Note: This article has been updated to reflect the latest ICE-inmate figures for the Sacramento County Jail.
As the Trump administration ramps up deportations of undocumented immigrants, federal officials say they need more lock-ups in which to hold them, especially near the border with Mexico.
But California may refuse to help — with detention or any other aspect of the deportation surge. In fact, the state is considering a bill that, among other provisions, would bar county sheriffs from contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house immigration detainees in county jails.
Senate President pro Tem Kevin de Leon’s Senate Bill 54, the California Values Act, is seen as a statewide sanctuary law that would largely keep state law enforcement officials and other state institutions from collaborating with federal immigration authorities.
The California State Sheriffs’ Association is one of the bill’s staunchest opponents, in part because since the 1990s, local sheriffs have reaped millions of dollars annually by renting jail space to ICE for its detainees.
Some legislators might sympathize with the sheriffs’ financial concerns. But poor conditions in which many detainees are held could also shape the debate. Inspection reports have shown county jails have violated ICE rules by denying detainees timely medical treatment or adequate recreation. And, in the Yuba County jail in Marysville, about 40 miles north of Sacramento, detainees like 38-year-old Orsay Alegria Sumita are alleging outright brutality and mistreatment.
Alegria said in a sworn statement that he suffers from epilepsy, especially when he’s stressed. Last October as he waited to be booked in the Yuba County jail, he felt an epileptic seizure coming on. He vaguely remembers that a guard told other detainees not to help him. Then the guard began kicking him. Alegria said that after the beating, he was left alone in a cell for three days, and later pressured to withdraw his complaint against the guard who assaulted him, which he refused to do.
Alegria and approximately 1,400 other ICE detainees housed in jails in three other California counties, including Orange, Contra Costa and Sacramento, aren’t accused of crimes.
They’re simply awaiting deportation or, like Jorge Alberto Manriquez, fighting immigration cases before a judge while confined at the Yuba County jail.
Manriquez is a U.S. Marine veteran who said in a sworn declaration that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on when he witnessed two cadets kill themselves during basic training. He is anxious and has trouble sleeping. When he entered the jail, he said he told a nurse that he needed medication for his PTSD, but he didn’t get to see a psychiatrist for three months. Manriquez also alleged that it took two weeks for him to get medication for a heart condition.
In Yuba County, ICE detainees are distinguished from other prisoners by their red jumpsuits. County inmates who are awaiting trial or serving time wear orange. But Carter White, who heads the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of California, Davis law school and represents the Yuba County Jail inmates in a class action lawsuit, said that’s largely where the differences end. ICE detainees and inmates serving time or awaiting trial, sometimes for serious crimes like murder or rape, are treated the same.
“They’re all treated badly. There are serious problems, especially with mental health, but also with medical care. It [Yuba County jail] is understaffed and staffed with people who are not qualified. That transcends red and orange,” White said.
White and his students have interviewed more than 200 inmates in three years, enlisted experts in their investigation and toured the jail repeatedly.
White and other attorneys for the prisoners are asking a judge to put an end to alleged constitutional violations at the jail.
“These include the County’s deliberate indifference to suicide hazards, woefully inadequate medical and mental health care, segregation of the mentally ill including in unsanitary ‘rubber rooms’ covered in blood and feces, and the lack of meaningful access to exercise and recreation,” court papers say. The attorneys further alleged in court documents that there were at least 41 suicide attempts at the jail in 30 months.
In its 2014-15 report, the Yuba County Grand Jury painted an equally dreary picture of jail conditions, noting that some inmates are housed in a section of the jail known as “the dungeon,” which has few windows and is perpetually dark. There is no registered nurse on staff and a doctor visits for just a few hours a day. Suicidal inmates are confined to padded cells, sometimes for weeks, and may or may not get blankets. “…little stabilization can be expected under such bleak conditions,” grand jurors wrote.
Yuba County Sheriff Steve Durfor told Capital & Main that he can’t comment on pending litigation. But he argued that inmate safety is important to him and his officers.
“It’s the highest priority,” Durfor said. “We take very seriously the proper treatment of all individuals in our care.”Yuba County has housed ICE detainees since the 1990s, and its contract with the agency has been a financial windfall, currently providing about $5 million annually. That’s nearly half of his $11 million jail budget, Durfor said, and 20 percent of the entire sheriff’s department budget.
“It’s a huge financial impact,” Durfor said of the potential loss of revenue that SB 54 would bring. “It offsets costs of employing officers, medical and mental health staff and maintaining the jail.”
ICE detention contracts have also meant big infusions of cash to sheriffs’ coffers across the state. Orange County takes in about $22 million annually for housing more than 800 people in two of its jails. A spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department said its average daily population for calendar year 2016 was 3,920. Of those, 138 were ICE inmates. In fiscal year 2015-16, the county received a total of $4.9 million in reimbursement revenue for housing the ICE inmates at the department’s Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center. A contract provided by Contra Costa County shows that ICE pays nearly $6 million annually, also to hold some 200 detainees in its jail. The Santa Ana city jail has also housed ICE detainees, but an ICE spokeswoman reports the government is ending its contract with the city.
If SB 54 passes, Yuba, Orange, Sacramento and Contra Costa counties would likely continue to house ICE detainees until their agreements with the federal government expire.
In addition to ending the practice of local detention contracts with ICE, de Leon’s bill would bar law enforcement from sharing information and collaborating with the agency in most cases and limit assistance with immigration enforcement at other public facilities, including courthouses, schools and health clinics.
Sheriff Durfor called SB 54 “misguided” and said that “SB 54’s severely limiting cooperation with federal authorities doesn’t serve effective public service. We all need to work together.”
As in Yuba County, detainees in other county jails in California have also been held in substandard conditions, according to reports by ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight and Orange County’s grand jury. The reports cited are the most current that Capital & Main could immediately obtain.
A 2014 ICE inspection in Yuba noted that jail personnel failed to investigate a potential sexual assault and that two inmates subjected to use of force by guards waited three and five hours, respectively, for medical care after the incidents.
The 2015-16 Orange County Grand Jury cited an investigation into the Orange County Jail by the Department of Justice that found limited mental health treatment and an over-reliance on segregation cells and said so-called safety cells “don’t sufficiently mitigate risk for suicidal patients.” The DOJ report also noted concerns about use of force and medical care, grand jurors said.
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens declined an interview request.
A 2013 ICE inspection at Orange County’s Theo Lacy jail revealed that staff didn’t do required weekly reviews of prisoners who were placed in segregation for disciplinary reasons. Thus, they may have remained apart from fellow inmates longer than was necessary. ICE inspectors further found that jail staff used a chokehold on an ICE detainee. In total, the Lacy facility complied with just seven of the 18 ICE detention standards reviewed by inspectors.
A 2012 review by ICE of conditions at the Sacramento County Jail showed it complied with just six of 18 standards. Among inspectors’ findings: Jailers denied recreation to inmates placed in segregation cells and failed to offer a medical exam to a detainee involved in a use of force incident.
In Contra Costa County in 2013, inspectors found the jail complied with nine of 17 standards. They noted problems with medical care for chronically ill inmates, no dental screenings and the use of detainees to interpret for medical personnel.
“We take them very seriously,” said ICE spokesman James Schwab of failures to meet detention standards. Schwab promised to respond further but couldn’t do so in time for publication.
On Monday, SB 54 is set for a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it is likely to come under attack by the sheriff’s association.
The detention ban carries unintended consequences, said Cory Salzillo, a spokesman for the group.
After all, ICE won’t stop detaining unauthorized immigrants just because local sheriffs won’t house them, and it may be better for detainees not to be shipped out of state, far from friends and family, Salzillo said.
Moreover, detainees might find equally inhospitable and sometimes dangerous conditions in ICE detention centers across the country, many of which have come under fire by human rights groups for years.
So far, support for the bill has been along party lines, with five Democrats voting to pass it out of the Senate Public Safety Committee in late January, and two Republicans voting no.
The California Peace Officers Association also opposes SB 54 in its current form. The California College and University Police Chiefs Association supports it. But other law enforcement groups have been mostly mum, neither supporting nor opposing.
De Leon’s bill is an urgency measure and as such requires a two-thirds vote and would take effect immediately after passage. That’s 27 votes in the Senate, or the exact number of Democrats in that body.
Democratic defections may be unlikely.
“It’s authored by the president pro tem of the Senate, so I think it has a good chance,” Salzillo said.
Immigrant Detainees Speak of Abuses
Asylum seekers in America are often treated like criminals — mandatorily imprisoned in isolated immigration detention centers after turning themselves in to immigration officials at the border.
“They look at you like trash,” said a former detainee who had been a hunger striker at the Adelanto Detention Center.
Last month 100 people from states as diverse as New York, Texas, Maryland, Kansas, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada and Illinois met in a Malibu retreat center to plot nothing less than the end of the U.S. immigration detention system. Brought together by CIVIC (Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement), participants included interfaith activists, immigration lawyers, recently released asylum seekers and academics, nearly all of whom were women. Meeting for three days in scorching heat, they discussed how to effectively challenge the system of incarceration and deportation that is now part of our nation’s immigration infrastructure.
Many Americans, myself included, are the children, grandchildren or other descendants of people who came to the U.S. to escape religious persecution, starvation, tyranny or political violence. We would not be alive were it not for America’s past immigration policies. Current asylum seekers are often treated like criminals, mandatorily imprisoned in isolated immigration detention centers after turning themselves in to immigration officials at the border. Many face bail requirements as high as $250,000 and sometimes more to get out, and often endure life-threatening conditions while incarcerated.
“They look at you like trash,” Emmanuel, a former detainee, told conference attendees. He and another speaker, Isaac Lopez, had been hunger strikers who were recently freed on bond from the Adelanto Detention Center near Victorville, California after advocacy on his behalf by a coalition of immigrant rights organizations. Among nine Central Americans (who were later joined by over 20 Haitian asylum seekers), Isaac participated in the hunger strike to dramatize the lack of medical attention, spoiled food and the provision of used, dirty underwear to the detainees. Once the hunger strike began, said Lopez, the strikers were subject to pepper spray, solitary confinement and other abuses.
CIVIC supports a network of volunteer-run visitation programs to America’s 210 detention facilities, whose inmates usually have no legal representation or contact with the outside world. The group also organizes stakeholder inspection tours and runs a national hotline through which detainees can report abuses experienced in the system. A pen-pal program and the sharing of stories of those finally released after months or years of incarceration also help get the word out that these facilities exist, supported by taxpayer money.
CIVIC’S volunteer network conducts over 54,000 visits to detention facilities each year. Workshop presenter Paula Kahn of CIVIC and CODEPINK suggested that the goal of volunteers is to be “radical accomplices.” Rather than “impose our own conclusions about conditions inside the detention facility,” Kahn emphasized that “people are experts on their own experiences” and the job of visitors is to understand their lived experience in detention.
Other workshops discussed recruiting and retaining volunteers, monitoring conditions for detainees, getting their personal stories out to the broader community, raising funds for bail and post-release support. Once released from detention, asylum seekers are often prohibited from working yet have to find a place to live and continue to pursue their asylum requests through the immigration court system.
As a result of CIVIC’s work in collecting data on conditions in California’s immigrant detention centers, the state legislature this year passed the first bill in the country to put a moratorium on the expansion of future immigration centers in California and to give the state attorney general the power to monitor the facilities for the next decade.
A closing session run by CIVIC founders Christina Mansfield and Christina Fialho asked retreat attendees to visualize a time when the 210 detention centers across the U.S. are closed and, instead, non-profit organizations are funded to provide housing and support services for those in the asylum pipeline.
The U.S. immigration detention system is the largest in the world and influences the infrastructure of detention systems in other countries, Fialho and Mansfield explained. By changing the ways immigrants are treated here, the U.S. can be part of an international movement to reshape state responses to asylum seekers by welcoming migrants rather than imprisoning them.
Copyright Capital & Main
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Copyright Capital & Main
The Art of the Border: Searching for Kikito
Co-published by The American Prospect
Kikito, an enormous photograph of a 1-year-old child, pasted onto plywood sheets, stands 65 feet high on Mexico’s side of the border. Viewed from the U.S., he is a giant black-and-white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he looks over it, into the mysterious United States.
All Photographs by David Bacon
A French artist’s colossal installation on Mexico’s side of the border may make the invisible visible, but other subjects carry a sharper critical edge and pose deeper questions.
Co-published by The American Prospect
For almost an hour Laura, Moises and I drove through the dusty neighborhoods of Tecate, looking for Kikito. Tecate is a small border city in the dry hills of Baja California. It’s famous for a huge brewery, although today most workers find jobs in local maquiladoras.
When we asked for directions, a couple of people had heard of Kikito, but couldn’t tell us where he was. Most didn’t know who we were talking about.
We figured that if we kept driving along the border fence we’d find him. In these neighborhoods the second stories of large comfortable homes, mostly built in the 1940s and ’50s, rise above adobe walls enclosing their courtyards. But unlike downtown, with its colorful bustle, there was no street life on the hot streets here, hardly anyone on the sidewalk.
Finally we passed the one man who could surely tell us how to find Kikito — the cable guy. He even volunteered to lead us in his van part of the way. Using his directions, we bumped along a dirt road next to the border fence, up and down a couple of hills where the city fades into scrubland. Then we found Kikito.
He was much larger than I’d imagined.
Kikito is an enormous photograph of a 1-year-old child, pasted onto plywood sheets. The assemblage is mounted on a huge, complex metal scaffold, 65 feet high, much like what painters erect to embrace the buildings they work on. Kikito’s scaffolding, however, doesn’t embrace anything. Instead, it pushes the enormous photograph towards, and above, the border wall’s severe vertical iron bars.
The structure is so big that to bring the photo into position, part of the hillside had to be excavated, and a hole dug deep into the ravine at the bottom. I felt like Dorothy going behind the curtain to confront the Wizard as he manically pulls levers to present his fierce, disembodied face to the world. Like the Wizard’s, you can only see Kikito’s visage the right way from the other side of the curtain — in this case, the metal fence separating Tecate from the U.S.
Virtually every family has a member or friend who’s crossed to the U.S., where over nine percent of the country’s population now lives.
Viewed from the U.S. side, Kikito becomes a giant black-and-white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he looks over it, into the mysterious United States. He has a slight smile.
If we’d been on the U.S. side, driving east from San Diego, we could have followed the directions Kikito’s creator, the French artist JR, posted on his website. There you can even see JR’s photograph of two U.S. Border Patrol agents staring at the baby. Apparently they often help visitors find the right spot.
We now have 20,000 Border Patrol agents, whose parked vans dot the desert all along the border wall from California to Texas, as they wait to grab someone trying to cross. Helping visitors find Kikito must provide a welcome break in the tedium of watching and waiting, and sweating in vans on shadeless hills, where the temperature climbs to 105 degrees and above.
At this spot along the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., Border Patrol agents fired through the wall and killed Ramsés Barron-Torrés. His portrait and a cross are on the wall of the building in Mexico below, where he fell. Agents say they were justified in shooting because people were throwing stones at them, but the street is far below and there is little danger that a stone could even pass through the iron bars at such a distance.
It’s obvious that Kikito’s audience is located in the U.S. “The piece is best viewed from the U.S. side of the border,” JR’s website explains. In fact, the optical effect can only be seen from that side — Mexicans standing in Tecate, where it’s actually located, can’t see it the right way. JR says Kikito is looking “playfully,” but then admits, “Kikito and his family cannot cross the border to see the artwork from the ideal vantage point.”
I took a photo of Laura on a nearby hummock, just to give an idea of the structure’s immense scale. She seems diminutive next to it. In her classes at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana, and in her books and research about the migration of Mexico’s indigenous people to Baja California and eventually to the U.S., Laura Velasco is hardly dispassionate. She advocates for migrants, and has no love for the wall and its unsubtle messages of “Keep Out!” and “Stay in Mexico!”
“We are the invisible people. In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican.”
That’s one reason she liked Kikito. “He shows us to be human beings,” she said, looking up at his half smile. “That’s a good message for people in the U.S. And he does it without shouting, just by being who he is.” If people in Mexico can’t see him properly, she thinks, they’re not the ones who need to get the message anyway.
When the installation went up, President Trump had just issued his threat to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA ) program, withdrawing the legal status of 800,000 young people brought by their parents to the U.S. without visas as children. Many of those youth — the Dreamers — saw a baby looking over the border wall as a symbol of their own humanity in the face of fear and possible deportation.
Yet my visceral reaction, as I looked down the hillside at this immense toddler, was more skeptical. In a desert where hundreds of people die every year of thirst and exhaustion, trying to dodge Border Patrol agents, trekking on foot across the wall in the intense heat, is it enough to simply say, “Immigrants are human beings”? Why such a soft message in such a harsh context?
Migrants found dead on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potters field graveyard in Holtville. The identities of many are not known, and are buried as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.” Immigrant-rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves, most of which say “No Olvidados,” or “Not Forgotten.”
The wall, and the border militarization of which it is a part, is exacting a terrible cost. It’s paid by uprooted Oaxacan farmers needing work and money to send home, by parents and children desperate to reunite families fractured by earlier migrations, by Honduran refugees fleeing violence. When many die crossing the desert (232 in the first seven months of 2017), they’re buried in the Holtville cemetery, 89 miles east of Kikito in the Imperial Valley.
Successive U.S. administrations have beefed up the Border Patrol’s numbers, built multiple walls, handed out contracts for high-tech surveillance devices, detained hundreds of thousands of people in for-profit detention centers and then deported them. It’s a big media story, and produces a fascination with the border among U.S. photographers and artists, who then create photodocumentaries and art projects currently popular in the mainstream media. The border sells, in other words. Kikito is part of a growing genre.
Richard Misrach, a well-known photographer, produced a large book of photographs, Border Cantos, which shows the absurdity of a wall of iron bars that suddenly stops at a golf course, allowing real estate agents to play through. He communicates an atmosphere of violence in images of spent shells on the range where Border Patrol agents practice shooting, and the possibility of death from thirst in images of flags signaling the water cans left by immigration activists and Good Samaritans along the migrant trails. But like Kikito, his audience is in the U.S. The photographs, almost all without people, look at the border wall from the northern side.
Some projects are less documentary. In the New Yorker, writer Jonathan Blitzer recounts how Magnum photographer Carolyn Drake “set out for the U.S.-Mexico border just after Donald Trump won the Presidency.”
“Where is Drake taking us?” Blitzer asks. “This is an American project, she told me. She’s less concerned with who’s crossing to or from Mexico than she is with who’s already on the American side, living alongside the border as though wedged between two worlds.”
The New Yorker labeled Drake’s work “Haunted Photographs of America’s Borderlands,” a phrase that signals that we’re only looking at the border from the U.S. side. “Our obsession with the border has a lot of fantasy involved,” Drake explained to Blitzer. ”You’re searching for something, but it’s not really there.” Her 22 photographs on the magazine’s website are all taken in the U.S. — Mexicans only exist once they’ve arrived in the north.
“When did this contemporary diaspora become a ‘fantasy’?” asks Don Bartletti, who in his years at the Los Angeles Times probably took more photographs of the border than any other U.S. photographer. “The border is certainly clearly defined for millions of people searching for something better on the other side.”
Another New Yorker writer, Alexandra Schwartz, calls JR “a magician who conjures people onto walls.” She notes that he’s done other photographic projects on the same scale, pasting black-and-white portraits of immigrants onto buildings and walls in Europe and elsewhere. He too got his impetus from Trump. “When Trump started to talk a lot about a wall along the Mexican border, one day I woke up and I saw a kid looking over the wall,” JR told Schwartz. “We know that a 1-year-old doesn’t have a political vision, or any political point of view. He doesn’t see walls as we see them.”
I’m sure JR doesn’t see Mexicans as 1-year-olds. But the way the border is objectified and used can make people in Mexico suspicious about how people on the other side of the wall see them, when they see them at all.
“The subject of the border is profitable for artists,” Enrique Botello, a photographer in Ensenada and founder of Galería 184, told me. “I think most U.S. photographers don’t understand the price we’re paying on the border, in terms of the number of people dying. They’re motivated mainly by self-interest because the subject of the border is easy to sell. A lot of photographers only want to come and take pictures without being very critical — just exploit the subject.”
A fter looking at Kikito, we drove over to Tecate’s new municipal art center for the presentation of a book about California farmworkers, published jointly by COLEF in Tijuana and the University of California Press in Oakland. Afterwards we went to drink wine at a local restaurant with friends — poets and artists.
“Kikito means nothing to me,” announced Francisco Morales, Baja California’s celebrated poet and activist. (See his poems that follow this article.) His partner, Rocio Hoffmann Silva, is a portrait painter. Between them, they live project to project, book to book, and often have a hard time putting together the income to pay the bills. “I look at the resources needed to create Kikito, and think about what we could use them for here,” she said. “There’s so much available in the U.S. When we want to create art that looks at our lives here, support is hard to find.”
Oscar Contreras, a sociologist at COLEF born in Tecate, thought Kikito didn’t have to make an overt political statement. “It can exist in its own right,” he argued, “and we can appreciate it or not based on how well it communicates its aesthetic ideas.” Kikito, however, and photographs of the wall and the “borderlands” are created as social documents, not just art abstracted from reality. That’s the basis for their media popularity — why photographers and artists get the funding needed to create them. “If they’re measured against social reality, I think that’s fair,” he added. “After all, can Kikito exist without the wall?”
Morales isn’t angry at Kikito in particular, but like many of his colleagues believes Tijuana’s vibrant culture is ignored in U.S. media coverage of the border. Mexican artists create their own art about the migration experience, because it is such a fundamental aspect of Mexican life. Virtually every family has a member or friend who’s crossed to the U.S., where over nine percent of the country’s population now lives. One famous work mounted crosses on the border wall’s metal plates, where it runs along the road past the Tijuana airport. Gallon jugs symbolizing the water carried by border crossers were stacked against it, each with the name of someone whose body had been found in the desert.
At the ironically-named Friendship Park (Parque de la Amistad) in Playas de Tijuana, the graffiti on the wall’s bars is itself an art project. The wall, both there and on the fence leading to Mexicali’s crossing gate, has become a venue for photographers and artists. Their art is sharp, critiquing mass deportations and the hard lives of migrants on the other side. And these works can only be shown on the Mexican side — the Border Patrol will not allow art installations on the side they control.
Much of the Mexican art about the border focuses on the wall and its human cost, but photographers like Botello also insist that the coverage has to include the roots of migration. “The problem of the border is bilateral,” he says. “U.S. policy toward the border is becoming very radicalized, causing the death of so many migrants. But the problem of the border is also that of the countries exporting those migrants.”
To Enrique Botello, the problem of Kikito is that he is too distant, both from the deaths at the border and from the reasons people risk it — what they are migrating from. “JR says that he has no political position!” he exclaims. “His interest isn’t in making a commitment, just in his art.”
Bartletti is angrier. “Many photographers who parachute in to the U.S.-Mexico border portray its cultural anthropology as simple theater,” he argues. “‘The Border’ has become a convenient stage, with little documentary evidence of the causes and consequences of migration for survival. But it’s probably good for their bottom line.”
Art or photography can help change the world, if it arises from the political commitment and involvement of the artist and photographer. “We should strengthen solidarity on all the borders of the world,” Botello urges, “so that that someday all those borders will disappear.” Therefore photography projects, he believes, should be produced in cooperation across the border, in active solidarity.
While there are few examples of this today, it is an idea with historical precedent. In the 1930s and ’40s Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco came to the U.S. and created radical murals that were cultural weapons of that era in movements for social change. They inspired a generation of radical U.S. painters in the process. Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural, “Man at the Crossroads,” was viewed as so dangerous that its patron, Nelson Rockefeller, had it demolished. Tina Modotti, born in Italy and raised in San Francisco, and Mariana Yampolsky, born in Chicago, created photographs that became part of the revolutionary cultural upsurge in Mexico from the 1920s to the 1950s.
In making Kikito, a Mexican child visible to the United States, JR has created a border-focused project. But if part of its purpose was to make the invisible visible, other subjects carry a sharper critical edge, and pose deeper questions about the reality people experience on the border. What happens, for instance, to those pushed back through the gate in the border wall, once they’re deported from the U.S.?
Today scores of young people live in the concrete channel built to contain the floods of the Tijuana River, which runs through the middle of the city near the border between Mexico and the U.S. Like the Los Angeles river channel, it is mostly a featureless cement expanse, but in Tijuana it is filled with deportees with no money and no homes.
Juan Manuel Barragan Corona, recently expelled from the U.S. and living in the river bottom, has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas. “We are the invisible people,” he says. “In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican.”
Two poems from San Ysidro Zone, by Francisco Morales
Translated by Iliana Hernández Partida
words had left me dry
the hate helicopter flies again
looking for migrants through the wired.
at the crackling corner of hunger
a patched tunnel
fears and mastiffs are after feeble dogs.
The coffee and the chipping bowl got cold
Ah, these men! :
How many fences they build!
how much misery
for so many nomadic skeletons!
More common than shadows and noise
a wall rises upon us.
That humidity scented wall
does not scream nor crackles
no groans come from it.
It cuts maliciously
the Psalms history that we traced
our elucubrations fiercely built
like a coastline without sowings
or a private lilies swamp.
The silence wall.
The seed growing missing a life seed
along the sunset working as a watchman
and the stubborn eyes browsing
from the chiaroscuro grid.
The seven vigils bitch
giving birth to new sarcasms.
Exiles on Main Street: Refugees Find Hope in California
Co-published by International Business Times
As the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential victory approaches, writer Sasha Abramsky reports on the effect of one of Trump’s major efforts, the blocking of Muslim immigrants and refugees from entering the United States, and on how California is helping the refugees.
As the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential victory approaches, Sasha Abramsky examines how refugees in California, as well as state and private relief agencies, are coping with Trump’s refugee policies.
Co-published by International Business Times
Living in Oakland, scrabbling for work, the young Syrian photojournalist tries to put his life back together. It’s hard. Fearing that he would be forced to fight in the government army, or that he would be harmed because of his photographs of the war, he had left his parents in his home country for Turkey – which is why, fearing reprisal against them, he doesn’t want his name published in this article – smuggling out a cache of photographs documenting atrocities carried out by government forces.
Years of exile followed in Turkey, where he would score a photography job here, another there. The young man waited years for his refugee paperwork to be processed, sharing an apartment with his brother while trying to build the daily routines of a new life. Finally, sponsored by a war photographer in California whom he knew, he secured admission into the United States, arriving shortly before President Trump’s temporary ban on new-refugee admissions kicked in.
After spending years in limbo, the refugee suddenly found things moving absurdly fast. He was given only 10 days notice of his flight to the United States: 10 days to conclude the the relationship he was involved in, to sublet his apartment, to finish the jobs he was doing, to sell or pack or give away all of his possessions.
“I was in a relationship – I should just tell her I will disappear?” he asks. “It gives me a sadness. This is the one I love; I don’t know when I will see her again in life. I don’t know when I will see my parents again. I’m saying goodbye to my brother. Just took one bag. Left everything.”
Pastor Kirt Lewis of World Relief:
“Refugee resettlement will increasingly be limited to blue and purple states.”
“I’m already broken inside,” he avers, his emotional rawness painfully clear in every word he enunciates. “I need nice people around. People in California welcome refugees. It’s not easy, to be honest, but it’s my new life. I’m doing my best, but sometimes I feel very tired. Three days ago, I was in the ER. Anxiety. My room is dark, it’s in the basement. I feel far away from everyone and everything. I don’t want to be a victim, but sometimes you feel alone.”
The Syrian photographer is part of the latest, and perhaps for now, the last wave of refugees to come to America after escaping violence. There have, over the past half century, been Southeast Asians, following the Vietnam War; Central Americans fleeing juntas and war; refugees from Iran and the Soviet Union in the 1980s; refugees from Iraq, the former Soviet Union and the Balkans in the 1990s; from African civil wars in the early 2000s; from the slew of post-9/11 Middle Eastern conflicts. Now, all of that human movement is, under the implementation of the new restrictions, grinding to a halt.
After Trump signed his initial executive order barring refugees in January, resettlement agencies reported incoming families being turned back at airports overseas or held in U.S. airports upon arrival. Turmoil reigned as those refugees previously authorized to come to America to escape political or religious persecution in Iraq, Syria and Iran were blocked from flying here. Many had already sold everything they owned, canceled their housing leases, quit college, etc. — all in anticipation of their move to the United States. Now, suddenly, they were left in limbo.
“I was in San Diego [at] our annual meeting,” Yvette Khani, a caseworker supervisor at the International Rescue Committee’s Glendale office, recalls of the day the IRC heard that the refugee ban was about to kick in. Khani, an Armenian Christian who left Iran as a refugee in 1995, and who has worked for the IRC since 1997, sits in her small office — on one wall of which is pinned a poster of Albert Einstein, who founded the IRC to help Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, emblazoned with the words, “Refugees Welcome.”
“They pulled me out,” Khani continues, recalling her colleagues’ reaction to the unfolding events. And, she continues, they “told me 125 of our clients were supposed to depart January 27th from Iran to Vienna — and told me to call their relatives and tell them not to leave Iran.”
This is a story of contrasts: Of the pain and heartache, the confusion and the delays, faced by refugees caught in the chaos of the Trump administration’s policy changes, and of the opportunities, and the more welcoming spirit that await them if and when they arrive in California.
Despite the occasional anti-refugee protest, no state in the country accepts more refugees than California. Between 2011 and 2016, more than 36,000 settled here, according to the state’s Department of Social Services. Nearly 8,000 arrived in 2016 alone – as did thousands more Special Immigrant Visa holders — people from countries such as Afghanistan, who helped America during military operations and who are not, technically, refugees, but who can utilize refugee services once they arrive. The latter are concentrated in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Santa Clara and a few towns throughout the Central Valley. Sacramento County alone, to where nearly half of the SIVs in the state have come, resettled about 3,300 refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders in 2016. So far, in 2017, the IRC has resettled another 1,700 or so SIV holders, mostly Afghans, in Sacramento.
The state has, by and large, opened its heart and pocketbook. Earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill, authored by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, that gives schools $10 million over three years to help refugee children in their new educational environment; he also signed Assembly Bill 343, giving SIVs the right to apply, upon arrival, for in-state tuition at community colleges. A state advisory council, made up of refugee resettlement agencies, community groups and members of the Department of Social Services, meets on a regular basis, as do several Refugee Forums around the Golden State.
The federal government, has, historically, also been fairly generous, setting in place a number of programs designed both to bring in refugees from certain countries, and also to help with the resettlement/acculturation process once they arrive. These days, however, Trump’s America is aggressively slamming its doors to them. Trump imposed a “temporary” ban on the entire non-SIV refugee program, severely restricting the granting of visas to people from a number of Middle Eastern countries, and implementing a Catch-22 of “extreme vetting” procedures – on top of the extraordinarily rigorous, three-year process that already existed prior to Donald Trump’s election — clearly designed to slow to a trickle the migration and visitation from other countries.
In California, even as much of the country turns its back on strangers fleeing war zones, refugee organizations report a surge in the number of community residents volunteering time and donating resources to help the new arrivals.
“This was a nonpartisan, noncontroversial issue up till the last two years,” says Pastor Kirt Lewis of World Relief Sacramento, which resettled over 1,500 refugees in Sacramento County last year. Then, as Trump ratcheted up his anti-refugee rhetoric, support for resettlement in many states plummeted. “If a lie is repeated enough times, a lot of people will buy it. The Midwest and many Southern states have politically become a hostile environment to refugees.”
“It has been,” he added, “an unpredictable, chaotic environment for those of us who believe this is a matter of character for the kind of country we aspire to be.”
Refugee resettlement agencies fear that Trump’s September presidential determination on refugees, which dramatically lowered the total number of refugees admitted yearly to 45,000 – it peaked under Obama at more than 110,000 — also imposes limitations based both on their nationalities and their “values.”
“We see a lot of risks and threats right now,” says New York-based Anna Greene, senior policy and advocacy director for U.S. programs at the IRC. Greene worries about processing requirements “made so onerous, to get through it really could grind [things] to a halt,” and about a “cherry-picking” of refugees designed to exclude people of certain religious and national backgrounds.
But in California, even as much of the country turns its back on strangers fleeing war zones, refugee organizations report a surge in the number of community residents volunteering time and donating resources to help the new arrivals. Every time Trump tries to hurt this vulnerable population, Californians respond by increasing their assistance. “You drop everything,” says Jose Serrano of World Relief, of the scramble to help incoming refugees after the chaos unleashed by Trump’s initial ban. “You don’t have time for lunch, dinner. You just problem-solve.”
IRC volunteers, such as Sarah Ferguson, a former caterer in Sacramento who now works full time on what she calls a “kindness campaign” –- based around a nonprofit organization that now has hundreds of local volunteers — have gotten involved in cultural orientations with refugees, in family support services, in little things like showing new arrivals around their neighborhoods, and in big things like helping them enroll children in school. “We have furnished hundreds of homes” for newly arrived refugees,” Ferguson says of her team. “We have done community events where we put out halal food, bring in entertainment. It’s a beautiful feeling. We were all immigrants once. For my family it was my grandparents. We were all once these people in one way or another.”
For World Relief’s Kirt Lewis, in the long-run this community generosity towards vulnerable new arrivals likely means that California, which has nurtured a huge, and effective, refugee resettlement infrastructure over the years – from job training to comprehensive medical screening — will end up housing a greater proportion of the total number of refugees who enter America. “You’ll see resettlement move away from the smaller and mid-sized communities. Refugee resettlement will increasingly be limited to blue and purple states.”
Out back of the Sarah McGarvin Intermediate School, in the small Orange County city of Westminster, a couple of dozen boys and girls ranging in age from first graders up to teenagers are kicking a soccer ball around, their bicycles parked to one side of the pitch. It’s late summer, and the last day of the Little Brushstrokes soccer camp, which was put together for these refugee children by World Relief staffers and a number of local volunteers. Several days a week, sandwiched between the tennis and basketball courts, they have played soccer, speaking to each other in a mixture of pidgin English, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto. Several of the children are Syrian – part of the last batch of refugees to get into the country before the Supreme Court allowed the refugee ban to take effect this past June. Others are Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian and from a number of other Middle Eastern countries. Some of the girls wear hijabs in a slew of different colors.
The parents of many of these kids work at an assembly plant for medical equipment in nearby Irvine; others work local security jobs; others still are employed by restaurants. Many of the parents speak almost no English; increasingly, as their children pick up their new language, they lean on these children to translate for them and to help them navigate the complexities of life in the new world.
Once the children finish playing soccer, they will traipse over to the shaded copse just next to the main school building, where, sitting in a grassy area bordered by tissue paper hung from tall pine trees, they will eat slices of cheese pizza and chocolate cookies, washed down by Gatorade, while each are given medals for their participation in the summer program.
For 11-year-old twins Maher and Farah, Syrian refugees from a middle-class, business-owning family who spent five years in Egypt before recently being admitted into the U.S. with their parents and grandparents, the program has been a perfect way to begin their new lives in America. “We played soccer. We made friends,” explains Farah, a shy young girl who likes science and sports. She wants to continue soccer after the summer, once they start their new school, playing as a goalkeeper. Her brother, a Barcelona fan who idolizes the Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi, wants to be a striker.
Amidst the nastiness of Trump’s anti-refugee stance, California’s politicians and residents have remained steadfast in their commitment to welcome refugees.
To celebrate their new lives in California, the twins’ parents and grandparents threw them a surprise birthday party earlier that month. Their mother, Hanan, cooked traditional Syrian food — stuffed grape leaves, chicken wraps, shish barak, tabbouleh – as well as cookies, cake and ice cream. To make their environs look more festive, they hung red and white balloons along the walls of their new apartment.
The party was captured on a cellphone video by Hanan and her husband, Bilal: Maher dressed in a tuxedo, his sister in a white party dress. Their pride shines through loud — that all-encompassing pride that most all parents, be they Syrian or American, have in their growing children.
When one talks to the family, however, a more enduring sadness emerges from the temporary joy of the birthday. During the Syrian fighting the twins’ parents’ and grandparents’ homes were destroyed, and their businesses ransacked after they refused to allow militias to use their factory supply chain to smuggle weapons. Eventually they had to flee with pretty much only the clothes on their backs.
“I smile in pain and hurt,” the grandmother, Amera, says softly, sitting at a picnic table near the soccer grounds, a three-minute walk from the little apartment they now live in. “I left my house, my belongings, everything. My life there. Daughters, relatives. I am still in very bad pain. Always, I am upset. I remember every day.”
Now, in California, the grandparents are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives at an age when many of their peers are retired, to begin all over again. It’s an awesome challenge for them, and for their working-age children. “We are surprised by a lot of things,” says Amera’s daughter, Hanan. “Financial problems. Getting a job is hard. Learning English. We feel insecure after the new regulations in America; we don’t feel safe. Maybe one day the president comes to us and says, ‘Leave.’ Or doesn’t give us a green card. Then there is no place to go. This is our fear.”
Their stories are by no means unique. Talk to refugees, or special immigrant visa holders, and one hears both tales of heartbreak and a remarkable ability to endure, to start anew, to navigate new pathways.
No matter how much local refugee resettlement organizations want to help these newcomers, they remain largely at the mercy of state and federal policies. And as Trump’s team has both imposed a temporary halt to non-SIV refugee flows, and proposed a long-term cap of 50,000 admissions per year, so one relief agency after another has had to close its idled resettlement offices.
In 2016, for example, World Relief’s Garden Grove office resettled 250 refugees. This year, before the ban kicked in, it resettled 145, and has been told by the organization’s Baltimore headquarters that, even if the ban is lifted it won’t be able to take any more refugees in 2017, because of the numbers cap. Over the last few months, World Relief has shuttered five offices around the country – in Tennessee, Idaho, Florida, Ohio and Maryland.
In 2016, the Glendale office of the International Rescue Committee resettled 1,097; this year it has resettled 668 and doesn’t anticipate being able to bring many more in during the remainder of the year. This year, in the Los Angeles area, three out of eight resettlement offices run by the several organizations working with refugees have closed. Martin Zogg, the director of the IRC’s Glendale office, fears this trend will only accelerate. He envisages “a dramatic contraction” in the number of agencies working with refugees, and a corresponding “reduction in the ability to serve refugees.”
And yet, amidst the nastiness of Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee stance, California’s politicians and residents have remained remarkably steadfast in their commitment to help and to welcome new arrivals. “That sends a very powerful message to Washington,” argues the IRC’s Anna Greene. “California and other states can do a lot by signaling welcome.”
Karen Ferguson, executive director of IRC’s Northern California chapter, agrees. “California is just continuing to be as positive a place in the midst of this very negative rhetoric as possible. You feel it every day here. I am so proud of this state. We all should be.”
Copyright Capital & Main.
California Game Changers: Leveling the Field in Immigration Court
Co-published by International Business Times
More than 600,000 immigrants are battling deportation or fighting for asylum in American immigration courts — nearly 20 percent of them live in California. Fewer than 40 percent of these are represented by an attorney, including children as young as 3.
Immigration law is often compared to the tax code in its complexity, but the government doesn’t provide attorneys for those who can’t afford them, as it does in criminal matters.
Co-published by International Business Times
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Cambodian refugee Chea Phov appeared before immigration judge Arlene Dorfman in downtown Los Angeles dressed in a crisp, white shirt and white jeans, and looking much older than his 40 years. He brought his sister and elderly mother to court for support, but he told Dorfman there was one person he couldn’t find: an attorney to represent him.
“I don’t understand how to fight my case. I barely passed high school,” Phov told Capital & Main. “I believe representing myself is unjust.”
Phov is not alone.
More than 600,000 immigrants are currently battling deportation or fighting for asylum in immigration courts across the country. Nearly 20 percent of them live in California.
Operated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the courts decide whether those who are accused of violating immigration law should be permitted to remain in the country.
Some of those arguing their cases are survivors of domestic violence or torture in their homelands. Others are legal residents with longstanding family and community ties to the United States who have committed crimes, some of them minor and decades in the past. These cases carry far-reaching consequences. Deportation can mean permanent separation from a spouse, children and community, or, if repatriated to their country of origin, persecution, torture or worse.
A 2010 report by the American Bar Association noted that the lack of legal representation was found to be the single biggest determinant of success in immigration court asylum cases. Immigration law is often compared to the tax code in its complexity, but the government doesn’t provide attorneys for those who can’t afford them, as it does in criminal matters. Fewer than 40 percent of those arguing cases in immigration court are represented by an attorney, including children as young as 3, as well as men and women who can’t read or write, or who don’t speak English.
Phov argues that he faces deportation because of a big mistake, but said he can’t make his case for a second chance without legal help. He fled Cambodia with his family, came to the United States when he was 8 and settled in Long Beach. In his early 20s, he said, he drove a getaway car in a robbery and did 13 years in state prison. He denied being one of the bad hombres that politicians from Donald Trump to Jerry Brown contend should be shipped back to where they came from. Phov said he’s been crime-free for four and a half years and has rededicated his life to his Buddhist faith. He said his entire family is in the U.S.; a return to Cambodia would cut him off from everyone he knows, and damage his fragile mental health. He claims to suffer from depression, racing thoughts and bipolar disorder, but has benefited from medication.
“If they send me to Cambodia, I won’t get my meds.”
Seven years ago, the American Bar Association recommended the federal government establish a sort of public defender system of appointed attorneys for indigent immigrants like Chea Phov. However, Washington has taken no action.
Now, in the face of federal inaction, calls for so-called universal representation in immigration court have grown louder. Last year, the California Coalition for Universal Representation (CCUR), which is made up of nearly two dozen civil rights and immigrant rights groups, called for the state to establish its own free legal representation system for immigration defenses.
The odds are overwhelming against those who are sitting in immigration detention
“Our society no longer questions the moral and constitutional duty to provide attorneys for individuals in criminal proceedings,” the group’s 2016 report, “California’s Due Process Crisis,” noted. “Given the similarity both in form and in severity of the potential consequences, the moral imperative here is equally clear.”
It’s also an issue for California’s social services system, the report claims. Deportations take parents away from their homes, which means more kids in foster care, greater mental health and medical needs, and housing and food insecurity for more families.
The coalition points to New York City, which in 2014 became the first in the country to offer free representation for all indigent residents, as well as for New Yorkers detained in neighboring New Jersey who face deportation. Meanwhile, this year California lawmakers have allocated $45 million to fund legal representation in immigration court, while the Trump administration’s deportation push has spurred Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Austin and Washington, DC to consider programs similar to New York City’s.
A study by the American Immigration Council last year further found that detained immigrants were twice as likely to win their cases if they had attorneys. Those who weren’t detained were five times more likely to prevail. Among children, the differences are even starker. Also in 2016, the National Immigrant Justice Center reported that 73 percent of those who have representation are allowed to stay in the U.S., while only 15 percent of unrepresented children are allowed to remain here.
“Immigration law is so difficult and so complex,” said Patricia Ortiz, program director at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles. “To expect someone to do it on their own is pretty ridiculous.”
Ortiz said it’s so hard for people to understand the system that some show up for her organization’s legal orientation meetings unaware that they’ve already been ordered deported.
To help people find counsel, the courts distribute lists of nonprofits like Esperanza, which is run by Catholic Charities. Some 20 such groups provide free and low-cost representation around the state, but demand for services far outstrips capacity, said Robert Foss, division attorney at the International Institute of Los Angeles, a Lincoln Heights nonprofit that helps immigrants settle into new lives in the United States.
“The intake is often overwhelming,” Foss said. “You do a legal triage, you find the most humanitarian or egregious cases. Our formula is cases that most need our help and maybe have a chance to win. It’s tricky and it means saying no to a lot of people.”
In Los Angeles and San Francisco, more than two-thirds of those in immigration proceedings are represented. But if you live in Atlanta or Kansas City, your chances of finding a lawyer are less than 50-50.
The odds are overwhelming against those who are sitting in immigration detention.
Detainees in Adelanto, the massive high desert lock-up near San Bernardino, California, have only a 13 percent chance of securing attorney representation, while those in San Diego fared only slightly better, with a 17 percent chance, the American Immigration Council study found.
At its core, the debate is about justice, with universal representation supporters and opponents at odds over just what is fair.
Using 2015 figures, the CCUR report argues the state of California could level the playing field with an outlay of $37 million to cover legal defense for the 7,400 Californians who were unrepresented in immigration court that year. The figures are likely larger this year, because of the record number of cases in the courts. The group’s report notes that the state could recoup its investment in the form of decreased foster care costs, lower mental and medical care expenses for traumatized families and millions spent by businesses to hire and train replacement workers for those lost to deportation.
However, the economic case for a federal universal representation program is even stronger. A 2014 study commissioned by the New York City Bar Association and conducted by John Montgomery, a former member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, found that universal representation would cost about $208 million nationally, but the cost would be offset by a savings of about the same amount —$204 to $208 million—in detention and related costs.
At its core, however, the debate is about justice, with universal representation supporters and opponents at odds over just what is fair.
Take a person who steals a bag of chips, said Jeremy McKinney, an attorney and secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who practices in North Carolina. The man gets a free lawyer. However, McKinney noted, a person in deportation proceedings may risk return to a war-torn or authoritarian country where he could be killed. “There is something that is not just about that,” McKinney, said. “Maybe we need to look at extending those protections to people who face permanent exile from our country.”
But Chapman University law professor and constitutional law scholar John Eastman disagrees.
“If that’s the argument, why not provide mandatory taxpayer-funded representation in family court?” he said, noting that the stakes are high there, too, as they are in other areas of civil law.
“You open the door here and there’s all sorts of other claimants that are equally sympathetic. You pay for someone illegal – why not pay for me in my landlord-tenant dispute or my divorce?” Eastman said.
Still, Eastman said his objection is to making immigration defense a constitutional right, as it is in criminal cases. He said he wouldn’t necessarily oppose Congress appropriating funds for that purpose.
(Kenneth Gardner, a spokesman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, which runs the courts, wrote in an email that his agency declines to comment on calls for universal representation.)
Still, a 2013 court victory shows that a system of free appointed counsel for those who can’t afford it can work in immigration court, said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ahilan Arulanantham. Seven years ago, Arulanantham, who was named a MacArthur fellow last year, filed suit on behalf of José Antonio Franco-González and Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez; both men were stuck indefinitely in immigration detention because they couldn’t afford to hire attorneys, and judges had decided neither man could competently represent himself. The case won class action status and in 2013 a U.S. District Court judge ordered free legal counsel for some individuals with intellectual disabilities and severe mental health issues.
“The Franco injunction shows that it’s feasible to run a program of appointed legal representation for people facing deportations,” Arulanantham said.
The District Court ruling originally only applied to California, Arizona and Washington. But the government has voluntarily established a nationwide program, Arulanantham said.
“At bottom, it reflects the judgment that people with serious mental disorders can’t get a fair hearing without competent legal representation, which isn’t particularly shocking.”
Now the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering a request for rehearing in another of Arulanantham’s cases involving undocumented children between 3 and 17, in which, he argued, children are unsurprisingly outgunned in immigration court. They are generally unable to identify their rights to relief from deportation or do the legal research necessary to support their claims, much less argue against a trained government prosecutor in court. Arulanantham noted that while free legal services for immigrant children have expanded in recent years, some kids are still left to fend for themselves in court.
The effort to expand due process rights in immigration court is likely to continue moving slowly. Meanwhile local and state programs that help fund immigration defense don’t cover everyone who needs help. A large-scale federal program is all but impossible to imagine in the current presidential administration, said Avideh Moussavian of the National Immigration Law Center. But she added that the current patchwork of efforts could one day pave the way for a much larger reform.
“I think that like many things,” Moussavian said, “it often takes the cumulative effect of local measures to create the tipping point from an advocacy perspective for there to be federal action.”
Copyright Capital & Main
Corporations Profit From Killing DACA
President Trump has jeopardized the lives of 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who came here seeking better opportunities. There’s not much more to be said than that—except that it’s also a big moneymaker for a handful of private investors and corporations.
President Trump is jeopardizing the lives of 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who came here seeking better opportunities, often fleeing tough or dangerous conditions at home.
There’s not much more to be said than that—except that it’s also a big moneymaker for a handful of private investors and corporations. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are leading the charge, but it’s those that profit from immigration deportation that will gain the most.
Private prison corporations already detain nearly two-thirds of the undocumented immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, but ending DACA will surely give them more.
See, the two biggest private prison corporations, GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly CCA), are actually legally structured as real estate companies. In their words, they provide the public with “real estate projects,” not incarceration. They see policies like ending DACA as an “opportunity” to build more immigration detention centers “throughout the country rather than only clustered along the southern border.”
(By the way, their status as real estate companies also gives them a massive tax break. In 2015 alone, the corporations used their status and other avenues to avoid a combined $113 million in federal income taxes. Taxpayers are essentially paying them a bonus to cut corners, hurt prisoners, underpay workers and make it harder for us to send less people to prison and jail.)
Beyond GEO Group and CoreCivic, a whole host of corporations that provide prison health care, food services, phone calls, bail bonds and other services stands to profit from more people being deported. Even Wall Street and the airline industry could get in on the action.
And who knows how many of Trump’s friends will profit? In just one example, this spring ICE opened an office in the same building as the headquarters of Buffalo power broker Jeremy Jacobs’ corporation, Delaware North. The Jacobs family donated more to Trump’s campaign than anyone in Western New York and last year hired a former U.S. Attorney who had just led the largest workplace immigration raid during the Obama administration.
We need mass action to force congress to act before the DACA program ends in March. We also need to keep shining the light on who profits from racism. That’s how we win.
This feature is cross-posted from the Huffington Post.
Could the Dream Act Become a Nightmare for Young Immigrants?
Co-published by Newsweek
Some DACA activists claim that Dream Act legislation would likely involve trade-offs, such as increased enforcement that could, they say, get Dreamers’ loved ones tossed out of the country.
“There’s a false narrative that people are for the Dream Act.
We have been building a different movement.”
Co-published by Newsweek
The day President Donald Trump announced he would rescind DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — some 50 young people, many of them directly affected by the move, gathered at the UCLA Labor Center on the western edge of MacArthur Park.
It was 5 p.m. and four whirring fans blew hot air around a steamy upstairs conference room. People mingled and some dug into pad Thai and hunks of fried tofu on paper plates.
A young woman was the first to speak. Asked for a one-word reaction to Trump’s announcement, she said, “Damn! But, duh.” As in, the president had played to type.
The MacArthur Park location was, ironically, a stone’s throw from L.A.’s notorious outdoor marketplace for fake IDs and ground zero for the subterranean economy into which the announcement threatened to thrust these mostly play-by-the-rules attendees.
Many in the room felt numb. Some were angry, fed up or annoyed. No one expressed surprise. Many, like 34-year-old Julieta Loreto, were veteran Dreamers who’d been fighting for the right to education and jobs. Loreto was a high school student when she had lobbied for Assembly Bill 540, the 2001 bill that granted her and other undocumented students in-state tuition at California state colleges and universities.
“I just went through the five stages of grief in one day, so I’m dizzy,” Loreto announced to the group.
She said her life had been on hold for a decade until she got DACA status four years ago. Now, she’s a newly minted registered nurse searching for work. But her plans to earn a bachelor’s degree and become a nurse practitioner are suspended once again.
“We seemed to be moving forward, but now we’re back to square one,” said John Perez, an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Coalition. Perez, who hosted the meeting, is wiry, full of kinetic energy and originally from Colombia. He rolled out an agenda on brown butcher paper that noted how break-out groups would follow the intros, including a “healing space,” and an action space. “I heal by doing shit,” Perez added.
One thing Perez won’t be doing: joining Congressional Democrats, California legislators and a host of immigrant-rights organizations in a push for the bipartisan Dream Act 2017, sponsored by senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL). The bill would offer permanent residency to young people who were younger than 18 when they came to the U.S. and who graduated from high school or earned a general education diploma, and can pass a background check.
“There’s a false narrative that people are for the Dream Act,” Perez said, speaking for his coalition the next day. “We have been building a different movement.”
Dream Act legislation would likely involve trade-offs, such as increased enforcement that could, Perez notes, get Dreamers’ loved ones tossed out of the country.
“If you ask a mother, ‘Do you want your kid to be safe or do you want to be safe?’ you know the answer,” said 29-year-old activist Neidi Dominguez. “But that mother, even if she did make a mistake, is equally important. It’s a terrible position they’ve always put us in.”
Dominguez, who grew up in L.A. and now lives in Washington DC, is credited with coming up with the original idea that then-President Barack Obama could take executive action to set up the DACA program, and with helping to push the administration to make it happen. Dominguez said she likes Durbin’s bill, but that before it comes to a vote it’s almost certain to contain unacceptable sweeteners for Congressional immigration hawks.
“Settling and not fighting back against a bill that is 75 percent bad proves to this administration and politicians that we’re in their hands. We should not be playing to their tune. We need to be playing to ours.”
Indeed, some immigration hardliners see the Dream Act as an easy enough pill to swallow if it includes long-sought changes to the U.S. immigration system. “Every amnesty sends the message abroad that you can get away with it,” said Mark Krikorian, who heads the Center for Immigration Studies, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has branded a hate group. “You have to have enforcement measures to blunt that effect.”
Krikorian would like to see Congress make E-Verify, the federal online tool to determine employment eligibility, mandatory for all employers, cut legal immigration by half, reduce the flow of refugees and prioritize immigration of those with English skills, advanced degrees and money to invest in the United States. The latter three provisions are included in the RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment) Act, sponsored by Senate Republicans Tom Cotton of Texas and David Perdue of Georgia.
For their part, most pro-immigrant and progressive groups were quick to leap into the fray nearly as soon as Trump made his September 5 announcement. Victor Narro, a long-time immigrant rights activist and project director at the UCLA Labor Center, said the futures of 800,000 young people are at stake if there is no bill to replace DACA, which expires in six months. It’s important to avoid concessions that could hurt other immigrants, but, he said, “[Our] responsibility as advocates is to go into this process. The uncertainty is this is the most polarized Congress we’ve ever seen.”
The debate within the immigrant-rights movement over whether and how to engage legislatively goes back two decades, Narro said. He contended that ever since 9/11, compromise has become more onerous because of the increased focus on national security: “The problem is you include surveillance, employment verification — it’s not healthy.”
DACA advocates need an initial groundswell of support, Narro said. But even then, there are no guarantees.
“The lives of immigrant youth are not a bargaining chip,” said the National Immigration Law Center in an online statement. The Campaign for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) also argued on its website that the Dream Act was the solution to Trump’s decision to rescind DACA. “We will support clean legislation that does not throw our loved ones, our family, under the bus,” its message noted. Less than a week after the president’s announcement, Moveon.org had already collected nearly 250,000 online signatures urging support for a stand-alone bill.
In Phoenix, Reyna Montoya, a 26-year-old DACA recipient, who last year founded an immigrant-rights organization called Aliento, has also joined more established groups in pushing for a legislative solution.
“It’s very terrifying knowing I can be deported,” Montoya said. “I have a little brother, who’s seven years younger, who also has DACA.” In addition to lobbying, Montoya’s group is warning DACA recipients against immigration scams and pushing those whose benefits expire before March 5, 2018 to renew before the October 5 deadline.
The strategic divide over legislation reflects a cultural difference between people like Neidi Dominguez and more established groups. Dominguez, who is now a legal resident and whose sister is a DACA recipient, said she and other Dreamers took big personal leaps of faith by declaring their at-the-time undocumented status and risking arrest and deportation with sit-ins and other civil disobedience tactics. Dominguez said she and her colleagues borrowed from the nonviolent direct action tactics of the civil rights movement, and they learned that it didn’t always pay to listen to established groups.
She said she and other Dreamers won DACA by defying conventional wisdom. When they proposed DACA, the Obama administration countered that the president lacked the authority to act to protect the Dreamers. The activists and the White House were at a stalemate when, in the thick of the 2012 presidential race, Dominguez and her comrades got a call from Obama officials who invited them to Washington DC for a meeting. Dominguez said she didn’t think the administration intended a serious discussion. Still, she and three other women with Dream Team L.A. – all undocumented at the time — made the trip, and strategized how to make the meeting work for them. They leaked the DC trip to La Opinion, L.A.’s Spanish-language daily, even though Obama officials warned them not to, and by the end of the meeting, they’d informed the administration officials of the leak, issued a threat and set a deadline. If Obama didn’t come back with a DACA-like program in two weeks, the Dreamers would sit-in at Obama for America campaign offices across the country.
“Less than five days later, they caved,” Dominguez said of administration officials, despite their annoyance. “It’s shocking to tell this story, and knowing this week it got terminated. It’s just surreal.”
Today Dominguez, who works as the national strategic campaign coordinator for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, doesn’t see an immediate viable strategy for restoring DACA protection, short of Trump reinstating the program. Instead, she believes immigrant-rights activists should organize for 2020. “I mean, in 2020 we have a real shot at getting rid of all of them,” she said, referring to the Trump administration and the Republican-dominated Congress.
Copyright Capital & Main
Los Angeles Protesters Defend DACA
Hundreds of protesters gathered to send a message to the Trump administration that they disagreed with the decision to rescind DACA. They marched towards Olvera Street from Echo Park, with the day beginning in MacArthur Park.
Michael Ross traveled from Upland, in California’s Inland Empire, to attend the Defend DACA March in Los Angeles this past Sunday. He couldn’t physically walk any further and decided to sit on a chair he found on Bonnie Brae St. near MacArthur Park where the march began.
All Photos by Joanne Kim
Though the sidewalks were lined with uneven cracks, Rosalba Rios trekked onward in her wheelchair to join the march up Alvarado St. She works as a mental health therapist in Inglewood.
In Echo Park, protesters cheer as a man shouting into a megaphone that they did not have a right to be gathered there finally leaves after being peacefully asked to do so by the crowd.
Protesters ask an attendee to leave the rally after he shouts and interrupts speakers.
Center: Ruby Cedillo Bravo from Lynwood, California is 19 and a student. She feels everyone should defend DACA and that we, as a nation, need to work together to stop racism.
A protester marching in Echo Park towards Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.
Alicia Estidillo, a DACA recipient, is 30 years old and works as an early interventionist with kids with disabilities.
Artist Emmanuel Galvez (at right of the sign), age 26, grew up in Mexico City and Los Angeles and is a DACA recipient. He created this illustration to send a message to President Trump. The other side of his sign says, “ Soy de Aqui, Soy de Alla.” He wanted to convey the message that we all belong here, and we all belong there. His friend Alex Gonzalez (left) took the day off of work to attend the march.
Customers from Club Bahia cheer protesters as they march towards Olvera St. on Sunset Blvd.
Jestin Samson traveled from Orange County to attend the march in Los Angeles, representing those who were afraid to come. His family is from the Philippines and members remain hidden in fear of being deported.
Hundreds of protesters gathered to send a message to the Trump administration that they disagreed with the decision to rescind DACA. They marched towards Olvera Street from Echo Park, with the day beginning in MacArthur Park.
Luisa Lopez, age 18 (center), lives in Orange County and came to Los Angeles to attend the march. She is a student at Santa Ana College.
A child protests at the Defend DACA March rally at Echo Park. Many families attended the march, even those with small children.
Protesters fiercely march on.
Esther Mendez (left) thinks that Trump’s choice to rescind DACA is a decision generated from ego. Her friends Keno Neal (middle), age 21, and Traveon Young (right), age 26, came to support Esther’s family and her community.
Eddie Ibanez and his five-year-old son, Damien, drove all the way from a town near Las Vegas, Nevada, to attend the march.
Copyright Capital & Main
Los Angeles DACA Mobilization Protest Draws Thousands
Supporters of DACA rallied in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday following President Trump’s decision to rescind the program.
Hundreds gather at Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles to protest President Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. All photos by Joanne Kim.
Protesters rally at Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles.
The crowd prepares to march towards City Hall.
Demonstrators march from Placita Olvera towards City Hall.
A protester holds up a “Defend DACA” sign to drivers above the 101 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles.
Protesters march along Alameda Street towards City Hall.
A passionate protester on Alameda Street.
The crowd marches up Temple Street towards City Hall in downtown Los Angeles to protest President Trump’s decision to rescind DACA.
Demonstrators march up Temple Street.
DACA recipients hold signs that proudly declare their status.
Claudia Treminio, an early childhood education student.
A schoolteacher holds up a sign supporting DACA students.
Christopher López, right, attended the rally in support of his girlfriend, a DACA recipient and student at USC who was attending classes that day.
Protesters gather around speakers on the steps of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
Demonstrators show their support for DACA.
Sisters comfort each other.
Supporters of DACA rally in front of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
People were impassioned and emotional at the DACA rally. Many were concerned about themselves or their loved ones losing the right to go to school or work, and the possibility of deportation.
Docnary Reyes just finished at Pasadena City College and is attending UC Davis this fall. She plans to fight for herself, her parents, and her community for as long as it takes to defend DACA.
Clergymen from the African-American and Asian-American communities speak of the steps of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
Protesters hold hands and pledge to protect and fight for each other at the end of the rally.
Celestina Mendoza (left) and Margarita Hurtado (right) protest in support of their friend Areli Chairez (middle) who is a DACA recipient and student at L.A. Valley College.
Justino Mora, co-founder of Undocumedia: “We are going to have to take this everyday to the White House in order to get comprehensive immigration reform passed.”
DACA Poet: ‘I Don’t Want to Leave Home’
Co-published by The American Prospect
Guatemala-born Alex Alpharaoh may soon become a man without a country — and without a family. Brought to America when he was three months old, Alpharaoh is the only member of his immediate family who is not a U.S. citizen.
Co-published by The American Prospect
Guatemala-born Alex Alpharaoh may soon become a man without a country — and without a family. Brought to America when he was three months old, Alpharaoh alone among his immediate family members is not a U.S. citizen, although under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he has the legal right to remain and work in this country. A social worker, poet, performer and parent, Alpharaoh has been telling Los Angeles theater audiences about his life as an undocumented immigrant in a solo show called WET: A DACAmented Journey, which Capital & Main stage critic Deborah Klugman praised as “significant and compelling.”
But with today’s announcement by the Trump administration that it plans to phase out DACA, his life has been thrown into turmoil. A grimly uncertain future now awaits Alpharaoh, who arrived in the United States hidden in the back seat of a smuggler’s car. For now all he can do is work and tell his story.
“I’m doing the show three times a week and I spend four days out of the week just trying to live a normal life as much as possible,” he told Capital & Main shortly before the White House’s DACA announcement. “At the end of the day, I don’t want to have to leave home.”
Copyright Capital & Main
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