest of Jeff Sessions’ use of the Bible to defend the lockdown on immigration. Churches in Yamhill County provided clothing, and the Beaverton temple raised money to buy more. Respite centers were set up at the Salem and Beaverton temples.

Jai Singh lists the following APANO accomplishments, which the community helped come to fruition:

  • Developed a “Post Detention Respite Network Toolkit” that has been helpful for the legal response for the release of over half the asylees.
  • So far transferred $100 each to 82 asylees and $50 to three asylees, totaling slightly over $9,100.
  • Purchased airfare for one of the asylees to connect with his new sponsor in Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Distributed over 20 boxes of tangible resources, donated by volunteers that APANO has mobilized, to the Sheridan Post Detention Respite Network for asylees, including over $1,000 worth in gift cards and calling cards.
  • Attended over four vigils and direct action events in solidarity with other grassroots organizations to bring attention to the unjust detention of Sheridan asylees.
  • Mobilized over 200 individuals to contact their public officials to put pressure on releasing asylees.
  • Helped raise and collect over $15,000 from donors to assist with the post-detention work as well as commissary funds.

At this time, all but three of the detainees have been released.

The town of Sheridan, Ore., is a small pocket in Yamhill County with 6,127 residents (as of the 2010 census). Only 2.4 percent of them are Asian descent. Though the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown has filled federal immigrant detention centers to capacity, it is not known why the detainees were sent so far north after being apprehended at the border. It’s also unknown why Sheridan itself was chosen for their literal incarceration.

If the goal was alienation from a city center, the plan failed. The strong Sikh community in Yamhill County and the surrounding counties sprang into action to support the organizational efforts. Community action is often critical for swift civic change.

“Many South Asian or AAPI community-based organizations lack the capacity to coordinate broader legal services, representation, and referral efforts that are bolstered by local community action capacity,” says Raghunathan. “We’ve found this matrix of community power is crucial to effectively respond to detentions on the ground.”

The Sikh community in Oregon and southern Washington provided lodging and support to welcome immigrants after they were detained in Sheridan. (ThinkLawLab / Twitter)

ICE may have been unaware of the strong East Indian/Sikh presence, or at least undeterred by it.

Whatever the reason, the effects of detention are the same and can create a cycle of silence for immigrants. Their voices go unheard, so firsthand accounts of injustice and dehumanization are not shared. Multiple attempts to speak to Sheridan detainees for this story were unsuccessful. Folks are reluctant or now dispersed.

Socially, stories about who resides where and what histories matter are fraught with conscious and unconscious biases. In Ogden’s article, she discusses the politics of collective memory: “Historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot stresses a critical feature of this process we call history. … His approach is to examine our narratives as an insight into our beliefs and relations of power. Applying that perspective here, what is the narrative that has supplanted the Punjabis and Ghadar from our collective memory? What are the stakes of this narrative omission in the present?”

In part, the stakes are the intolerance that comes from misinformation.

“The biggest roadblocks for us have been fear on a large level, and fear on a small level in our local communities, where people don’t understand, or believe myths about immigration and migration,” Warner says. “The level of othering and denigrating of other human beings feels like it’s at an all-time high right now.”

Warner believes that faiths working together is in line with various religions’ belief systems: “A lot of our sacred stories at the end of the day both reveal something about the divine, but also about what it means to be human. In a time where fear has dictated so many of our policies, we are trying to raise up or lift up humanity over fear.”

Is it working?

“Many people ask me why and how I got involved in this project,” Kaur says. “And I have no answer to that. It’s just an automatic response for me, because we’re not supposed to sit in judgment. If somebody needs help, you give them help. That’s what my faith tells me to do.”

Broader Asian American organizations also are working to change policies for asylum seekers. “The South Asian community has elevated this issue before congressional members,” says Huynh. “A couple months ago, the National Immigration Project, with the National Lawyers Guild, presented their findings.”

While outreach in Sheridan has been successful, one can only hope about the future. “It’s hard to be living in a time when despite our best efforts and our incredible organizing and so many wonderful hearts and minds working on things like this, there may be a new policy that comes down next month that undoes all of it,” Warner states.

In fact, the Trump administration wants to limit asylum seekers with a new rule, and there was a measure on the Oregon ballot to repeal Oregon’s state sanctuary law, which did not pass in the recent elections. The organization behind the measure, Oregonians for Immigration Reform, is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Despite its public reputation, Oregon has a long history of racial exclusion, including a strong white supremacist presence.

While equality measures are always in flux, Warner has a tactic to remain hopeful.

“For us in the faith community, one of the big learnings from this summer is the means have to be the ends,” he says. “It can’t just be about the outcomes, but the very ways we organize together and the relationships that we build all have to have a long-haul dimension to them. And that’s where we’re finding healing and hope springing forth amidst the heartbreak.”


Shannon Luders-Manuel is a writer and critical race scholar. Learn about her work here

 

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Immigration

How Undocumented Black Migrants Are Navigating Immigration Hurdles

Co-published by Law at the Margins
An informal grassroots network is helping migrants confront their uncertain immigration status in the U.S.

Carla Pineda

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In 2016, 65 black and undocumented immigrants met in Miami to build and connect with each other. The first of its kind, this convening resulted in the establishment of the UndocuBlack Network, whose goal is to advocate for and amplify the stories of undocumented black immigrants in the U.S. (UndocuBlack Network/Facebook)

Editor’s note: This article is co-published by Capital & Main and Law at the Margins. It is part of “We the Immigrants,” a Community Based News Room (CBNR) series that examines how immigrant communities across the United States are responding to immigration policies.  The five-part series is supported by a Solutions Journalism Network Renewing Democracy grant.


The truth became clear to Sadat Ibrahim early. At the age of 18, he knew his life would be difficult as a queer person in Ghana.

“It’s against the law, and it’s terrible back home when we are labeled LGBT,” Ibrahim says. “Most LGBT people live a secret life.”

Sadat Ibrahim selfie. (Sadat Ibrahim)

He was attacked by a vigilante group in August 2015 and fled the country soon after, fearing for his life. He traveled through a few Latin American countries until he was detained in his attempt to cross the United States-Mexico border.

After spending two years and seven months in the prison-like conditions of detention centers, he was released July 25. His asylum case is currently under review. If it wasn’t for a fellow detainee who overheard his story and handed him phone numbers for immigrant rights groups, he could still be detained—or could be back in Ghana.

Now that he’s out, he communicates with his legal team daily. A pastor purchased a cell phone for him, and without it, he would feel just as out of touch as he felt in detention.

“I’d be lost in the world,” he concedes.

Undocumented black migrants are building an informal network to help each other navigate their uncertain immigration status in the U.S. While they are inclined to share immigration information by word of mouth, and are doing so at basic one-on-one and grassroots levels, they also are using technology to spread the word within the digital communities they trust. Whether they use WhatsApp to call family back home, Instagram to get news, or Facebook to live stream legal information sessions, black immigrants are using innovative methods to communicate—and to organize.

People are finding creative ways to respond to the unique challenges of being black and undocumented in the U.S., according to immigrant rights groups. Among those challenges is that black immigrants are underrepresented in the immigration narrative. Guerline Jozef, the president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, which visits detention centers regularly to connect detainees with resources, is working to change this reality.

“The black immigrant community is really suffering because of lack of representation and legal assistance,” she tells me. “They are forgotten, they are abused and oppressed even within the system.”

The word “invisible” is used to describe black immigrant communities. They tend to be overlooked because their groups are small and segmented compared to larger migrant groups. Nekessa Opoti of UndocuBlack, an organization focused on assisting undocumented black people in the U.S., wants these minority voices to be heard and their perspectives to be shared.

“We are so few that we haven’t built the mass movements that nonblack immigrants have,” says Opoti, a Kenyan immigrant. “Systems don’t work for us, so we rely on each other.


Another challenge faced by black immigrants is that they are disproportionately criminalized, say immigrant rights groups. Living in a country known for historic racial discrimination, especially during a presidential administration that is explicitly implementing a white supremacist agenda, black immigrants are vulnerable to deportation for many of the same reasons that black Americans are susceptible to incarceration. They have landed in a country where black individuals comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet they make up 33 percent of the prison population, reports the Pew Research Center.

This overrepresentation spills over into the immigration deportation system. While only 5.4 percent of the undocumented population is black, blacks make up 20.3 percent of all the immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds, reports the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. The minute an immigrant is stopped by the police for an offense as minor as a broken taillight, immigrants are subject to several federal criminal enforcement programs designed to funnel individuals into deportation proceedings—if local law enforcement officers decide to take on the duties of federal immigration enforcement .

Tunde Ogunade, a Nigerian immigrant who lives in Los Angeles, has not been funneled into the deportation system, but he has been at the gunpoint of racial profiling.

“I’ve gone through more racial stuff than immigration stuff,” he admits.

He recalls an incident when three police cars pulled up on him as he walked down the street.

“I was just nervous, and the lady pulls out her gun at me. She said, ‘He has a gun in his back pocket!’ ” Ogunade remembers.

Upon search, the officers found the alleged gun was only his cell phone.

“It made me feel like I’m a target,” he says. “Nigeria isn’t safe, but we don’t have death threats like that.”

Amid the challenges he has experienced in this country, a positive Ogunade praises technology for the opportunities it presents.

“For the past seven years, my mom has called me everyday,” he states fondly.

IMG_257

WhatsApp screen shot between Tunde Ogunade’s wife and her mother-in-law.

They call and text via WhatsApp, a mobile app preferred by migrants around the world because it is accessible and secure. Ogunade’s wife, who is currently expecting their first child, now uses WhatsApp regularly to share details about the baby with her mother-in-law.

Services like WhatsApp also give people the opportunity to communicate with U.S.-based activists who can help them find missing migrants. Jozef recalls the first phone call she ever received.

“I received the call in November of 2016 from a mother in Boston asking me to find her daughter, who supposedly crossed the border, and she never heard from her again,” Jozef said.

She decided to visit the daughter when she found her at a detention center in Southern California, and she was surprised to find another 25 Haitian migrants there. She began visiting the others, sending books, depositing money into their accounts so they could make phone calls, finding them legal assistance and connecting them to resources when they were released. The word began to spread, and she started receiving calls from families in the U.S. and Haiti, plus calls from detainees across the country. The most rewarding part for her has been offering a human connection to migrants who felt forgotten.

“A young man had been there seven months, and I was the first visitor he had,” Jozef says. After she told him, “I came, I saw your name, and I wanted to let you know we are thinking about you and you are not alone,” he started crying in disbelief.

Ibrahim developed stress-induced glaucoma and insomnia during his detention period, but the isolation can be the most debilitating part.

“I’ve seen people lose their minds,” he says. “And they don’t pay attention to you.”

He split his two years and seven months between detention centers in Texas and Georgia, sometimes without access to a shower or being able to brush his teeth.

“They treat us like animals,” he says. “You are controlled by authorities, and when you try to say something, they send you to the ‘hole.’”

He requested refugee status and was denied, and just before being deported, a fellow detainee shared phone numbers to different immigrant rights groups that ended up helping him. The network of resources available by word of mouth, such as the services offered by activists like Jozef, have saved black immigrants like Ibrahim from facing poverty, enslavement, or even death upon return to their home countries.

IMG_258

“My liberation is bound to yours.” In December 2017, the UndocuBlack Network made history with its Black AAPI Action Day as black and Asian American-Pacific Islander immigrants stood in solidarity in Washington, D.C. (UndocuBlack Network / Facebook)

But word of mouth only goes so far without access to the simplest technology, says Cathey Ambush, a volunteer with Immigrant Families Together. She has experienced helping recently released migrants at the bus stations or airports where they were dropped off by authorities.

“Texas detention centers will take moms from detention centers to the Greyhound bus station,” she says. “They’ll drop them off in groups in the morning, regardless of what time they’re leaving, just with the clothes on their back and maybe a box lunch.”

From there, they have no way to communicate with the family members who are expecting them—sometimes across the country—if they are stranded due to flight or bus delays. Although many migrants use cell phones to help guide their journey on their way to to the U.S., many don’t have a phone when they are released from detention (it’s rare for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to return cell phones, Ambush says).

For immigrants who do have access to cell phones, basic communication becomes easier, though finding communities they trust can be trickier. Black migrants tend to seek out resources within their church or cultural communities, according to the Rev. Dieufort J. Fleurissaint, of the nonprofit Haitian-Americans United. He says community assemblies, independence day celebrations and events that make black migrants feel at home are important.

“Church is a welcoming environment spiritually,” Fleurissaint adds. “Their culture is there. Their language is there. Even though we stay mobilized, we pray for God’s intervention.”

It’s within these communities that trust is built and information is shared, says Opoti.

“Things that happen are underground,” she asserts. “People organize quietly.”

Carl K. Lipscombe, deputy director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, says that because black-serving immigration organizations are “incredibly under-resourced,” technology is key in getting the word out.

Ogunade and his wife get a lot of their news about immigration and fellow Nigerians through the Instagram accounts of people and sources they trust, such as Amplify Africa and its partners.

“I went on social media, clicked and saw where I could go renew my visa,” he says. “This was very clutch for me because if I didn’t know that, I would have gone all the way to Maryland.”
UndocuBlack has found successes in mobilizing their allies through hashtags and graphics on Instagram. When Banny “Papa” Doumbia was detained and scheduled for deportation back to the Ivory Coast after living in the U.S. for 28 years, UndocuBlack helped his daughters spread the word about protests that ultimately helped keep him in the U.S. Several groups mobilized together using the social media hashtag #FreePapaDoumbia.

In other cases, UndocuBlack has made direct calls to action, mobilizing dozens of people to make phone calls to demand justice for individual immigration cases. One posted called on people to contact their representatives and demand they stop the deportations of black Mauritanians.

“We’ve heard from ICE asking, ‘Why did you give our phone number out?’” Opoti said.

Other campaigns are broader and focused on educating immigrants amid a flurry of misinformation. Black immigrants can fall prey to fraudulent schemes when they are misinformed, says Fleurissaint.

Haitian-Americans United uses Facebook often to manage “know your rights” and legal information sessions. For one campaign, they partnered up with Canadian radio to educate their audience around the Temporary Protected Status backlash that caused some black migrants to flee to Canada.

As black immigrants navigate racism, along with the many challenges of arriving in a new country lacking basic rights, they are finding many solutions to communicate and organize among their small communities. Having a basic mobile phone and perhaps a Wi-Fi connection helps them access and contribute to an underground network of information and resources.

But technology provides more than just communication tools.

“Access to technology really helps connect migrants to communities when they arrive,” Lipscombe said. “That could be the make-or-break factor. It’s the difference of them having somewhere to live or not.”


Carla Pineda is a digital producer at KCETLink in Southern California.

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S.F. Federal Court Blocks Trump’s New Asylum Rules

“What the government really seems to be saying,” a plaintiffs’ attorney said, “is ‘we don’t like asylum.’”

Leighton Woodhouse

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The ACLU's Lee Gelernt. (Photo by Leighton Woodhouse)

The administration has asserted, in effect, that it can override by presidential fiat a law written and passed by Congress.


 

Late Monday night, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order against the Trump administration’s new policy of refusing asylum consideration for refugees who cross the border between ports of entry. The court had heard arguments that morning in a case brought by nonprofit groups serving asylum seekers.

On November 9, President Trump issued a proclamation declaring that for a period of at least 90 days, refugees who cross the U.S.’s Southern border anywhere other than at an official port of entry will be ineligible for asylum. The same day, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security issued amendments to their own rules governing asylum, to the same effect.

The pronouncements were the administration’s latest move in a longstanding effort to dismantle the United States’ asylum system.


“If this rule is valid,” the judge asked the government’s attorney, “what is left of congressional intent?”


The pretext for the rules change is the approaching Central American migrant caravan, which the president had called an “invasion” and a national emergency in the days leading to the recent midterm elections. In his proclamation, issued just a few days after the elections, the president again stoked fears of the caravan, and argued that compelling refugees to present themselves only at ports of entry will allow for “orderly processing.”

In reality, however, there is less and less “processing” happening at official ports of entry. For the past several months, in violation of both U.S. and international law, Customs and Border Protection has routinely turned asylum seekers away, telling them to come back later or, at some crossings, to contact Mexican immigration officials to make an appointment.

But waiting indefinitely on the southern side of the border is not an option for many refugees from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, who are fleeing transnational gangs that are also present in Mexico. They also fear Mexican drug cartels that conscript migrants to act as drug-smuggling “mules.” Gay and trans refugees, in particular, face imminent danger in Mexico, where homophobic and transphobic violence is common.

Lee Gelernt, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the plaintiffs’ case, told the court that in the past 48 hours he had learned that Mexican authorities have been preventing unaccompanied minors from applying for asylum at U.S. ports of entry.

These situations leave refugees who have been turned back by U.S. immigration authorities with little choice but to cross between ports of entry. For them, the administration’s new rules effectively blocked any chance of seeking asylum at all, which, Gelernt believes, is the point. “The government doesn’t want to give asylum to people from the Northern Triangle region,” he told reporters after the hearing.

The Trump administration insists that asylum is a “discretionary benefit,” which administration officials can expand or constrain at will. The plaintiffs — a coalition of civil- and immigrant-rights organizations — argued that, to the contrary, the rules are fixed in plain English in statutory laws that can only be undone by Congress. Under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, refugees may seek asylum “whether or not” they entered the United States “at a designated port of arrival.” The government’s proposed rule change plainly and specifically contradicts this language.

At its heart, the case is a debate over the most basic conception of the separation of powers. The administration has asserted, in effect, that it can override by presidential fiat a law written and passed by Congress. “If the courts allow the president to take this step here,” the plaintiffs argued, “he could not only override statutory asylum law, but disregard the entirety of our congressional immigration scheme.”

Judge Jon Tigar, who presided over the hearing, agreed with the plaintiffs. He analogized the government’s argument to issuing a rule declaring that “you are allowed to come to the federal courthouse in any vehicle,” but then stipulating a second rule saying, “if you come here on a bicycle, you’re not getting in.”

“If this rule is valid,” he asked the government’s attorney, “what is left of congressional intent?”

Judge Tigar took less than a day to issue his ruling granting the temporary injunction. “(I)f what Defendants intend to say is that the President by proclamation can override Congress’s clearly expressed legislative intent, simply because a statute conflicts with the President’s policy goals, the Court rejects that argument also,” he wrote in the decision. The government is all but certain to appeal.

After the hearing on Monday morning, Gelernt characterized his side’s case as involving “serious concerns about separation of powers against the backdrop of an enormous humanitarian crisis.”

“What the government really seems to be saying,” he continued, “is ‘we don’t like asylum.’”


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ICE’s Stealth Campaign to Expand Its Budget

The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could pose a challenge to the agency’s chronic overspending — and to its aggressive detention and deportation policies.

Robin Urevich

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Photo: DHS/ICE

In June the Dept. of Homeland Security asked Congress to allow it to transfer $200 million to ICE to cover agency overspending, continuing a pattern of such requests.


Big spending on immigration enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security promises to be a major sticking point as Congress prepares to negotiate a budget deal early next month.

Even though illegal immigration to the United States appears to be at its lowest point in 46 years, spending on immigration enforcement is at an all-time high. (The U.S. Border Patrol reported that in 2017, the last year for which statistics are available, apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border had dropped to 303,000, and had been declining nearly every year since 2000, when a record 1.6 million people were arrested.)


 By overspending its congressional allocation, ICE is effectively writing its own budget.


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention operations exceeded the agency’s budget this year, while ICE spending on its vast system of immigration jails shows no sign of slowing.

But a newly elected Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could pose a challenge to the agency’s chronic overspending — and to its aggressive detention and deportation policies.

ICE jailed so many immigrants in 2018 that it ran out of space in its more than 200 lock-ups, and placed 1,600 people in medium-security prisons.

Congress set detention and deportation spending for 2018 at $4.4 billion, enough to detain some 40,520 people annually.

However, by June, 44,000 men and women languished in immigration detention, filling 4,000 more beds than Congress authorized. DHS asked Congress to allow it to transfer $200 million to ICE to cover agency overspending. The department plucked the funds from several of its agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration.

Critics of ICE say that by overspending its congressional allocation, the agency has engineered a stealth expansion of the U.S. detention system, effectively writing its own appropriation, and skirting the Constitution’s separation of powers in which Congress, not the executive branch, has the authority to set spending limits.


Congressman: “We shouldn’t be using FEMA as a piggy bank to fund detention beds.”


“It allows them to quickly expand the detention system contrary to congressional intent,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a non-profit immigrant rights group.

Such intradepartmental funds transfers aren’t uncommon, but a congressional staffer who asked that his name not be used for this story said this one was controversial because nearly all of the money went to ICE for detention and deportation. ICE has received other big budget increases in the past two years. In March 2017, the agency got a $2.6 billion supplemental appropriation; three months later, ICE was back, requesting that Congress approve a $91 million funds transfer.

The $200 million June 2018 transfer, wrote DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman in an email, was “in line with the FY 2019 president’s budget request for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

However, the additional funds covered FY 2018 overspending – not future shortfalls in 2019; Congress has yet to agree to a permanent fiscal year 2019 budget. Waldman didn’t answer an email asking to clarify her comments.


Congressional Staffer: Whenever ICE outspends its budget and adds detention beds, it gains leverage for the next round of budget negotiations.


The same congressional staffer who discussed the controversy surrounding the $200 million DHS funds transfer also noted that when ICE outspends its budget and adds detention beds, it gains leverage for the next round of budget negotiations because reducing beds would mean freeing detainees and, ICE argues, their release could jeopardize public safety.

Growth by funds transfer also generally avoids public scrutiny. Transfer documents submitted by government agencies are not released to the public. But earlier this year, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) released DHS’s June 2018 transfer and reprogramming request, noting that $10 million had been taken from FEMA just as Hurricane Florence was making landfall in North Carolina.

DHS shot back, claiming the funds were administrative and weren’t earmarked for hurricane relief. But according to Ur Jaddou, director of the advocacy group DHS Watch, and a former Chief Counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the DHS agency that oversees immigration and citizenship applications, “The government these days doesn’t operate on a plethora of administrative resources. It’s really functioning on a very limited budget. When they say they’re using unused money, it’s just a ruse.”

Congress has shown its frustration with ICE’s disregard for its authority, but hasn’t acted to rein in agency spending.


Congress has scolded ICE for its “lack of fiscal discipline and cavalier management.”


In budget recommendations for fiscal year 2019, the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote, “In light of the Committee’s persistent and growing concerns about ICE’s lack of fiscal discipline, whether real or manufactured, and its inability to manage detention resources…the Committee strongly discourages transfers or reprogramming requests to cover ICE’s excesses.”

Two years before, the explanatory language in the supplemental appropriations bill was even harsher. Appropriators pointed to a “lack of fiscal discipline and cavalier management” of detention funding, saying the agency seemed to think its detention operations were “funded by an indefinite appropriation. This belief is incorrect.”

“We shouldn’t be using FEMA as a piggy bank to fund detention beds,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD). “Unelected agency heads shouldn’t unilaterally shift taxpayer dollars for purposes they weren’t intended.”

Still, despite congressional annoyance with ICE’s free-spending ways, it hasn’t conducted meaningful oversight of the immigration detention system, said Greg Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“The current leadership in Congress hasn’t been interested in conducting hearings on detention spending and whether detention is even necessary at the scale it is now,” Chen said.

When President Trump issued an executive order calling for no-holds-barred arrests of undocumented immigrants in January 2017, the border patrol reported that apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border were lower than at any time since 1972 — when the detention population was a fraction of its current size.

ICE reported that in fiscal year 2017, 41 percent of crimes of which detainees had been convicted were traffic- or immigration-related.  Just 11.4 involved murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, robbery or assault.

Chen argued that ICE has a legal responsibility to screen each person in its custody for risk – either of flight or to public safety. “ICE is just not doing that and defaulting to the practice of detaining people.”

Democrats in Congress could take on a more robust role in overseeing ICE spending, now that they’ve gained a majority in the House. They could put conditions on spending, call for Government Accounting Office reports and hearings, cut funding, demand answers if ICE overspends and bring its actions to the attention of the press, said DHS Watch director Ur Jaddou, who is also a former congressional staffer.

“The next time they [ICE] need something,” Jaddou said, Congress can respond, ‘Do you really want it? You better listen.’”


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The Grassroots of Survival: Scenes from the Migrant Caravan

Co-published by Newsweek
The caravan’s collective discipline is impressive, especially since a good number of refugees are just boys and young men, 16 to 20 years old, fleeing Honduras because of gangs, political corruption and lack of opportunity.

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Central American migrants rest and regroup in Mexico's national stadium. (All photos by Trebor Healey)

Co-published by Newsweek

MEXICO CITY – The migrant caravan began streaming into the Mexican capital Monday night. It veered westward instead of proceeding up the coast through Vera Cruz state en route to Matamoros and Brownsville or McAllen, Texas because the coast has a reputation for violence and extortion. That is why many people were talking ominously about the 100 migrants already missing from the caravan. While the coast is the fastest route, it is the one made notorious in the 1980s and ’90s by La Bestia — “The Beast” — the train that immigrants have, en masse, continually ridden atop in their journey north to the U.S.

The coastal route is rife with bandits, cartel thugs and all manner of extortionists. Those perils are why the 5,000 to 6,000 refugees who make up the caravan headed here when the government of Mexico offered to put them up for three days in the national stadium. I arrived on day four, and there were still close to that number there, though several groups of 50 to 100 each had left that morning after the caravan’s assembly had decided it was time to begin to move north to Querétaro. They have a system in place to make group decisions. But they would set out only in fairly large groups for security, to prevent individuals and families from being preyed upon by those who find profit in exploiting the vulnerable.

The collective discipline of the caravan is impressive, especially since a good number of these refugees are just boys and young men, 16 to 20 years old, fleeing Honduras because of gangs, political corruption and lack of opportunity. I spoke to one, Hernán, who was vexed by what’s going on at the U.S. border, so different now than before when there was a sort of begrudging humanist acceptance of immigration from Central America. He knew, like everyone knew, that Americans were a bit racist, but, he said, “They need us because we are hard workers and willing to work.”

He was surprised when I told him I was an American. He told me he thought Americans had “washed their hands of us” and that none of them cared. I tried to explain Trump, Republicans, the fear and ignorance of some Americans, but it felt like trying to explain yourself while breaking up with a romantic partner. Finally, I just said we have an extremely corrupt government just like you do in Honduras, and what you and I share is the solidarity of our humanity. That got him to smile and shake my hand firmly and is maybe the best thing I did today. But his image of Americans washing “their hands of us” haunted me all afternoon.

 

I continued on into the large tents that the Mexican government has set up on the athletic fields of La Ciudad Deportiva, thinking it was time to see some kids. I first got into this work through a colleague involved in economic justice with immigrants back in Los Angeles, who later connected me to people doing similar work in Mexico City, where I live part of each year. Over the past four years, I’ve worked in the Mexico City barrio of Tlatelolco with a group of nuns called the Scalabrinianas, whose mission is to aid refugees. They have several locations in Mexico, and are incredibly effective in doing the laborious paperwork that leads to asylum for Central American refugees who have been victimized by gangs, police, civil war, economic hardship and climate change. (Historically anomalous droughts and flooding in Honduras and Guatemala have increased emigration.) At the Tlatelolco site, I had helped set up classrooms to keep the kids engaged while they awaited asylum. Happily, almost all the mothers with those children were successful in their efforts to gain asylum in Mexico.

Inside the stadium I stopped for a while to watch some speakers who were explaining to hundreds of refugees seated in the grandstands the state of the U.S. border and the substantial dangers inherent in their arrival there. News teams arrived surrounding their correspondents with cameras as they reported on the scene. Clowns entertained off to either side, and a lucha libre-style wrestling match commenced next to the speakers’ stage.

Soon enough, I found a place where a group of women sent by Mexico City’s municipal government had set up a mural station. Large pieces of butcher paper were taped to the sides of giant tents where hundreds had set up camp, and the kids were going at it with paint brushes and their fingers. I met a little kid named Carlitos who didn’t want to paint, so we found a ball and had a nice game of football. He couldn’t have been more than 3 and a half, but that boy could really boot that ball. And he fell to the ground after every kick, laughing gleefully and begging for me to help him up. A helicopter appeared, circling the stadium. Carlitos could not contain his joy as we chased after it together. He told me he was thirsty and we went to get some water from the nuns and drank it with Eddy. At first I thought Eddy was his brother, but after a while I began to realize he was likely his father, and not a day over 20.

The nuns brought all the water. In fact, the nuns brought all the food too, though I learned that the Mexico Central Market donated bananas and water in the first few days. I was soon enlisted in the assembly line for the afternoon comida. And I learned then that the Mexican government was not offering any food or services, nor were any local companies. The government’s reasoning was that the caravan was a sensitive issue diplomatically. (I never heard an excuse from the business community.) But Mexico had already allowed passage for the caravan, and now a stadium for them to rest and regroup in. It wasn’t willing to draw the wrath of the angry Orange God to the north by feeding the refugees as well. They were trying to walk some kind of fine line. At least they gave them this stadium and seemed willing to let that three days run for a week or more.

But 6,000 hungry people were still 6,000 hungry people. How on earth could anyone but a government handle such a number? I knew the Scalabrinianas from the Casa Mambré, where they housed 50 refugees. I’d been in those food lines and they were busy. But what I learned today about them was beyond impressive. They did the whole thing on donations and whatever they could find in their own paltry budget. We set up a line and we did it. We fed all 5,000 to 6,000. And it was completely ad libbed.

Tins of tuna dumped in bowls and mixed with canned vegetables. Cans of beans. Bread. Tortillas. And all of it cold, except for the occasional soup tureen, or vat of spaghetti, which would appear on the shoulders of Honduran youths who had volunteered to retrieve donations via the Mexico City subway, which the city had offered them the use of gratis. The Sisters of Charity, of Mother Teresa fame, arrived with hundreds of hard-boiled eggs. We worked, we laughed, we marveled, we just kept dishing it out on paper plates with plastic spoons.

The nuns kept asking me if I were a priest, while the boys, women and the few older folks stood in line patiently, thanking us, showing a dignity I’ve rarely witnessed in humans under duress ever before, and it’s not likely I ever will again. It was an amazing experience of the community of humanity, which independent of every government implicated in this mess (the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) was getting the business of providing for each other done in a very powerful grassroots way.

By 4 p.m., the line had begun to dwindle and I decided to take a break. Back to the kids to recharge my batteries. I couldn’t find Carlitos, but I found Isabel, who wanted to draw with pencils on paper, both of which I just so happened to have. I’d found them in a backpack when I was working in the donations tent, where teenagers popped their heads through the seams asking for shoes, shirts, pants, often with smiles so big and friendly, you just couldn’t ask them to please go around to the front.

Isabel didn’t know what to draw and I suggested a house, a tree, a family. She warmed to the idea and added a pool and rain to fill it. And flowers. Then she decided her house should be a castle and the tree should grow apples on all its branches. I told her it was such a nice picture and she looked at me beaming, one front tooth missing.

All of these people are dreamers. I felt a little guilty and irresponsible saying it as I left, but I told Isabel I’d see her in the U.S. and that I’d come visit her house and eat her apples. I couldn’t get her to let go when she hugged me goodbye. Now I need to go back home and find a way to make it happen. I’m not discouraged after what I witnessed here, though the challenge is daunting.

The truth is we have room for these people; we all know it – in our economy, in our schools, our parks, among the families they already have here, and most important, in our hearts. Trust me on that one. All Trump’s claims about criminals and terrorists? Sure, there are likely a few bad eggs in any group of 6,000, but I never witnessed a single scuffle or conflict. All I saw were conscientious people in need with a willingness to do whatever was necessary to be treated with the same dignity they treated me and each other with all day long.


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Homeland Security Kicks the Ladder from Under Immigrants Seeking Green Cards

Co-published by American Prospect
“Self-sufficiency has been a basic principle of United States immigration law since this country’s earliest immigration statutes,” DHS tells would-be citizens. Then it lists the ways a proposed agency rule could devastate the health care of 5.5 million of them.

Robin Urevich

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President Donald Trump and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. (Photo: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Millions of people could go hungry or forego medical treatment for fear they could jeopardize their chances or those of family members to legalize their status in the U.S.


 

Co-published by American Prospect

Immigrants who use Medi-Cal, food stamps, housing assistance or Medicare prescription drug subsidies could be barred from obtaining green cards or visa extensions under a proposed rule the Department of Homeland Security published in the Federal Register October 10. Currently only those who use cash assistance or who require long-term institutional care at government expense are barred on public charge grounds.

Immigrant rights advocates, health care providers and local governments predict devastating results, especially in California and other states with large immigrant populations: Millions of people would go hungry or forego medical treatment for fear they could jeopardize their chances or those of family members to legalize their status in the United States. The newly uninsured would seek care at hospital emergency rooms, likely waiting until their conditions are painful and costly to treat. Surprisingly the Department of Homeland Security echoes these predictions, but still contends the rule change is necessary.


“It’s just unconscionable that a family would have to choose between food, health care or a green card for their children.”


“DHS seeks to better ensure that applicants for admission to the United States…do not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations,” the government notes in its proposal. “Self-sufficiency has been a basic principle of United States immigration law since this country’s earliest immigration statutes.”

The California Primary Care Association, the trade group for the state’s community health clinics, predicts that between 20 and 60 percent of non-citizens could disenroll from public programs, including Medi-Cal, delivering a potential body blow to California’s health care safety net. The forecast is based on what happened during a similar scare 22 years ago, when Congress approved welfare and immigration reform laws that, for the first time, specified that those who received federal public benefits could be excluded from the country on public charge grounds. (The wide gap in the percentage forecast reflects varying rates of disenrollment from different programs and different immigration statuses of individuals, legal permanent residents, visa holders and refugees.) The Clinton administration initiatives didn’t define federal public benefits, but later instructed immigration officials to bar only those who used cash welfare benefits or those who required government-paid institutionalization for long-term care.


One policy analyst says the rule change is an “end run around Congress” that would favor immigration of wealthier individuals and those with advanced degrees or job skills.


“It’s just unconscionable that a family would have to choose between food, health care or a green card for their children,” says Louise McCarthy, CEO of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County.

The rule would instruct immigration officers to give positive weight to green card applicants with incomes of more than $62,000 for a family of four.

National Immigration Law Center policy analyst Jackie Vimo says the rule change is an “end run around Congress” that would favor immigration of wealthier individuals and those with advanced degrees or job skills.


Immigration officers would have broad discretion to exclude children, the elderly and non-English speakers in determining who would become a public charge.


“President Trump tried to change our immigration system, which has been a family-based system. This is trying to pass the RAISE Act through the back door,” Vimo said, referring to the 2017 Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, which would cut legal immigration in half and limit legal immigrants’ abilities to petition for legal status for family members.

The administration’s proposal would exclude those who have received 15 percent or more of the federal poverty level in food stamps or cash assistance, or $1,821 for a single person annually, as well as those who have been on Medicaid or who have received housing assistance for 12 consecutive months in a three-year period from becoming legal permanent residents. It wouldn’t penalize individuals who received benefits before the rule took effect.

Under the rule change, immigration officers would also have broad discretion to exclude children, the elderly and people who don’t speak English in determining the likelihood that an individual would become a public charge.


DHS predicts dire health consequences if its own proposal takes effect.


DHS hasn’t specifically proposed to exclude immigrants whose children are insured under the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which offers low-cost care to children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medi-Cal, but it has asked for the public to comment on whether it should do so.

DHS estimates that the new public charge rule would cause some 5.5 million people nationwide to either disenroll from Medicaid (as the program is known outside of California) or fail to sign up for fear of immigration consequences. (The DHS estimate is based on a percentage of the foreign-born population who sought to legalize their status between 2012 and 2017.) The government would save some $1.5 billion, but DHS also predicts dire health consequences if its proposal takes effect, writing that it would lead to:

•“Worse health outcomes, including increased prevalence of obesity and malnutrition, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants, or children, and reduced prescription adherence;

• Increased use of emergency rooms and emergent care as a method of primary health care due to delayed treatment;

• Increased prevalence of communicable diseases, including among members of the U.S. citizen population who are not vaccinated;

• Increases in uncompensated care in which a treatment or service is not paid for by an insurer or patient;

• Increased rates of poverty and housing instability; and

• Reduced productivity and educational attainment.”

The DHS press office did not respond to an email query or to phone calls asking how it weighed these negative consequences against the potential benefits of the rule change.

The new rule is so stringent that if American citizens were subject to it, one in three would be excluded, Vimo said. It’s also so complicated that among its costs to society, DHS listed an opportunity cost of eight to 10 hours for immigration lawyers representing immigrant clients and others who would seek to understand it.

Thus, it’s likely that few people have read the fine print, either of the final proposal or of two earlier versions that were leaked to the public last spring.

But fear of applying for benefits is already palpable among immigrant patients at Eisner Health, a network of community health centers that serve low-income patients in Southern California, say staff members. Katie Tell, Eisner’s Vice President for Development and Communications, noted that patients sometimes make untenable choices for fear of immigration consequences.

“Do they enroll or play it safe and not get the care they need? If we have less people in Medi-Cal, it could destabilize community clinics,” she said.

But Eisner Health staff report that patients are increasingly fearful of applying for benefits. They say that several women who received Medi-Cal to pay for prenatal care and delivery have recently called insisting on reimbursing the clinic out of pocket for their services. Other patients have refused to sign up for Medi-Cal for their children, who are eligible for the program.

Today, health care providers predict similar outcomes, which they say would reverse some of the progress California has made in tightening its health care safety net. The Affordable Care Act included a major Medi-Cal expansion that added nearly four million people to its rolls and cut the uninsured rate in half, from 17 percent to 8.5 percent between 2013 and 2015. Many previously uninsured Californians who, in the past, had used costly emergency services, were able to access more cost-effective primary and preventive care. Clinics like Eisner expanded and increased their services, but Carmela Castellano Garcia, CEO of the California Primary Care Association, says disenrollment from Medi-Cal could mean some clinics would have to cut back on programs.

The Department of Homeland Security is legally required to consider public comments for 60 days in drafting its final rule, however the FCC ignored that requirement last year in scrapping net neutrality rules — claiming that it only considered comments that introduced new facts or made legal arguments. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has announced its intention to change the way immigration judges apply the public charge rule, in order to align with the DHS proposal.


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Fire and ICE Video: Adelanto — Rendered Invisible

In April of 2017, Capital & Main visited the Adelanto Detention Facility to report on substandard medical care that was costing some immigrant detainees their health – and in a few cases, their lives. Following a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security detailing the harsh conditions that continue at Adelanto, we are republishing our original story and this accompanying video.

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The Adelanto Detention Facility, operated by a private, for-profit prison company for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is California’s largest immigrant detention center. In 2017, two detainees died within weeks of each other there.

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Fire and ICE: Detention Deaths in the High Desert

In April of 2017, a report from Capital & Main exposed substandard medical care at the Adelanto Detention Facility that was costing some immigrant detainees their health – and in a few cases, their lives. Following a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security detailing the harsh conditions that continue at Adelanto, we are republishing our original story.

Robin Urevich

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Late last March, Osmar Gonzalez Gadba, a 32-year old Nicaraguan immigrant, was found hanging by a bedsheet at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Adelanto Detention Facility. About two weeks later, ICE reported that a second detainee, Sergio Alonso Lopez, 55, of Mexico, had died in a nearby hospital of internal bleeding – the fifth detainee death since Adelanto opened in August 2011, and the sixth fatality to occur in ICE custody so far this year. The California facility is run by the country’s number two for-profit prison company, the Florida-based Geo Group.

Now, a 41-year old woman detained at Adelanto tells Capital & Main that she has lost full use of her right arm and leg after suffering stroke-like symptoms, and alleges that her treatment has been poor.

The Geo Group’s stock has soared on news that the Trump administration plans to greatly expand the ICE detention system, as has that of Core Civic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), the U.S.’s largest for-profit prison company. Human rights groups, however, are concerned about the already poor quality of health care for detainees across the country and worry that expansion will make it worse. After the 2015 death of 44-year-old Raul Ernesto Morales of colon cancer, the Adelanto facility was pressured to improve care. But the company that Geo hired to do so has a poor record in jails, prisons and detention facilities across the U.S. What is more, a report scheduled for release in early May by Human Rights Watch and Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) will show that in ICE detention, health-care services nationwide are still substandard, and perhaps dangerous.

Last year Human Rights Watch examined 18 in-custody deaths in facilities across the country that occurred between 2012 and 2015, and concluded that substandard care likely contributed to the death of Morales and six others.

Morales, who was from El Salvador, had been in ICE custody for four years at the time of his death, three of them at an Orange County jail, with his last year at Adelanto. An ICE detainee death review showed he had complained of gastrointestinal symptoms for two years before his cancer was diagnosed. ICE investigators noted that three days before Morales’ death, guards shackled and transported him to a hospital emergency room in a passenger car instead of an ambulance, after an outside doctor who’d been treating him said he was “bleeding out.” The investigators called the move “highly risky.”

Investigators also noted that half the nursing staff at Adelanto was inexperienced and untrained in conducting clinical assessments of patients. Off-site medical appointments were at times canceled or delayed because lab understaffing meant test results were sometimes unavailable when expected.

ICE investigators didn’t determine that poor care contributed to Morales’s death. Last year, however, a review of the ICE investigation by Human Rights Watch concluded that it probably did.

“Had Mr. Morales’ gastrointestinal symptoms been evaluated much sooner as was clinically indicated, it is possible that the malignancy from which Mr. Morales died might have been caught at a time when it was still treatable,” the report noted, quoting a medical consultant who analyzed the records.

Human Rights Watch researcher Clara Long said her group’s new report will show that health care in immigration detention has not improved. The study reviews medical records of detainees who died, as well as those who have survived but who said they had received poor care.

Long added that Trump administration plans to build more detention facilities will mean “more deaths due to subpar care and more serious medical issues undetected and untreated.”

In late April, ICE Los Angeles field director David Marin led reporters on a tour of the Adelanto lockup. It sprawls across 108,000 square feet of high desert 40 miles north of San Bernardino. It is the state’s largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, with some 1,700 people from 70 countries living behind its bars. It’s run under a contract arrangement with the city of Adelanto.

Inside the walls, Marin showed off medical-examination and X-ray suites, a psychiatric observation area, and a dental suite. Carlos Deveza, health services administrator for Correct Care Solutions, the Tennessee-based for-profit that provides health care at Adelanto, said the facility is fully staffed with a physician and mental health personnel. Marin told Capital & Main that CCS came on board in 2016 when ICE made it clear to Geo that its health-care services must improve in the aftermath of Morales’ death. But ICE declined to provide the agency’s most recent Adelanto oversight reports that would show whether its own inspectors have found that health care, especially in the areas it criticized, had gotten better.

The company is among the largest for-profit providers of prison medical and mental health care in the country, with 11,000 employees in prisons, jails, ICE detention centers and community corrections facilities in 38 states. Like other for-profit prison health-care providers, it faces a deluge of lawsuits alleging wrongful deaths and denial of care. Currently more than 260 such claims are pending against CCS alone in more than 30 states.

For example, attorneys for the family of 38-year-old Jennifer Lobato alleged in a 2015 complaint that she died a preventable death of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance as she withdrew from methadone in a Colorado jail cell, and received no medical attention from CCS staff. In California, Armando Vargas, a jail inmate with a long history of mental illness and suicide attempts, hanged himself in the Mariposa County Jail, allegedly after being denied his medication while in CCS care at the jail. His attorneys further allege that no one attempted to administer CPR when they found him hanging in his cell last August. And, last year, the Nation magazine reported that the parents of Nestor Garay sued CCS and the government for wrongful death after their son suffered a stroke in a Texas prison and later died. They alleged their son was forced to wait five hours before being transported to the hospital after his stroke.

In Adelanto, detainee Norma Gutierrez shuffles slightly, dragging her right leg as she enters a tiny interview room on the women’s side of the massive facility. The right side of her mouth droops and her right arm seems weak and trembles.

Norma Gutierrez claims her roommates reported that nurses called her seizure a “freak show.”

“I look in the mirror and I’m not the same,” she says tearfully.

She recalls the time she awakened on the floor of her dorm, after collapsing into the arms of her dorm-mates last January. She couldn’t move her mouth or her eyes, and she felt stunned and disoriented.

She was taken to a San Bernardino hospital where, she said, she had blood tests, an MRI and X-rays, but claimed hospital nurses refused to answer any questions about her condition, simply telling her she was fine. The next night, she said suffered another collapse. Gutierrez claims her roommates reported that nurses called her episode a “freak show,” while a guard with the rank of lieutenant also reportedly made inappropriate comments about Gutierrez.

This time, she says, she wasn’t hospitalized. Instead, she was taken in handcuffs to a cold room with a bed, a toilet and two blankets. Gutierrez says she remained alone there for four days. The only medical attention she received was from a nurse who took her pulse and brought her previously prescribed medication for depression and anxiety. Later, a psychologist told her that her attack had been psychosomatic. She was returned to the dorm where she suffered a third episode. This time, she says, she didn’t bother to report her symptoms.

One detainee defended the care CCS has provided recently. He told Capital & Main that in the past there were long delays before detainees could get appointments with nurses and doctors. It’s better now, he said.

But Gutierrez says she’s no longer requesting care at Adelanto — she’ll wait to see a doctor on the outside.

Geo Group vice-president Pablo Paez declined to comment on the issues Gutierrez raised and responded to questions by Capital & Main with a statement expressing confidence in the care CCS offers:

“GEO provides high quality, around the clock medical care at Adelanto in partnership with its healthcare subcontractor Correct Care Solutions. Medical care at Adelanto and all other GEO ICE facilities is provided pursuant to mandated, performance based national detention standards set by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and also adheres to guidelines and standards set by leading third-party accreditation entities including the American Correctional Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.”

Likewise, CCS spokesman Jim Cheney declined to answer questions, both about Gonzalez’s case and the company’s policies and practices, and instead provided a statement identical to Geo’s.

David Marin, the ICE field director, said he and his colleagues are proud of the facility and the care it offers. In an email, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said that her agency will review the Adelanto deaths, and cited the thousands of medical, mental health and dental visits conducted at the facility, and the fact that ICE covers the cost of treatment in the community when it’s necessary and approved.

Denver-based civil rights attorney Dan Weiss, however, said CCS makes it a practice to deny care, understaff its facilities and assign medical staff to duties beyond the scope of their professional licenses.

“Among civil rights lawyers, everybody knows what they do — they kill people for a living,” Weiss said, pointing to cases like that of Jennifer Lobato. “But outside that narrow slice of America, people don’t know. People assume they’re providing a valuable service. People don’t realize how dangerous it is to go to jail and get sick.”

Health care at Adelanto and other ICE facilities, however, may draw greater scrutiny in coming months as the state legislature considers a bill by State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).

Lara’s Senate Bill 29, which passed the senate judiciary committee in late March, would require detention centers to meet the latest ICE standards for medical care and other conditions of confinement, and give detainees the right to sue in state court. The bill would also prohibit California cities like Adelanto from acting as intermediaries between ICE and for-profit prison providers.

“Immigrants bear the brunt of a business where profit often trumps care,” Lara said as he urged judiciary committee members to move SB 29 to the appropriations committee, where it currently awaits a hearing.

Human Rights Watch’s Clara Long said Lara’s bill could help ensure that detainees in California get humane treatment. “It might prompt ICE to change their ways,” she said.

In Washington, DC, Mexican Embassy spokesman Ricardo Alday said his government also plans to investigate Sergio Lopez’s death. While problems in ICE detention have existed for years, he said, now any abuses might be a result of the “perception that anything goes because of the current [political] climate.”

 

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Immigration

How Immigration Activists Got ICE Out of a County Jail

ICE contended that forcing Contra Costa County to divest from cooperation in immigrant detention would harm the detainees — an argument similar to those heard during the fight for divestment from apartheid in South Africa.

David Bacon

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Family members of detainees, including Maria Lopez, Adrianna, and Hulissa Aguilar, called on ICE to release their loved ones after it was announced the center would close. (All photos by David Bacon)

ICE has facilities in hundreds of county jails around the U.S., building a dependency among counties on money paid for housing detainees.


 

Bay Area immigrant communities and immigrant rights activists felt they’d won an important victory July 10. At a news conference, Sheriff David Livingston, flanked by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, announced that his department was ending its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigration detainees in Richmond at the West County Detention Facility, one of the county’s four jails.

Immediately, the organizations that had put pressure for years on the county over its cooperation with ICE demanded the release of the detainees, urging authorities not to transfer them to another location. For the next two months, until the immigrant facility inside the jail was closed, detainees’ families and their supporters mobilized to get legal help, and raise the bond money needed to bail people out of detention. In the end, they raised tens of thousands of dollars, and freed 21 of about 175 detainees held inside the center. The rest were transferred.

Supporters of Lourdes Barraza and her husband Fernando were able to raise the bond to get him released. He came to the next vigil to show support for other families, holding his youngest daughter.

A final vigil held September 1, after the ICE facility closed, was a bittersweet moment. For seven years, monthly vigils had been held under the portico next to the center’s doors. After the sheriff was forced to abandon the ICE contract, however, activists and families were forced to gather next to a new chain-link fence, in the traffic lane of the highway outside the detention center’s parking lot.


The vigils at Richmond’s West County Detention Facility went on longer than protests at any other county jail.


Several former detainees, some freed just days before, came with their families to celebrate. Other families, however, faced the reality that their detained loved ones were now far away, in centers ranging from Adelanto in San Bernardino County to Arizona. Alexa Lopez’s father, Raul, was taken to a facility in Colorado.

“We can’t see him anymore,” said his wife Dianeth.

At the end of an hour of songs, prayers and speeches, the participants wrote messages on white ribbons to those still detained, and tied them onto the chain-link fence.

Rev. Deborah Lee, the vigil organizer and director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and other faith activists outside the detention center the day it closed.

ICE spokesman Richard Rocha accused those who had pressured the county of being responsible for separating families. In a statement when the contract was canceled he said, “Instead of being housed close to family members or local attorneys, ICE may have to depend on its national system of detention bed space to place those detainees in locations farther away, reducing the opportunities for in-person family visitation and attorney coordination.” Immigrant rights activists called that a threat and tried to free as many detainees as they could.

Rev. Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and the central organizer of the vigils, said the faith groups involved had to examine their conscience. “The transfer of many detainees instead of their release was hard to swallow at first, and many families felt helpless,” she said. “We asked ourselves if we were responsible for their transfer, as ICE accused us. But the families reminded us that ICE moves detainees all the time, and often they don’t know where their own family members are.”

The ICE argument, that forcing the county to divest from cooperation in detention would harm the detainees, is similar to arguments heard during the fight for divestment from apartheid in South Africa. Corporations investing in South Africa at the time said divestment would harm those people who divestment proponents were trying to support.

Kara Hernandez and her son Victor Jr. came to the last vigil with her husband, Victor, who had just been released before the immigration detention center was closed.  Victor Hernandez embraced Hugo Aguilar during the last vigil, showing the friendship that had developed between them during months inside.

Opposing divestment, however, was then and is now also a matter of economic self-interest. ICE was paying Contra Costa County $3 million per year to house immigrant detainees. Yet the sheriff didn’t hire any new employees with the money, according to Lee. Instead his department relied on overtime by the existing workforce. In a petition a year ago detainees complained they were being held in cells 23 hours a day, that there were no toilets in the cells, and that free time for calling relatives or taking showers was often canceled. One detainee asked to be deported in preference to continued detention.

“County jails are the worst place to be an immigrant detainee, even worse than many of the huge privately operated detention centers,” Lee charges. “They have far fewer services for people, and aren’t built for long-term detention. Of course, what does that say about the conditions for the non-immigrant people imprisoned there?”

Hulissa Aguilar came to a vigil to ask for help to get her father Hugo released.  After raising the bond and getting him out, the family was reunited at the last vigil, together with Hugo’s sister Isela and brother Gonzalo.

ICE has facilities located in hundreds of county jails around the country, building a dependency among counties on the money paid for housing detainees. The city councils of Hoboken and Jersey City protested when Hudson County, New Jersey, supervisors (all Democrats) voted last July to renew its ICE detention contract. “The county and cities shouldn’t be in the business of profiting off human misery,” Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop told the New York Times. Sacramento was receiving $6.6 million annually from ICE before it canceled its contract in June. Other contracts have also been canceled in Santa Ana, Virginia and Texas.

The vigils at the West County Detention Facility went on longer than protests at any other county jail. “They created a monthly platform,” Lee explains, “where detainee families could come and ask for support. A consistent, regular event provided a place where people who weren’t necessarily activists could participate. People brought their children, made their own signs, and came to play music. Often one person from a congregation would come at first, and then go back and recruit others. From the beginning, we were committed to the long haul.”

Lee relied on faith congregations as a base, and each month appealed to one of them to take responsibility for the vigil. As the vigils gained momentum and before they were successful, Lee explained why congregations were morally obligated to be involved: “Since the detention center is in our community, we can’t look away. We have to own it, to scrutinize and examine what goes on inside, and be involved with the detainees and their families. Ultimately, we have to force our local authorities to divest and get out of the business of detention, and stop collaborating and making money from it. It’s not impossible. It’s something that people can do to end the detention system.”

Hulissa Aguilar and Victor Hernandez, along with many vigil participants, tied ribbons to the fence after writing messages on them expressing support for the families of other detainees.


 

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Immigration

Breaking News: Study Shows Spike in Federal Immigration Prosecutions While White-Collar Cases Plunge

A spike in immigration prosecutions comes only a few months after Justice Department data showed that the Trump administration has overseen a 20-year low in white-collar criminal prosecutions.

David Sirota

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (DoD photo by Dominique A. Pineiro)

The Trump administration’s immigration crackdown appears to be crowding out other law enforcement priorities, according to a new analysis of Justice Department data.

A study released Monday by Syracuse University researchers showed that federal immigration prosecutions in June comprised 94 percent of all cases in the five U.S. Attorney districts along the southwest border. That is up from 86 percent in March. The report noted that federal officials in those border areas are moving forward with more prosecutions that are being referred by the Customs and Border Protection. In June, prosecutors moved forward with more than 11,000 of those cases – up 74 percent since March.

The spike in immigration prosecutions comes only a few months after Justice Department data showed that the Trump administration has overseen a 20-year low in white-collar criminal prosecutions. (See graph below.)

Graph: Syracuse University

Syracuse researchers noted that the immigration focus appears to have come at the expense of prosecutions in other areas that U.S. Attorneys oversee.

“Federal prosecutors are responsible for enforcing a wide range of important federal laws – designed to combat narcotics trafficking and weapons offenses, battle those polluting air and water, counter corporate and other schemes to defraud the public, and much more,” they reported. “Unless crimes are suddenly less prevalent in the districts along the southwest border, the odds of being prosecuted for many federal offenses have declined.”

The simultaneous increase in immigration prosecutions and decline in white-collar crime prosecutions followed Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ April 2018 announcement of a “zero-tolerance policy” and his demand that U.S. Attorneys focus on immigration.

“To those who wish to challenge the Trump administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: Illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice,” Sessions declared. “To the department’s prosecutors, I urge you: Promoting and enforcing the rule of law is vital to protecting a nation, its borders, and its citizens. You play a critical part in fulfilling these goals, and I thank you for your continued efforts in seeing to it that our laws—and as a result, our nation—are respected.”


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