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Immigrant Dad in Limbo After ICE Arrest Near Daughters’ School

Last Tuesday morning Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swooped in and arrested restaurant worker Romulo Avelica as he and his wife drove two of their teen-aged daughters to Academia Avance, a Highland Park charter school.

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Robin Urevich




Thursday’s vigil held at the LAPD’s Hollenbeck station. (Photo: Robin Urevich)

Last Tuesday morning Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swooped in and arrested restaurant worker Romulo Avelica as he and his wife drove two of their teenage daughters to Academia Avance, a Highland Park charter school. The couple had dropped off their 12 year old, but a 13-year-old daughter was still in the car when the arrest was made. The arrest has forced the school’s staff, students and parents to mobilize to fight one parent’s deportation.

Avelica, who’s from Mexico but who has been in the U.S. for decades, had been ordered deported in 2014. He’d previously been convicted of driving under the influence, but has never been convicted of a violent crime.

On Thursday evening Avelica’s oldest daughter, Brenda Avelica, 24, described feeling “destroyed inside” as the family gathered at the Hollenbeck police station in Boyle Heights with some 30 supporters from the school. “It would destroy our family,” Avelica said, of her dad’s deportation. We would have to figure out how to live a different life.”

“We could be in the same position as they are,” added a parent who didn’t want to give her name, nodding her head in the direction of Brenda Avelica’s mother and three other sisters. “That’s why we’re here.”

Immediately after Avelica’s arrest, said students and staff at Academia Avance, they acted to help the family and allay fears at the school.

Romulo Avelica’s 18-year-old niece, Diana Vargas Avelica, is a senior at the school and an intern with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. She used her connections to seek help from elected officials and find an attorney, Peter Greyshock, to represent her uncle. In an unusual move, Greyshock filed a stay of deportation with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the moment he filed, Avelica was already bound for the border, but now his deportation is on hold until the judges rule in the next few days.

The group in Boyle Heights stood vigil as Greyshock entered the police station to make a separate effort to stop Avelica’s deportation. He asked detectives to certify Avelica as a witness to a crime so that he could seek a U-visa, which allows crime victims and witnesses to remain in the U.S.

Academia Avance’s director, Ricardo Mireles, said he has called ICE for assurances that it wouldn’t make further arrests at the school. Agents responded that they don’t go near schools, although Mireles noted that Avelica’s arrest took place within sight of his. He called a school-wide assembly to discuss the arrest, and said so far, student attendance has been normal.

Los Angeles schools may be emerging as strong defenders of immigrant rights, even as the city is criticized for a less than robust sanctuary policy. Last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s board passed a unanimous sanctuary resolution that declares its schools to be safe places for all students. The resolution calls for schools to become resource and information centers, to strengthen the district’s ties with community organizations and legal services groups, and to create a rapid-response network “to assist children whose family members have been detained.” The school board has directed the superintendent to make a plan for implementing the sanctuary policy and to train district personnel in doing so.

“Schools are ahead of the game—more than city officials,” said Victor Narro, a long-time immigrant rights activist and project director at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center. Narro said the city of L.A. could make it clear that ICE agents aren’t welcome anywhere near schools, but it has yet to do so.

“The city can’t keep federal agents away, but they can create such a strong policy that it’s a deterrent.” Narro applauded LAUSD school board members for their initiative, but said, “This is not going to work unless you have a strong sanctuary policy in the city.”

Mayoral spokesman George Kivork argued that city declarations of sanctuary would simply inflame anti-immigrant forces.

“The point of what we’re trying to do is get away from the label,” Kivork said. “I think it feeds into the anti-immigrant movement. In this environment, it’s being used by these groups to taint what is actually happening.” Kivork pointed to the city’s actions— establishing a legal fund to defend immigrants, promoting citizenship and meeting with students and immigrant rights groups to ensure immigrants know their rights. He also contended that L.A. police officers only work with ICE agents if they have warrants, a point that some immigrant rights activists dispute.

School Board President Steve Zimmer sidestepped questions about whether the city’s actions are sufficient.

“I don’t know what a stronger policy would look like,” he said.

Zimmer said the school district stands ready to support immigrant students through tough, unpredictable times. “I don’t think what happened was an isolated incident. Just because we’ve declared safe zones doesn’t mean Trump is going to accept that. We anticipate a multifaceted battle.”

Meanwhile, Mireles said he wants to rethink his own school’s approach to undocumented parents. In the past, the school ignored immigration status. But Mireles said he wants to work with each family to make sure they have people in place to care for their children and lawyers lined up to defend them if parents are arrested by ICE.

“We will have to know their immigration status. To the degree they trust us, we will be able to have a better plan.”

Academia Avance is a state-sponsored charter school, and as such, is not part of the LAUSD, which, while it has taken its stand for immigrant rights, has stayed the traditional course of saying it will never inquire about anyone’s immigration status.

As for Romulo Avelica, he’s been placed in the ICE detention center in Adelanto in San Bernardino County, where a measles outbreak has the facility under quarantine. No one can go in or out, Greyshock said. That might work in Avelica’s favor because it likely means no one can be deported either, at least for the next few days.

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Deadly Detention

Deadly Detention: Self-Portrait of a Tragedy

Co-published by International Business Times
The missteps and errors of ICE and its contractors have led to concerns about the safety of immigrant detainees with mental health issues.

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Robin Urevich




Photo: Robin Urevich

A suicidal detainee never got the mental health care he needed and was placed in a cell that contained a known suicide hazard,
a ceiling sprinkler head.

Co-published by International Business Times

Sometime after midnight in mid-May of 2017, 27-year old JeanCarlo Jimenez Joseph fashioned a noose from a bed sheet and hanged himself in his solitary confinement cell at the Stewart Detention Center, located in the pine woods of southwest Georgia. Stewart’s low-slung complex lies behind two tall chain-linked fences, each crowned with huge spirals of glinting barbed wire. Beginning in 2006, the facility began to house undocumented immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Jimenez’s fall sounded like a sledgehammer blow, said 20-year-old Abel Ramirez Blanco, who was also in segregation at Stewart that night. Another detainee, Miguel Montilla, had peered through the metal grate on his door and saw guard Freddy Wims frantically knocking at Jimenez’s cell door. “He got on the walkie-talkie and started screaming,” Montilla said.

“I looked in the door and I didn’t see him,” Wims would later remember. Wims scanned the small cell until, he said, “I looked over in the corner by the commode and he was hanging there by the sheet.”

Within hours, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents descended on Stewart, about 140 miles south of Atlanta, to find out if foul play had been involved in Jimenez’s death. It wasn’t. But the investigation, which generated audio interviews of Stewart staff and detainees, along with recordings of Jimenez’s personal phone calls and official documents, revealed that CoreCivic, the for-profit prison company that operates Stewart for ICE, and ICE Health Services Corps, which provides health care at Stewart, cut corners and skirted federal detention rules. The organizations’ missteps and errors have led to concerns about the safety of immigrant detainees with mental health issues.

Also Read: “Hell in the Middle of a Pine Forest”

The probe disclosed that Jimenez repeatedly displayed suicidal behavior, but never got the mental health care he needed. He was also placed in a cell that contained a known suicide hazard, a ceiling sprinkler head, upon which he affixed his makeshift noose. Freddy Wims was assigned to check Jimenez’s cell every half hour, but didn’t do so. Instead, he falsified his logs to make it appear he had, and he was later fired. Stewart’s warden, Bill Spivey, retired after Jimenez’s death; a CoreCivic spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the two events were unrelated. Spivey couldn’t be reached for comment for this article.

Psychiatrist: Placing a suicidal prisoner in solitary confinement is like placing someone with bad asthma in a burning building.

CoreCivic’s spokesman, Jonathan Burns, didn’t respond to questions about Jimenez’s death and detention. Instead, he wrote in an email, “CoreCivic is deeply committed to providing a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to our care, while also delivering cost-effective solutions to the challenges our government partners face.” ICE spokeswoman Tamara Spicer wrote in an email that she couldn’t answer questions about the case because it is “still undergoing a comprehensive review that has not been released.”

Jimenez had been in solitary for 19 days at the time of his death — punishment for what his sister would tell investigators was an earlier suicide attempt. He had leapt from a second-floor walkway in his dormitory, and later repeatedly told detention center personnel, “I am Julius Caesar for real.” He was physically unhurt, but Stewart staff were aware he was suffering from mental illness and had a history of suicide attempts, documents show. Still, after his jump, Jimenez saw a nurse who quickly cleared him for placement in a 13-by-7-foot segregation cell alone for 23 hours a day. After that, his suffering seemed to intensify.

“Placing a suicidal prisoner in segregation is like placing someone with bad asthma in a burning building,” Terry Kupers, a Bay Area psychiatrist who has studied solitary confinement and who reviewed some of the documents in Jimenez’s case, noted in an email. He added that half of successful prison suicides occur among the three to eight percent of prisoners in solitary confinement.

Jimenez wasn’t put on suicide watch, or even ordered monitored more frequently than the normal half-hour checks. He continued to display alarming behavior. Montilla told the GBI that he and a guard had heard Jimenez screaming and banging on his cell wall two weeks before his death. “Man, I’m suffering from psychosis and I hear voices talking to me and they’re bothering the shit out of me,” Montilla recalled Jimenez saying.

Registered Nurse Shuntelle Anderson told a GBI agent that some five days before his death, she saw Jimenez banging the metal mirror in his cell. He told her, “These fucking voices, they won’t leave me the fuck alone …They’re telling me to commit suicide…but I don’t want to harm myself.”

See Interactive Map of U.S. Detention Deaths

Jimenez asked Anderson for a higher dose of the anti-psychotic drug Risperidone, which he’d previously been prescribed at a North Carolina mental health facility. It was at least the second such request he’d made at Stewart — where he received only a fourth of his normal dosage.

Anderson told investigators she left a note for the facility’s behavioral health counselor, Kimberly Calvery, saying that Jimenez wanted more medication. Calvery arranged for him to speak with the detention center’s psychiatrist but Jimenez didn’t live long enough to keep the appointment, which was scheduled later in the morning he died. Calvery later told investigators that Jimenez “never showed any suicidal tendencies at the Stewart Detention Center.”

Homeland Security reported that at the Stewart Detention Center solitary confinement, which  isn’t supposed to be punitive, appeared to be sometimes used to punish trivial offenses.


“He was such a good kid,” Anderson told investigators in the hours after Jimenez’s death. Earlier that night, she’d given him medication and he’d shared a self-portrait he’d been working on. “It was very nice, very detailed and last night, when I went down there, he said, ‘Look, I finished it.’” Anderson said. Guards and detainees also described Jimenez as mostly lucid and friendly, despite his occasional outbursts, quirky comments and a propensity to call himself Julius Caesar.

In a December 2017 report, “Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Detention Facilities,” the Homeland Security inspector general wrote that at Stewart and three other facilities (which are operated by county governments), “We identified problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.” The IG’s staff wrote that immigration detention isn’t supposed to be punitive, and noted that at three of the facilities, including Stewart, segregation or solitary confinement appeared to be sometimes used to punish trivial offenses. At Stewart, the inspectors also found that showers were moldy and lacked cold water in some cases, and some bathrooms had no hot water, and that medical care, even for painful conditions, had been delayed for detainees.

Since 2003, 179 immigrant detainees have died in custody, many from preventable causes, like pneumonia and alcohol withdrawal.

Additionally, despite Jimenez’s nonviolent crimes, he was classified as a high-risk detainee. He had been convicted of marijuana possession, petty theft and an assault charge that arose from an unwanted hug he gave a woman in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was issued a red jumpsuit to signal his danger level and housed with others who were similarly classified. The inspector general’s report flagged misclassification of detainees as a problem at Stewart. While there, Jimenez wavered between wanting to wage a court battle to stay in the U.S., and paying for his own return to Panama through a process called voluntary departure. But, before he could take the first steps to fight his case, he ran into roadblocks, including the failure of the detention center to send a set of documents that Jimenez’s attorney had requested.

Since 2003, 179 immigrant detainees have died in custody, many from preventable causes, like pneumonia and alcohol withdrawal. Human rights groups point to dozens of others who endure painful medical conditions and must wait for care or never receive it at all.

Like Jimenez, they’ve been dropped into a ballooning system whose rapid growth and diffuse nature would make it hard for the government to closely monitor, even if it attempted to do so.

ICE had fewer than 7,500 detention beds in 1995. Now the system is 500 percent bigger, with nearly 40,000 beds nationwide in 200 facilities that operate under three different sets of government standards. The Trump administration plans to add 12,000 more beds this year alone even as vulnerable detainees currently fall through the cracks.

JeanCarlo Jimenez completed his self-portrait and tied knots in a white bed sheet to shorten it. A guard  observed him jumping rope with it.

Federal officials largely maintain a hands-off approach, leaving it to private prison companies like CoreCivic and the GEO Group to run day-to-day affairs. The companies tend to run them like prisons and not as the civil detention facilities that the law says they are.

Photo: Robin Urevich

“Contractors operating facilities for ICE typically have backgrounds in corrections, and this shapes how they administer their ICE detention facilities,” said Kevin Landy, who led the Obama administration’s immigration detention reform efforts as the head of ICE’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning.

“Problems such as medical care, the way disciplinary proceedings are administered, the lack of sensitivity to detainee needs, and conditions generally reflect the problems writ large in our correctional system,” Landy said.

At Stewart, these problems have been particularly acute, said attorney Azadeh Shahshahani, whose group, Project South, monitors conditions at Stewart. “The facility needs to be shut down. It’s beyond redemption.”

Jimenez had come to the United States from Panama when he was 10, graduated from high school in Kansas, and considered himself American, even though he lived in the U.S. without documents most of his life. Public records show he even registered to vote in North Carolina — as a Republican.

“When I heard what happened, it blew my mind,” said Matt Schott, who was about four years older than Jean Jimenez and now works for an oil and gas exploration company in Kansas. Jimenez was 19 when he and his sister, Karina Kelly, came to Matt’s church, and they became friends 12 years ago. “He brought a lot of laughter to everybody,” Schott said, recalling Jean’s huge open smile. In photos, he’s beaming, showing a mouthful of teeth and wearing a big afro.

“Jean would just show up at the house. We’d play Christian worship music, and be up till 3 or 4 in the morning. We would get a bunch of food and go to a park,” Schott remembered. A video on Jean’s Facebook page shows him executing expert dance moves as friends play instruments outdoors.

Schott said when they began to share more of their lives, Jean tearfully told Matt he was undocumented and had to hide in plain sight. “He had big dreams. He wanted to start an architecture firm and had already named it — Eyes Design.”

Except for a few Facebook messages they exchanged, Schott lost track of Jimenez after the latter moved to North Carolina with his mother and stepfather about eight years ago. While there, Jimenez had obtained protection from deportation through the Obama administration’s DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

But, in the six months before he was detained, his mental health declined. He was hospitalized twice for psychotic episodes and lost his DACA status. Jimenez also had the misfortune of being arrested just as President Trump took office. The new administration had declared that anyone in the country illegally was fair game for immigration enforcement, even if they’d committed no crime or if their crimes were as minor as Jimenez’s. He was transferred to ICE custody.

For Jimenez the prospect of deportation to Panama, a country he had left behind as a child, was scary, his sister Karina wrote in a chronology of conversations with her brother that she sent to the family’s attorney. “Game is over,” Kelly recalled Jimenez saying. But before being shipped to Panama, he would be held at Stewart, arguably one of the most troubled detention centers in the country.

About six weeks into his detention a fellow detainee punched Jimenez in the groin and busted his lip. Jimenez was punished with his first stint in solitary — even though he was the victim in the attack and the detention center’s camera shows he didn’t fight back.

“I’m tired of this life,” Jimenez told his stepfather Gilberto Rodriguez in a recorded phone call soon after, his voice sounding uncharacteristically weary.

“Don’t give up, you can start over,” Rodriguez counseled. “In God’s name you’re getting out…we have to do this together.”

Just two days before his death, Jimenez’s mother, Nerina Joseph, and Rodriguez made the trip from Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit him. “She reported that he was so happy to see them, and they had the best 60 minutes a mother in her shoes could ever ask for,” Karina Kelly wrote.

Still, Jimenez’s mother was concerned about his well-being, and stopped by El Refugio, a hospitality center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where detention center visitors can find a meal and place to sleep. El Refugio volunteers also visit detainees, and Joseph requested that someone check on Jimenez. A volunteer attempted to see him the next day, but was turned away because Stewart personnel mistakenly said Jimenez couldn’t receive visitors. Records show there were no such restrictions on Jimenez’s visits.

Later that night, Jimenez completed his self-portrait, and tied knots in a white bed sheet to shorten it. A guard even observed him jumping rope with the sheet a few hours before he died and asked him about it. Jimenez replied he was staying in shape and the guard took no further action.

Ten days after Jimenez’s suicide, a fellow detainee, Abel Ramirez Blanco, told GBI investigator Justin Lowthorpe that he had listened in his cell as guards, nurses and finally paramedics labored over Jimenez’s lifeless body, and an automatic defibrillator blared robotic CPR instructions.

A videotape of the scene inside Jimenez’s cell shows nurses Shuntelle Anderson and Davis English desperately trying to resuscitate Jimenez. Anderson yells for guards to call 911. “I’m calling an ambulance,” a voice answers. Records from a regional 911 center show paramedics were called six minutes after Wims radioed a medical emergency, and arrived in Jimenez’s cell some seven minutes after they were called.

ICE inspectors haven’t yet weighed in on Jimenez’s case. But in studying a 2013 suicide, ICE reviewers criticized staff at a Pennsylvania facility for waiting four minutes to call 911, writing that the Mayo Clinic and the American Heart Association recommend calling 911 before beginning CPR.

Jimenez was eventually taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead less than 15 minutes after his arrival.

Red caution tape was placed in the shape of a large X on Jimenez’s cell door. Inside the cell, steel shelves held his art supplies, his artwork and a plastic instant-noodle soup bowl with some of the broth still in it. On his wall Jimenez had written, “The grave cometh. Halleluyah.”

A death like Jimenez’s “could have happened to me,” Ramirez told GBI agent Lowthorpe, because of his own anxiety and depression. Ramirez said Stewart staff didn’t help him when he reported those symptoms. Instead, he was thrown in segregation where he witnessed Jimenez’s suicide, and began to feel even more desperate.

Matt Schott struggled to reconcile his friend’s death with his Christian faith. “People believe you commit suicide and you go to hell,” Schott said. “I can’t believe that about Jean because I knew who he really was. I love the guy and I believe one day I’ll see him again.”

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Deadly Detention

Deadly Detention: Hell in the Middle of a Pine Forest

Immigrant detainees represent more than $38 million a year for CoreCivic, a for-profit prison company that is the largest employer in one of Georgia’s poorest counties.

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Robin Urevich




Photo: Robin Urevich

Former ICE Guard: “They’re always putting them in the hole — in segregation. And they manhandle people.”

Deep in a Georgia pine forest, two hours south of Atlanta, early morning mist rises in wisps over the Stewart Detention Center, a facility run by CoreCivic, one of the nation’s largest for-profit prison companies. The bucolic scene clashes with the tall, barbed wire-topped chain-link fences surrounding the center, and the echoing shouts, crackling radios and slamming doors inside the walls. Technically, the roughly 1,700 men here aren’t prisoners, but civil detainees being held for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as they plead their cases to remain in the United States, or as the government prepares their deportations.

Also Read: “Self-Portrait of a Tragedy”

The detainees represent more than $38 million a year for CoreCivic — the government pays the company nearly $62 a day per man. It is the largest employer in Stewart County, one of Georgia’s poorest.

Immigrant rights groups have charged that the conditions here are not only indistinguishable from those in prison, they are downright abusive. In fact, a December 2017 Homeland Security Inspector General’s report expressed concerns about human rights abuses and, last month, Joseph Romero, a retired ICE officer who served as a guard, told Capital & Main that he resigned a supervisor job at Stewart in 2016 because he didn’t like the way people were treated.

Guatemalan Asylum Seeker: “It is hell in here. I wouldn’t even recommend it to a person I hate.”

“They’re always putting them in the hole — in segregation,” Romero said. “And they manhandle people. They think they can take care of their problems like that.” Romero noted that few officers speak Spanish, so there is little understanding or communication between guards and detainees.

JeanCarlo Jimenez Joseph’s suicide by hanging while in solitary confinement last May and 33-year-old Cuban national Yulio Castro Garrido’s death from pneumonia last December have brought these concerns to the fore.

Jimenez was mentally ill and had been in solitary for 19 days when he died — four days longer than the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture considers torture.

See Interactive Map of U.S. Detention Deaths

“It is hell in here. I wouldn’t even recommend it to a person I hate,” said Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a 23-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker who has been in detention — at Stewart, the Atlanta Detention Center and at the Irwin Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia — since 2015.

In addition to many other abuses that he alleges — rotten food, forced work and abuse by guards — Hill has also served 60 days in isolation. He said it was retaliation for a grievance he’d filed. He was placed in solitary, ostensibly because he’d been exposed to chickenpox; however, other detainees who, like Hill, reported they’d had the disease as children were released.

CoreCivic documents show that detainees were in isolation for such offenses as “horse playing.”

ICE detention standards specify that isolation is to be used only to punish the three most serious categories of rule violations, and only “when alternative dispositions may inadequately regulate the detainee’s behavior.”

But CoreCivic documents released after Jimenez’s suicide show that on the day that he died, detainees were in isolation for such offenses as “horse playing,” “refusal to obey staff” or “conduct that disrupts.” Four men had been in solitary for more than 60 days. One of them, Sylvester Smith, who was deported to Sierra Leone at the end of 2017, served at least four months in isolation. His charges were variously listed as “being found guilty of a combination of th…” (the word is cut off on CoreCivic’s restricted housing roster) and “failure to obey.”

After Jimenez died, however, then-warden Bill Spivey held weekly meetings aimed at reducing the number of people in solitary. By October 2017, documents show, there were just 10 people in isolation, but when Spivey retired and an assistant warden took over, the census more than doubled. CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns didn’t respond to emailed questions about the current number of men in segregation.

Joseph Romero, the former ICE officer who worked at Stewart, is tall and graying with a full mustache and beard. He is proud of his ICE career but thinks the for-profit detention model the government has adopted has to go.

“They should go back and have these detention centers run by Immigration, not by private contractors,” Romero said. ICE officers treat people better, because they value their careers, Romero said. “You’re making a lot more money, you have retirement and better benefits. After 20 years, you can retire. At CCA [now known as CoreCivic], you have nothing.”

A detainee says guards call detainees “wetbacks” and “dogs,” and have greeted each other with Nazi salutes.

What’s more, Romero said, Stewart was understaffed: It wasn’t uncommon for officers to work double shifts and return to work eight hours later. “That’s why they’re so irritated,” he said. Equipment was also substandard, Romero claimed. He describes gun holsters that lack the safety snap that prevents a gun from being snatched by a thief or would-be attacker.

Romero said he wanted to try to change conditions for the better at Stewart, but found resistance from a tight, insular group that ran the place, and realized he could do little. Then he witnessed an incident that convinced him it was time to leave.

He saw two guards walking a handcuffed detainee to segregation. One of them “got in the guy’s face,” Romero recalled, and the detainee head-butted the guard. “The next thing you know the guard starting punching on the guy,” Romero said. He later watched a video of the beating with his co-workers, and Romero was taken aback by their reaction. “They said he asked for it, and I’m like wait a sec… If you’re in handcuffs why would I hit you? I have total control of you.”

The guard who threw the punch got fired, and a training session followed. But Romero doesn’t know if it had any effect because he left shortly thereafter.

Hill Barrientos said from his vantage point as a detainee, Stewart is worse than it was in 2016 when Romero was there. He believes Trump’s election signaled to detention officers that they could disrespect detainees with impunity.

Guards call detainees “wetbacks” and “dogs,” Hill Barrientos charged. He said that he’s even seen white detention officers greet each other with a Nazi salute. Health care is hard for detainees to obtain, Hill Barrientos said. He worked in the kitchen with Castro Garrido, who, he said, grew increasingly sicker because he was required to work instead of being allowed time to seek medical attention. ICE initially reported in its news release about Castro’s death that he had refused medical attention, an account that was widely reported. But the agency later corrected its news release to say that Castro’s case “was resistant to some forms of medical intervention.”

Hill’s lawyer, Glenn Fogle, thinks poor detention conditions are part of the government’s aggressive deportation strategy. “That’s the whole idea — to hold people in those horrible places to make them give up,” Fogle said.

Hill said he cannot give up — he would be killed by gang members who had threatened and extorted him if he is returned to Guatemala. His case is virtually identical to that of his two brothers and a sister, all of whom have already been granted asylum, Fogle said. Still, his case has been denied. Judges at Stewart grant asylum in few cases, so Hill Barrientos now pins his hopes on the Bureau of Immigration Appeals, which is currently considering his case.

“The people that give me strength are my mother and my daughter,” Hill Barrientos said. “So I keep fighting.”

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Deadly Detention

Deadly Detention: ICE and the Troubling Suicide of Immigrant JeanCarlo Jimenez

Co-published by International Business Times
A Capital & Main examination of Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center reveals new details about events surrounding the suicide of a young detainee, plus an interactive map providing information about each of the 179 immigrant detainees who have died in custody since 2003.

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Photo: Robin Urevich

In her latest coverage of America’s expansive network of immigrant detention centers, Robin Urevich reports on the fateful story of JeanCarlo Jimenez Joseph, an artistic 27-year-old who got sucked into the deportation machine of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Like many undocumented detainees who arrived in the U.S. as children, and now find themselves awaiting expulsion from the nation that raised them, Jimenez felt no connection to his birth country, Panama. In fact, he found the prospect of returning there “scary.” He was also haunted by other, more formidable demons, displaying signs of mental illness before his incarceration, which may have led to his suicide last year in Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center.

Urevich’s report, “Self-Portrait of a Tragedy,” co-published by International Business Times, reveals these facts for the first time:

  • Jimenez was given only a quarter of the dose of the anti-psychotic medication he’d been prescribed outside the facility, despite asking for an increased dosage.
  • The facility waited six minutes to call 911. In a review of a 2013 suicide, ICE evaluators criticized staff at a Pennsylvania facility for waiting four minutes to call 911.
  • Jimenez was likely misclassified as the most dangerous level of detainee, resulting in his being housed with other detainees with a high-risk designation.
  • Jimenez was placed in solitary for a fight in which he was the victim, even though prison officials were aware of his history of suicide attempts. Half of successful prison suicides occur among the three to eight percent of prisoners in solitary confinement.

Our examination of Stewart also includes photographs and video and audio recordings of Jimenez and the place his young life ended.

In a companion piece, Urevich speaks to both a former ICE guard at Stewart, and an asylum seeker from Guatemala, who describe a culture of brutality and racism at the facility, which is operated under federal contract by the for-profit prison company CoreCivic.

Capital & Main also launches an interactive map created by our multimedia editor, Marco Amador, providing details about each of the 179 detainees who have died in ICE custody since 2003. Amador additionally created a disturbing video composed of detention-center phone calls between Jimenez and his family, culminating in the chaotic moments following the discovery of his body.

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Sanctuary State: Jeff Sessions’ California Problem

State officials argue that the state’s sanctuary laws make Californians safer. The acting ICE director argues the laws have made immigration enforcement more dangerous.

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Robin Urevich




Jeff Sessions waves on Donald Trump's Inauguration Day. (Photo: DoD/Dominique A. Pineiro)

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions attacked California on its own turf Wednesday, a day after he slapped the state with a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of three laws aimed at shielding immigrants from the Trump administration’s deportation surge.

“California, we have a problem,” Sessions told police officers at a meeting in Sacramento before publicly scolding Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for warning residents of imminent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids two weeks ago. “How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of our law enforcement just to promote a radical open-borders agenda?” Sessions said, noting that acting ICE Director Thomas Homan argued that by warning residents of raids, the mayor let 800 wanted criminals go free.

The Pew Research Center reports the deportation surge has meant a 30 percent jump in ICE arrests nationwide in fiscal year 2017.

But ICE statistics show that in 2017, the agency largely arrested people with minor convictions. Traffic offenses (including DUI and others) were the biggest category by far, followed by drug crimes, and immigration offenses, like re-entering the country illegally. The Pew Research Center reported that the Trump administration’s deportation surge has meant a 30 percent increase overall in ICE arrests nationwide in fiscal year 2017 from the previous year. Arrests in ICE’s San Diego region rose 24 percent, while they went up 10 percent in the Los Angeles area and nine percent in ICE’s San Francisco region.

State Senate Bill 54, the so-called sanctuary state law, largely bars state and local police, and other agencies from collaborating with ICE, while SB 450 aims to protect employees from ICE raids in the workplace. It requires employers to deny access to ICE officers who don’t have a warrant to inspect employee records and requires employers to notify workers if such an inspection is underway. Assembly Bill 103 gives the state power to oversee immigration detention facilities in California and bars cities and counties from contracting with ICE to house immigration detainees or to expand existing detention facilities.

“The pushback through SB 54 is [that] we’re not going to engage in this,” said Angela Chan, a Bay Area-based attorney with the Asian Law Caucus who worked closely with California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León to pass SB 54. “It doesn’t stop enforcement. But it does have an impact in reducing it because we’re not going to be complicit.”

State officials and immigrant rights activists argue that the state’s sanctuary laws make Californians safer. They argue that immigrants can report crime or testify in court without fear of being deported because local and state police are barred from immigration enforcement. They point out that the state cannot keep ICE from making arrests, but it can ensure that police and sheriff’s deputies keep an arms-length distance from immigration enforcement.

But acting ICE director Homan, in a declaration supporting the lawsuit, argued that California has made immigration enforcement more dangerous by forcing officers to make arrests in the community, rather than in the safer confines of local jails, and he offered of examples of undocumented immigrants who were released from jail only to re-offend. Homan also revealed the depth of previous cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement as he decried the denial of access ICE officers previously had to jails in San Diego and Monterey counties, and to lists of foreign-born inmates in San Joaquin, Fresno and Sacramento county jails.

The city of Escondido, Homan wrote, had discontinued a joint operation with ICE that led to more than 300 arrests in fiscal year 2017 alone, while Orange County no longer allows its sheriff’s deputies to be cross-trained and used as ICE officers. He also noted that an ICE effort to contract with seven California counties – Sutter, Solano, Placer, Shasta, Fresno, Stanislaus and San Mateo – to house ICE detainees and expand detention in the four counties that currently house ICE detainees in local jails “was totally frustrated by AB 103.” Requests to expand detention in the four counties that currently house ICE detainees in local jails were also declined.

The federal government is asking for an injunction to stop California from enforcing provisions of its sanctuary state laws. It argues that the state has illegally usurped the U.S. government’s authority on immigration.

Chapman University constitutional law professor John Eastman predicts the government will prevail because the state is “ interfering with federal law,” Eastman said. “Mr. Becerra missed part of Constitutional Law 101 – McCulloch v. Maryland.” In the landmark 1818 Supreme Court case, “The court held the federal government was supreme and couldn’t be interfered with,” Eastman noted.

Loyola law professor Kathleen Kim disagreed with Eastman’s analysis. She argued from a states’ rights position, claiming that California has the right to “allocate state resources in a way that optimizes public safety by reducing fear among our residents, whether citizens or non-citizens, and that goal is directly tied to the necessity to disentangle local police from immigration enforcement.”

State Senator Nancy Skinner, who authored SB 450, told Capital & Main that the state legislative counsel thoroughly vetted her bill and the others to ensure they’d pass legal muster.

“The governor didn’t sign bills he believed were unlawful. He signed them on the basis that lawyers that drafted and negotiated them were well aware of the respective powers of the federal government and the state,” Skinner said.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge John Mendez in Sacramento. Mendez is a former assistant U.S. attorney and California Superior Court judge who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007, and confirmed by the senate the following year.

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A Detention Center Vigil Defies La Migra

Over the years, vigils at one immigrant-detention center in Richmond, California have changed, with some churches providing sanctuary to migrant families threatened with deportation, and raising funds for bonds and other forms of emergency support for detainees.

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David Bacon




Paola, after the phone call

All Photographs by David Bacon


Paola was standing outside the West County Detention Facility, a prison in Richmond, California for 150 to 300 people awaiting deportation, when she got the phone call.  She’d been fearing it for days.  Florencio, her husband, was in another detention center in Arizona, calling to tell her that la migra (immigration agents) had caught him in the desert, walking north with a dozen others.

Paola (not her real name) hadn’t spoken to Florencio for several weeks, not since the day before he crawled into the luggage compartment of a bus in Puebla in southern Mexico.  The bus, he hoped, would take him close to the U.S. border.

It had already been a harrowing journey for himself and Paola’s brother Lorenzo.  “After we left Guatemala and crossed the river into Mexico, we wound up in a kind of camp in Chiapas,” Florencio recalls. “There were hundreds of people there.” When the day to leave on the long trip north finally arrived, the coyotes running the camp organized a kind of shape up.  It was not that different from the stories told by an earlier generation of migrants, the braceros (contract farm laborers), who remember being herded together at Mexican way stations, inspected and shipped to the border between 1942 and 1964.

Vigil participant

“Different coyotes called us by numbers, separating us into groups,” Florencio says.  “Then they put 80 or 90 of us into the back of a truck.  There was so little space we had to stand pushed up against each other like sardines.  It was a bumpy ride, and soon people began to get sick and faint, especially the pregnant women.  They stopped the truck and gave us pills and lemons, but people were already throwing up and the smell was terrible.”

The ride resumed, but after 12 hours the people inside began to bang on the walls.  Hearing the noise, the driver pulled over.  “He let us out and told us to run around a little,” Florencio says.  “Then we got back in, and it was another 12 hours.”  When the truck got to Puebla, Florencio called Paola to tell her he was coming.

During the vigil organized by Mujeres Unidas y Activas

He got through the next stage from Puebla hidden in the luggage compartment of a bus.  That took him to Sonora.  There, in a house near the border, the group faced another obstacle.  “The mafia guys came and told us they controlled this territory, and we had to pay another $1,000 to get to the line to cross,” Florencio says. “Some of us knew this would happen, and we’d already paid the coyote. I don’t know what happened to the others.  Soldiers came, but they didn’t see any problems, and let us keep moving.”

Not having money to pay at this stage could have been fatal.  In the last decade mass graves of migrants have been discovered across the desert of Mexico’s northern states.  Many guess that these were migrants too broke to pay the toll.  Perhaps others were robbed and then killed.

For Florencio’s group, actually crossing the line wasn’t the big problem.  It was getting to a place north of it, where they could get picked up by a van to take them to Phoenix.  To get to the meeting place, they had to walk three days in the heat through rocks, sand and sagebrush.  “On the third day one boy from my hometown got pains in his stomach, and began fainting,” Florencio says. “At first I said we had to stay with him, but the coyote said we had to leave him and that the Border Patrol would find him.  If we stayed we’d all be caught.”

Paola and Teresa

In the end, that’s what happened anyway.  The group passed across a freeway, but then Florencio began hearing helicopters.  They all ran.  He tried hiding under a bush, but an agent on a motorcycle found him.  He was taken to a detention center close by.  When he called Paola, it was the day of the monthly vigil in front of the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, nearly 900 miles north.

“I was there with people from the church who were helping us,” Paola remembers.  “We’d been praying for people they knew who were inside, and we began singing.  Then my cell phone rang.  I was so afraid of getting that call, but I knew what it would be.  Then they were praying for me.”  She collapsed into the arms of a church member next to her, both of them weeping.


At the end of the detention center vigil, the people assembled there clap, shout and make enough noise that the detainees inside can hear them.  “We want them to know we’re here, that someone knows they’re inside, and that our community cares what happens to them,” explains Reverend Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity (IM4HI).  “When we started in 2011 our idea was to put out a call to people of faith and conscience concerned about what was happening to immigrants, to bear witness and provide a way for them to act on that concern.”

On the first Saturday of the month, a church or congregation brings its members to the center to bear witness.  For an hour they speak out, much in the style of a Quaker meeting, remembering migrants who’ve suffered as a result of U.S. policies of detention and deportation.  They sing, pray, make impassioned political speeches condemning the immorality of the center looming behind them, and talk about the reasons why people are forced into migrating to begin with.

As the years have gone by, the vigils have changed.  At first they were made up mostly of congregations from progressive, middle-class churches. Then some of those churches went from hosting vigils to providing sanctuary to migrant families threatened with deportation.  Churches have raised funds for bonds and emergency support, found housing and rides for released detainees, and accompanied newcomer families.  “Accompaniment,” a term used by faith and solidarity activists, came out of efforts to protect activists in El Salvador from the death squads in the 80s.  People show their solidarity with those who are in danger by accompanying them, physically or by helping them survive.  Today it’s applied to migrants as well – activists support a family by giving them sanctuary, helping them find food and shelter, getting them legal help.

As sanctuary congregations have multiplied to 32 throughout the Bay Area, migrants themselves have increasingly participated in the vigils.  “We always include testimony from directly impacted families as well as a call to action,” Lee adds.  “We started very small–15 to 20–and now it’s averaging 100 people.”

Rev. Deborah Lee

Berkeley’s St. John’s Presbyterian Church helped Paola and her mother, who fled violence in Guatemala in 2014, gain refugee status.  The family then came to the vigil at the West County Detention Facility to speak out.  “Because these families are with us, they provide a first-hand account of why they were forced to leave home,”Lee said at the vigil, urging other congregations to get involved. “We hear the pain of the separation of their families in their voices and see it in their eyes.”

St. John’s was one of the first churches to give sanctuary to immigrants.  “In the early 1980s we saw people fleeing the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and felt we had to do something to help them,” says Fred Goff, a member of the congregation who brought Teresa and Paola to the vigil.

The vigils have grown to involve more than people of faith.  Some have been organized by immigrant community organizations, like Mujeres Unidas y Activas, which organizes immigrant working women in San Francisco and the East Bay.  Local high schools and colleges have organized others, and a Jewish congregation, Kehilla Community Synagogue, has started its own vigil on second Sundays.  When workers at a local foundry were fired for not having immigration papers, Lee and the East Bay Interfaith Immigration Coalition began meeting with them in the Lutheran Church near the University of California, Berkeley campus, working with a labor/community coalition called the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE).  A few workers came to a vigil, and people of faith helped organize a community march and hunger strike to protest anti-immigrant firings.

During the vigil organized by Mujeres Unidas y Activas

After hearing from people like Teresa and Paola, Rev. Lee and IM4HI began holding meetings throughout the Bay Area to talk about the reasons for forced displacement and migration, and for the growth of the detention and deportation industry.  For two years she’s organized delegations to Central America together with La Fundación SHARE, to support social justice movements there, and to give congregations in California a first-hand experience of the reasons why people leave home.

Over many Saturdays, the vigils have provided a way for activists to reach out to people inside the center as well.  On a recent Saturday, Lourdes Barraza and her daughters Sofia, Isabel and Anna, waited to hear news of Fernando, her husband and the girls’ father.  The following Tuesday would be Fernando’s birthday, and he’d already spent three months inside, staring at the concrete walls of his cell.

Reverend Pablo Morataya gathered members of his congregation at the First Hispanic Presbyterian Church in east Oakland, a sanctuary congregation, as well as other pastors and lay ministers serving immigrant congregations throughout the Bay Area.  They went to the detention center to hold a vigil for Fernando.  “There are risks,” Pastor Morataya says, “but for us it is a calling of our faith.”

Rev. Pablo Morataya comforts Lourdes Barraza

At the vigil for Fernando, one of Lourdes’ daughters had written birthday greetings on a large card, and placed it on an overturned milk crate covered with a cloth.  First one boy stepped forward and signed it.  Then two older congregants did the same.  Finally a line stretched out of people adding their names and greetings.

Despite the support and greetings for Lourdes and her daughters, it was still an awful experience to think of Fernando inside.  They’d tried to arrange bail for him so that he would be able to come home.  “But they told me he didn’t qualify because he’d already been deported once,” Lourdes explained. “He’s been living in this country for many years.  He is not a threat to society. All he does is work, and all I do is work, too.  I don’t know how we’ll survive without him.  I need my husband and the girls need their father.”

She broke down and began crying.

Lourdes Barraza speaks out in front of the detention center

In October Fernando was dropping off the youngest of their three daughters at her daycare center in San Jose.  As he pulled away from the curb, he saw he was being followed by the vehicles that figure in the nightmares of millions of immigrants–the green cars of la migra.

He must have wondered whether he could run for it, and what that might mean for his family.  He decided instead to pull into a shopping mall parking lot.  The ICE agents jumped out of their cars, put him in cuffs, and took him to a detention center.  When he was finally able to call his home, all he could do was leave a message:  “Don’t worry. I am not going to get deported right away; just stay calm.”

Children of a detainee

Quick deportation was indeed a big danger.  Fernando had been deported in 2012, Lourdes recalled. He was picked up on a Friday and in Tijuana by the following Sunday.  But he came back because she was here.  His family, his life — all were in San Jose, not Tijuana.  Like Paola and Florencio, the bonds of love and life would not and could not be denied.

To ICE, however, being deported once before makes you a criminal subject to jail and to their euphemism for deportation–“removal.”  Since October Fernando has been imprisoned in the West County Detention Facility, nearly 60 miles from San Jose.  When he appealed to be released on bail, ICE field director David Jennings refused.

“I could not believe it was all happening again,” Lourdes told Cindy Knoebell, a volunteer for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).  “I told our daughters that their father had been detained and they completely broke down sobbing. My oldest is now on an independent study program because she can barely get out of bed in the morning. It is tough because I am alone now and have to take care of my daughters’ needs without any help.  I am completely consumed by fear and anxiety. I worry constantly about how long I’ll be able to keep a roof over our heads.”

A daughter thinking about her father

Knoebell reports that Lourdes debated for a long time whether to come to the vigil and speak.  She’d heard about many other families facing the same disaster.  “But we have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said.

Inside the detention center the monthly noise has not only let Fernando know there are supporters outside.  It has also encouraged detainees to begin protesting what they say are terrible conditions.

The West County Detention Facility is housed in a much larger jail, one of four Contra Costa County lockups.  Its official capacity is 1,096 people, of whom 150 to 300 are detainees in the facility run by ICE, which pays $6 million a year to the county for using it.  Some immigration detainees are held because ICE says they’re in the country illegally.  Others are asylum seekers who are detained immediately on arrival in the U.S. or legal residents with past offenses (often very minor ones) that makes them deportable.

So they await a hearing before an immigration judge.  That hearing, however, is not the normal courtroom procedure one might imagine.  The judge sits in a room in the ICE building on Sansome Street in San Francisco.  The immigrant sits in a room at the detention center in Richmond.  The hearing takes place over the Internet.  If immigrants have a lawyer, their chances of staying in the U.S. are better, but odds are not good even then.

A vigil participant shows support for the people inside

People like Fernando wait, while weeks stretch into months and even years.

In October the immigration detainees went public about what that waiting is like.  In a letter written to CIVIC by one of the prisoners, Nancy Meyer, and signed by 27 others, women described being held in cells for 23 hours a day.  While regular inmates in the county jail section of the facility get classes and other resources, the immigration detainees don’t.

The cells are grouped in pods, with a bathroom that is supposed to serve them all.  There are no toilets in the cells.  If the cell door is locked, a prisoner has to ask to be let out in order to go to the bathroom.  While Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston says doors are normally open, the women signing the letter denied this.  Instead, they charged, they’re told to “hold it” and have to urinate or defecate into plastic bags.

Lourdes Barraza

One detainee told immigration Judge Joseph Park in October that she that she preferred being deported to staying in the jail.  In a phone interview with San Francisco Chronicle reporter Otis R. Taylor, Dianny Patricia Menendez said detainees put the plastic bags over a trash can in order to go to the bathroom.  Their one hour of free time to make calls to family or take a shower is often canceled, she added.

ICE did not respond to the allegations of bad conditions.  However, Taylor wrote that the detainees who spoke with him were later punished by being denied soap, shampoo and the chance to brush their teeth.

Immigrant women supporting each other

Senator Dianne Feinstein was one of several elected officials to protest.  She wrote acting ICE director Thomas Homan in December, saying, “It has been reported that the conditions are so deplorable that detainees are requesting deportation over pursuing claims in immigration court.”  Criticism also came from U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Richmond), State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond), Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia and Richmond Mayor Tom Butt.

Outside the West County jail, a few minutes after Paola got the call from Florencio saying he’d been caught, she got a second one that frightened her even more.  Her brother Lorenzo was hiding in a small community between Tucson and the border.  He’d been traveling with Florencio, but the coyotes separated them in northern Sonora.

Holding hands is part of the vigil ritual

Once across the border, Lorenzo lost his own group, and a friendly resident gave him temporary refuge in a garage.  Terrified that the Border Patrol, which was constantly circulating in the area, would find him, he called Teresa.  At the vigil, church members began making calls to Arizona, trying to find help.  Finally a person was contacted who drove down from Tucson and rescued him.

It was only a temporary respite, however.  Not long afterwards Lorenzo was picked up and deported.  When he calls Teresa and Paola these days, it’s from Guatemala once again.

Paola is comforted after getting the call

Since Florencio had tried to cross the border twice before and had been caught, he wasn’t deported immediately when he was picked up in Arizona.  Instead, he was charged in the special court for immigrants in Tucson, Operation Streamline.  Afterwards he spent seven months in an Arizona prison before finally being released on bail while he appeals his deportation order.

To Rev. Lee, the stories of Florencio, Lorenzo and Fernando, with their repeated attempts to cross the border to reunite with their families, are a natural human response to separation.  She cited another example in an opinion piece she cowrote with Bob Lane, a faith leader at EBASE, for the San Jose Mercury News.  “Consider the story of Alfonso Martinez Sanchez, a 39-year-old father of five U.S. citizen children and his family’s main breadwinner, she wrote. “Five years ago, a trip to a store to buy milk led to a senseless deportation. Alfonso repeatedly tried to come home to his family.  Wouldn’t you?  The Border Patrol arrested Alfonso several times, but he never gave up on his family. He died of heatstroke in the desert trying to reunite.”

“We are at your side!”

When Rev. Lee thinks about what’s happened to Paola and Teresa, to Florencio and Lorenzo, to Lourdes and her three children, to Fernando, it’s clear to her that for them to survive people have to act.  “We can’t just watch the immigration policy of this country play itself out and do nothing, while ICE and the Border Patrol hunt people down and tear their families apart,” she said at a recent vigil.  “The administration talks about our efforts to protect people and fight this detention system as though this was just a state or a city passing a law to defy their enforcement efforts.  What they don’t understand is that these laws exist because our community is making a moral commitment and acting on it, and our representatives are responding to that.  Sanctuary isn’t just a law.  It’s our community defending people in danger.”

Sanctuary is a vigil in front of the detention center.

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The Haitian Women Who Live in California’s Golden Purgatory

A clash between two Americas can be seen in the story of Haitian immigrants. One is a welcoming, pluralist America; the other is the nativist country that birthed Donald Trump.

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Sasha Abramsky




Marie Darline Remy and her son in San Diego. (Photo: Sasha Abramsky)

Haitians from Brazil who trekked through jungles and waded rivers were truly the huddled masses of Emma Lazarus’ Statue of Liberty poem. Then came Donald Trump.


Nadia Aly, aged 26, sits at a table in San Diego’s Catholic Charities office, elegant in a silvery-gray chain-link sweater. Her daughter, just shy of 1 year old, rests in a stroller, a bow in her hair, a pacifier in her mouth.

In December 2015, Nadia left her impoverished home country of Haiti for Brazil. There was a growing Haitian community there, which over the previous years had been lured by a booming economy and the prospect of jobs — especially in construction– in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and, later, the Olympics. Many had left their children behind with relatives, hoping to be able to financially support them from afar. In Brazil, Nadia and her boyfriend, Franky Jean Simon,  whom she had met at university in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, worked, saved and planned their futures.

Little Haiti refugee settlement, Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Ted Soqui)

By the time Nadia got settled in her new home, however, the Brazilian economy had hit the skids. Most of Haitians found themselves jobless. With no income in Brazil and no prospects back in Haiti, large numbers began heading north, without papers, hoping to eventually resettle in the United States. Nadia and Franky were amongst them. It was an extraordinary odyssey. For those with money and visas, a flight from Brazil to California takes half a day. For those without, it’s a months-long journey. It involves cutting through jungles, fording rivers, traipsing from one country to the next, bribing border guards, paying smugglers. They left Brazil in small groups, friends and strangers brought together by desperation. They walked north, sometimes meeting other groups, caravanning, pooling resources (food, money, information, Spanish words picked up here and there) – modern day wagon trains of Creole-speaking migrants looking to wend their way to El Dorado. Sometimes there would be as few as five or 10 people; other times, perhaps a hundred.

Haitian men who present themselves at crossing checkpoints are promptly locked away in detention facilities. They will likely spend the next several years there unless they agree to be repatriated to Haiti.

Brazil. Peru. Ecuador. Colombia. Panama. Costa Rica. Nicaragua. Honduras. Guatemala. Mexico… and, finally, months later, the United States.

They were, truly, the tired, poor, huddled masses of Emma Lazarus’ poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Their stories were the stories of so many Americans’ immigrant ancestors– heartache, pain, poverty, exposure to violence, lack of schooling, disease, flight from dysfunction and brutal government. And they had heard rumors that once at the U.S. border, if they presented themselves to officers, they would be dealt with humanely and admitted into the country. Nobody understood quite how or why, but they knew what they had heard, or read on Facebook, and they were willing to give it a go.

“People were saying there was a way for Haitians to enter the U.S.,” Ivonnia Jean Baptiste remembers, as she fusses with her 2-month-old daughter. “I wasn’t sure about it, but I was willing to take the risk to try.”“We didn’t have any type of information,” says 39-year-old Nounoune Jules. “We were relying on our faith.”

Rosenique, San Diego. (Photo: Sasha Abramsky)

“It was really hard,” adds Gertha Bordeleus, 28, sitting in the small San Diego apartment she now shares with three other women and their children, her infant swaddled in a blanket against her shoulder. She recalls the six days that she, her husband, and their 2-year-old son walked through the jungle on the Colombia-Panama border, with only candies to eat, some Gatorade and very little water. “It was really scary. You had to walk through the forest. It was raining. We were wet; we were cold. I was too weak to carry my child.”

When Gertha’s family finally reached Tijuana in the first months of the Trump administration, however, they heard that the border was now largely closed, especially to Haitian men. For months, they lived in a refugee camp, taking on day-labor jobs, trying just to survive. Gertha became pregnant. Rumor had it that pregnant women were still, even in Trump’s America, being allowed over the border. She decided to attempt the crossing. Her husband stayed behind with their son in Tijuana.

Since Trump’s inauguration, the women and their young children are indeed still allowed in, but the door has been shut on the men. Haitian men who present themselves at crossing checkpoints and request “parole” into the country while they await their day in court are now promptly locked away in immigration detention facilities. There they will likely spend the next several years unless they forgo an immigration hearing and agree to be repatriated to Haiti; others have decided not to risk it, and are living in squalid, informal, refugee camps in Tijuana.

In December 2016, heavily pregnant, Nadia had presented herself, without papers or visa, at the Mexico-U.S. border checkpoint in Tijuana. She stated that she feared what would happen to her if she returned to Haiti and requested admission into the country. Under nearly 40-year-old programs intended to help Haitian migrants, she was “paroled” in – meaning she was allowed entry, and access to certain benefits and to a work permit, while her immigration case wended its way through the courts. Her boyfriend Franky was also admitted.

Once in the country, they were evaluated to see if they were eligible for some cash benefits for a security deposit and the first months’ rent, as well as fees for work permits, administered by Catholic Charities of San Diego, with federal funds from the Cuban Haitian Entrant Program (CHEP) established in 1980.

A church-run center for Haitians in Tijuana. (Photo: Ted Soqui)

Four months later, however, amidst a growing crackdown on undocumented migrants, Franky was arrested and deported to Haiti. He lives there now, penniless, reliant on what little money Nadia can send him from her earnings as a cleaner at a Marriott Hotel.

“We didn’t know we were going to live without each other,” Nadia, deeply depressed, anxious, and having problems with her memory, explains. “If I need to see his face, I have his pictures in my phone. This is where I go.”

Over the last couple of years, several thousand Haitians, claiming a credible fear of harm if they are returned to Haiti, have come through the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing. Once “paroled” in, many were given tickets by Catholic Charities and flown to Boston, New York and Florida. Many others took buses and trains to other points in California and the country. But large numbers stayed in the San Diego area. In 2016, 328 people received CHEP benefits – mainly cash assistance, administered by Catholic Charities, that was used to put security deposits on apartment rentals and to pay first-month’s rents — in San Diego. Hundreds of others in the city were paroled in, but denied the benefits. The following year, however, that number plummeted. In 2017, according to Nadine Toppozada, director of refugee and human trafficking services at Catholic Charities San Diego, only about 200 people in San Diego received CHEP benefits; this year that number is slated to fall below 90. The decrease is largely due to the fact that the men are no longer being admitted into the United States.

As a result of this new policy of dividing families at the border, San Diego now has large numbers of young, extremely poor, and frequently illiterate, Haitian women and children living in over-crowded communal apartments in low-end rental units. Those who qualify for CHEP benefits are helped financially and with navigating government bureaucracies, by Catholic Charities and other groups. Despite the help, the road they travel is miserable.

Ruth Monexil said she would not have tried to enter the country last fall had she known that her husband and teenage son would be detained. “When I live without my family, I don’t live well. I am depressed. I am not working. I don’t know where my son is, what’s going on. Last week, I was doing really bad, I felt like I was losing my head. I’m always feeling sad inside of me.”

Ivonnia Jean Baptiste and her daughter, San Diego. (Photo: Sasha Abramsky)

These days, Ruth lives with strangers, in a small gray-stucco apartment complex. Their living-room walls are entirely bare, the room’s only furniture a small TV on a little wooden table. Their kitchen is crowded with donated toys for the babies and toddlers. The bedrooms are cluttered, lived in by too many people.

The Cuban Haitian Entrant Program was begun in the 1980s to help Cuban and Haitian migrants, who met criteria laid down in the 1980 Refugee Education Assistance Act, to navigate life in the U.S.

Like so much of America’s immigration and welfare system, CHEP – described by Toppozada as “the Cuban Haitian welfare program” — was as much the result of happenstance as careful planning. For years, desperate Haitian boat people had been fleeing the kleptocracy, political violence and almost unimaginable poverty of their homeland. They had been washing up on Florida’s coastline and had, routinely, been rounded up, held in detention centers, and earmarked for fast-track deportation. Then, in the spring of 1980, Fidel Castro opened the port in Mariel to Cubans seeking to leave their island. In the months following, tens of thousands of Cuban boat people arrived in Florida.

Trump didn’t bother to hide his distaste for Haitian immigrants. They all had AIDS, he reportedly told advisers.

For geopolitical reasons (Cuba being a communist nation, with the Cold War in full bloom), Jimmy Carter’s administration felt it had to let the Cuban boat people stay in the U.S. But, the juxtaposition, one highlighted by the media and by human rights groups, was jarring – Cubans fleeing communism were being granted admission; Haitians fleeing the U.S.-backed Duvalier dictatorship, a dictatorship far worse than Castro’s, were being arrested and deported. To avoid a series of messy court cases and a public opinion battle they feared they couldn’t win, the administration included Haiti in the program. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement would process the vast number of boat people arriving daily in Florida during the early 1980s, the Haitian portion of which was “paroled” in while awaiting immigration hearings.

Until 2016 most Haitians were paroled in on the East Coast, if they managed to skirt aggressive Coast Guard patrols intended to stop them before they reached U.S. soil. All that changed in early 2016, when the Brazilian economy imploded and Haitian migrants there were cast adrift. Soon afterwards, Catholic Charities workers in California noted a large uptick in the numbers of Haitians requesting help on the land-crossings from Mexico. Immigration and Custom Enforcement numbers suggest somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 Haitian entrants arrived at the San Ysidro border crossing in 2016.

While the Obama’s administration sought to stem this influx, it also believed in keeping families together – and so men and women with children were paroled in, even while the administration made it clear it would seek, ultimately, to deport them. They were given the precious I-94 documents that allowed them to live and work in America, and to claim financial assistance through CHEP while their asylum cases wound through the courts. Under President Trump, however, the policy immediately tightened.

Trump didn’t bother to hide his distaste for Haitian immigrants. They all had AIDS, he reportedly told advisers in the run-up to his decision to roll back Temporary Protected Status for another group of Haitian migrants who had entered the country following the 2010 earthquake, and who had been able to avoid deportation because of the widespread devastation in Haiti.

Many of the women arrive in San Diego psychically broken and separated from their husbands and boyfriends, overwhelmed by having to care for newborns without help.

The new administration begrudgingly honored the government’s commitment to “parole” in the case of women and children, and to provide them documents allowing them access to benefits and work. The men, however, were detained.

“After we crossed the border, they released me and my child,” recalls Nounoune Jules. “But my husband is still in the detention center. I never knew they would keep him this long. He is sick; he cannot be in detention.”

Many of the women arrive in San Diego psychically broken. They are separated from their husbands and boyfriends, overwhelmed by having to care for newborns without help. Many of them are illiterate in their home tongue, unable to speak the new language and without the time or energy to enroll in ESL classes. They often wait for months for work permits from increasingly hostile federal agencies. Helped by Catholic Charities, they have been housed with other women migrants and their children, the crowded apartments rapidly becoming hubs for uniquely Trump-era “Modern Families” of female strangers and their children cast together by circumstance.

“I’m by myself,” says Marie Darline Remy of her loneliness. “On Wednesday, my child was sick. I had to go to the hospital. I spent the whole night awake. I came back home; no-one asked me, ‘How is your baby?’ Things like that make you feel alone.” She can’t even phone her husband in Tijuana. His phone isn’t working and she doesn’t know of any other way to contact him. He has never met their infant son.

Residents of Little Haiti, Tijuana. (Photo: Ted Soqui)

A clash between two Americas can be seen in the story of these Haitians. One is the welcoming, pluralist America of Emma Lazarus’ Statue of Liberty poem, willing to take a chance on impoverished and vulnerable new arrivals. The other is the nativist America that birthed Trump and, in turn, has been nurtured by his presidency.

The Haitian women and their children are the lucky recipients of a last-gasp generosity, beneficiaries of a stupendous humanitarian impulse that is now under assault. They are able to access cash, food and medical benefits; their children who are born after their arrival are U.S. citizens. But the men left behind in detention or in Tijuana are amongst the first victims of the new closed and narrow vision of how America treats those desperate migrants seeking succor on its shores.

And by separating the men and women, the government has condemned the women to a cruel purgatory – admitted into the country, but unable to see their partners, unable to envision a possible future in which their families will one day be made whole again.

Hermaine Pierre, jobless and adrift in San Diego, explains how her 2-year-old daughter has lost her appetite as she pines for her detained father. She herself struggles to sleep at night, terrified her husband will be deported to Haiti. One of Hermaine’s roommates also talks of not being able to sleep, as she worries about her boyfriend left behind in Tijuana.

Back in Haiti, Franky Simon puts on a brave façade when he talks to Nadia. He tells her he will find a way to get back to the United States to be with her and their child. He tells her he will one day be able to watch out for her again. But, in her heart of hearts, Nadia no longer believes in happy endings.

“I don’t think he’ll ever be able to come back here,” she admits softly. “I’m just living day by day. With no hope.”

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Climate of Fear Could Lead to Huge California Census Undercount

Co-published by The American Prospect
An undercount will lessen California’s political clout.

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Photo: Larry Buhl

Could a proposed “citizenship question” drastically cut response rates among immigrants — and sabotage the counting of California’s population?

Co-published by The American Prospect

The U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in December, asking that a citizenship question be added to the 2020 Census because citizenship data was needed to protect minority populations from “racial discrimination in voting.”

Advocates who know the difficulty of getting communities of color to participate in the census find the DOJ’s logic confounding.

“It’s disingenuous,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). He noted that the American Community Survey, the modern version of the census “long form,” asks whether the respondent is an immigrant (though it doesn’t ask about immigration status). “Not a single civil rights litigator has said the American Community Survey is not sufficient in getting data on immigration,” Vargas said.

The survey, developed in 2005, is sent randomly to three million households every year. A question about immigration was asked on the 2000 long form sent to one of six households, but was discontinued for the 2010 count. No citizenship question was asked in the general 2010 census form.

Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, will ultimately decide whether to add the citizenship question. The DOJ has not said how it would like the question to be stated.

Civil rights groups and many public officials say such a question on the census would sabotage the count by dramatically reducing response rates among immigrant communities.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a coalition of U.S. mayors have denounced the DOJ request. Last week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with attorneys general from 18 other states, including New York and Massachusetts, sent a letter to Ross stating that such a question would depress immigrant participation in the count.

New questions must be submitted to Congress for review two years before the census, in this case by the end of March. Questions must also be field-tested to determine whether they will depress turnout by being too confusing or intimidating.

“If the bureau adds the citizenship question without field-testing, it will clearly be a political move,” said Phil Sparks, the spokesperson for the Census Project, which describes itself as a network of national, state and local organizations that supports a fair and accurate 2020 census and comprehensive American Community Survey.

Census data collected every 10 years affect how federal funds are allocated to state and local governments, and determine the distribution of $400 billion in federal funding for roads, schools, senior services, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and job training, among other services. For example, in 2016 California received $2.4 billion for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The Manassas, Virginia firm Election Data Services uses the census to determine whether states will gain or lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The data also influence the allocation of members of state legislatures and many city councils.

“If the citizenship question is on the form, California will have such depressed numbers it will lose one or more congressional seats,” predicted the Census Project’s Sparks.

An undercount could cost California more than $1.5 billion. A 2017 report from George Washington University estimated that for every resident not counted in the 2010 census, California lost more than $1,000 in federal funding. The California Department of Finance estimated that the 2010 census failed to count 1.5 million state residents.

Latinos, 39 percent of California’s population, historically have been difficult to count. In 2010, 1.5 percent of the Latino population was undercounted nationwide, according to Census Bureau estimates. The rate of undercount for Latino children was even higher, according to the NALEO Educational Fund, which estimated that the 2010 undercount rate for young Latinos was 7.1 percent, compared to 4.3 percent for non-Latinos. Those estimates suggest that the overall Latino census undercount was probably much higher, according to Vargas.

The goal of the census, since it began in 1790, has been to count all people, not just citizens. In 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that election districts could be based on total population, rather than on the number of eligible voters.

Questions about immigration and mistrust of the federal government’s use of data affect census participation beyond undocumented immigrants, Vargas said. “Millions of Latinos live in mixed immigration households,” he said. “They’re reluctant, quite rationally, to fill out forms for fear of putting family members at risk.”

Paul Mitchell of Norwalk, California-based Political Data Inc. said the impact of a question about citizenship would go beyond personal fear of a crackdown by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the undocumented.

“Addresses are geocoded, and the government would know which areas have the highest rates of non-citizens, including apartment complexes,” Mitchell said. “Anyone with census data could draw a map” for law enforcement to target undocumented immigrants. “It could be a local activist group or city council saying, ‘Look how many non-citizens are in that part of town.’ It’s crazy to think that they wouldn’t use the data if they had it.”

Even before the possibility of including a citizenship question arose, the Census Bureau had been facing several problems. It has no permanent director, field tests have been canceled, and funding has been cut.

Underscoring the importance of an accurate count, California Governor Jerry Brown last month proposed spending more than $40 million on census-related outreach efforts.

Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of the nonprofit California Endowment, told Capital & Main that whether or not there is a citizenship question, it will be “monumentally more difficult” getting people of color to respond to the census this year.

“There is a general climate of fear,” he said. “When there is the [American Civil Liberties Union’s] Know Your Rights campaign saying don’t open your door to ICE, how do you tell the same people that they should trust the government regarding the census?”

The 2020 census will be the first to include an online option, something the bureau says could increase participation. But even that might miss Latinos, according to Christian Arana of the San Francisco-based Latino Community Foundation. “There is a digital divide in the Latino community,” Arana said. “We don’t know if online will lead to a more accurate count.”

Arana and other community advocates say the onus for reaching California Latinos falls on them. “And what motivates people to respond is an understanding of why the census count is important,” Arana said. “They have to want to participate, and the messenger is important.”

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Trump: Make Immigrants’ Use of Public Health Benefits A Deportable Offense

Co-published by The American Prospect
New proposed restrictions mean that immigrants are more liable to be turned away at points of entry, or have their applications to extend their stays in the country be denied.

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(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Immigration Attorney:
“There’s no doubt that we’re seeing on a national level what we saw in California in the Pete Wilson era.”

Co-published by The American Prospect

The Trump administration is making new rules that would prevent immigrants from settling in the country or receiving a green card if they or their families have received benefits from a wide array of federal, state and local programs — even if the benefits were for an immigrant’s U.S.-citizen children.

The language in the administration’s rule change, first reported by Reuters, shows that immigrants who enroll their children in public programs like Head Start or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) risk having their visa applications rejected.

The same goes for immigrants who apply for health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, along with Women, Infants and Children (WIC) assistance for poor pregnant or nursing women and their children.

“There’s no doubt that we’re seeing on a national level what we saw in California in the Pete Wilson era,” said Alvaro Huerta, referring to the get-tough policies of the former Republican governor in the 1990s. Huerta is a staff attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, which defends and advocates for the rights of immigrants with low incomes. “It’s the same over-the-top reaction to immigrants coming in, and the always-present scapegoating of immigrants for the economic woes of the country.”

Under Wilson, state health officials enthusiastically cooperated with the U.S. Department of State’s ill-fated Public Charge Lookout System. Initially touted as an anti-fraud program aimed at immigrants bilking the state’s Medi-Cal system, the program was discontinued after reports that state investigators and immigration agents were pressuring legal immigrants and even citizens to repay millions in Medi-Cal benefits to which they were legally entitled, or risk having their relatives’ visa applications rejected.

Federal guidelines passed in 1999 require immigrants seeking to become lawful permanent residents to demonstrate that they will not rely on government services. This nearly two-decade-old rule has been narrowly interpreted as reliance on government-funded long-term disability payments or government cash-assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and state unemployment programs.

As a result, public charge is an element of federal immigration policy rarely invoked or enforced. According to State Department records, the denial rate for applicants on public charge grounds from 2005-12 was less than one one-hundredth of one percent.

The new restrictions that Trump is proposing mean that immigrants who have received any public benefit to which they were legally entitled are liable to be turned away at points of entry, or have their applications to extend their stays in the country be denied.

“We’ve already seen chilling effects at our health center since last January,” said Thu Quach, an administrator at Asian Health Services in Oakland, referring to the month when a draft executive order, directing the Department of Health and Human Services to change its policies so that use of health benefits could constitute a public charge, leaked from the White House.

Though the order was never issued, its message was clear. Immigrant-rights advocates say Trump’s new restrictions on government benefits are likely to trigger widespread fear in immigrant communities and frighten many legal immigrants into avoiding prenatal care and dropping their children from Medi-Cal rolls — to avoid having their or their family’s visa applications rejected.

“We have stories from staff indicating people are not signing up for food stamps or Medicaid, even though they’re eligible,” Quach said. “These are green card holders, not undocumented people. They will pay out of pocket so as not to be listed in records. They’re worried about whether the government will go after them and worried about their sponsors having to pay this back.”

Madison Hardee, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, DC, sees other consequences: “It’s a proposed rule that could force families, including citizen children, to choose between getting the help they need and reuniting with those who they love.”

The draft rule from HHS states the issue as one of legal immigrants placing an undue burden on American taxpayers.

“Non-citizens who receive public benefits are not self-sufficient and are relying on the U.S. government and state and local entities for resources instead of their families, sponsors or private organizations,” the document states. “An alien’s receipt of public benefits comes at taxpayer expense and availability of public benefits may provide an incentive for aliens to immigrate to the United States.”

A 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences found the annual net cost to state and local budgets of first-generation adult immigrants is, on average, about $1,600 each. Second and third generation adults, on the other hand, annually provide a net positive of about $1,700 and $1,300 each, respectively, to state and local budgets.

Randy Capps, research director for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Washington, DC, says the administration is cherry-picking data to imply that immigrants as a group are dependent on the government or not working as much as they could be.

“We think of things like health insurance coming as support for initial integration, not long-term dependency,” Capps said. “If you look at the trajectory of benefits use it’s lower over time. That’s something not mentioned by the administration.”

A new rule change will require a lengthy review process before it can take effect. Jonathan Withington, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said, “No decision about public charge is final until the rulemaking process is completed.”

Immigration advocates say they are also preparing a legal challenge, if necessary, which could further delay implementation.

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Mentors Under Siege: California’s DACA Teachers

Of California’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

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Bill Raden




Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

“I don’t understand why they’re trying to kick us out and recruiting people with our same qualifications when we’re already here.”
— San Bernardino math teacher


Students were crying,” says Cristian Aguilar, recalling the Wednesday after Election Day, 2016. “Parents were calling me; there was just a lot of tension, a lot of emotions. … Because whether or not they were born here, they still felt threatened. They knew someone — either their families, their friends or their neighbors — that were [going to be] affected.” The man who had famously launched his candidacy by slurring America’s Latino immigrants was now the president-elect.

Most of all, the students of San Jose’s nearly 80 percent Latino Hoover Middle School were acutely aware that if Donald Trump made good on his threats to revoke DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Aguilar, their 25-year-old public school teacher, would soon again be living under the murky cloud of deportation. Ironically, he had long made it a point to share his own immigration tale with his kids as a means of inspiring them and to connect with their families.

For a melting pot like California, his story is far from unique. Of the state’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. But with a March 5 deadline looming, California’s DACA teachers may soon find themselves locked out of jobs and careers.

Trump has lately rejected bipartisan immigration compromises that would have granted eventual citizenship to young immigrants like Aguilar, but which didn’t provide any funding for the president’s proposed border wall, or include White House demands for the termination of the current visa diversity lottery and deep cuts to the country’s traditional family reunification priorities.

“[Trump] wants to decrease legal immigration by about half, which is not something that’s ever been done in our country’s history,” pointed out California Sate University, Los Angeles anthropology professor Beth Baker, who specializes in immigration. “That’s very disconcerting, particularly because immigrants are really the motor of the economy.”

But for California’s DACA educators, losing their right to teach would be a crippling setback to a public school system in the throes of a chronic teacher shortage and in which one in eight school children have an undocumented parent. It would also mark a bitter reversal to what has been a quintessentially American odyssey of immigrant resolve and aspiration. Here are three of those 5,000 DACA teacher stories.


The Organizer

Aguilar was 10 when he crossed the border from Mexico with a brother in order to join his parents, who had been drawn here by the promise of a better life. Despite growing up without the legal rights and expectations taken for granted by birthright Americans, he quickly distinguished himself as a math prodigy after a bilingual teacher recognized his ability and tutored him, in Spanish, after school.

“It wasn’t until junior and senior year that I really found out what that meant, being undocumented,” he recalled. “Not being able to drive; not being able to apply for financial aid when it came to college applications. … I started noticing the discrepancies between my peers’ and my education.”

Despite having the grades and being accepted by California State University, Stanford University and the University of California, he settled for De Anza, a two-year community college in neighboring Cupertino. That’s when fate and Sacramento Democrats intervened with the introduction of 2011’s California Dream Act, which extended state financial aid to undocumented students at public universities and colleges. As battle lines formed over the contentious measure, Aguilar threw himself into the political fight, organizing students throughout Northern California as part of a campus immigrant-rights group that also lobbied the legislature.

Though the new law paved his way into UC Berkeley, it was the 2012 implementation of DACA by the Obama administration and Aguilar’s winning of temporary legal status that enabled him to set his sights on giving back to his community: “That’s when I knew I wanted to be there for students, especially other students of color, who have been marginalized and who have been under-represented for so long. Knowing [first-hand] the difficulty of being part of an educational system that really pushed us out — students who ‘don’t belong.'”

The Object Lesson

Ever since being brought from Mexico as a young child to Southern California by a mother determined to leave behind a nightmarish marriage and secure the best possible future for her daughter, Elysa Chavez (her real name has been withheld at her request), a third-year DACA high school math teacher in San Bernardino County, has been preparing for the best but girding for the worst.

“I can’t even believe that this is happening,” Chavez said of the immigration impasse. “The administration talks about getting rid of chain migration and bringing in people based on their merits and degrees, and the basic language — but I have a degree in math, which not a lot of people like. I teach math in a low-income community. I have a master’s degree. I speak the language. I pay my taxes. Everything that Trump is looking for, [DACA teachers] have. I don’t understand why they’re trying to kick us out and recruiting people with our same qualifications when we’re already here.”

She is not alone. In the months since Donald Trump announced the elimination of DACA and began threatening to abandon its recipients, Chavez has seen a pall of fear fall over her school’s 85 percent Hispanic students, particularly among the freshman and even some sophomores, who were too young to make DACA’s 15-year-old age threshold before it was canceled.

“What I have seen is students that are reluctant to share that they’re undocumented, when a couple of years back it wasn’t such a big deal,” she explained.

To offer them hope and encourage them to open up, Chavez tells them her own up-by-her-bootstraps story of attending Cal Poly Pomona at a time when there was no DACA or chance of a teaching career, or even financial aid for undocumented college hopefuls. (Chavez graduated just before DACA came online.)

“It’s tough, but it’s something that can be done,” she asserted. “So whenever they have questions, they come and they ask me. I have a feeling that I comfort them, but they do the opposite for me. They just make me worried, because I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen with them, and are they going to see education as something that is valuable?’ Because I have a feeling that they might think, ‘What’s the point of me getting good grades if at the end of the day I might get deported?’”

The Activist

Like many California DACA teachers, 25-year-old Angelica Reyes, who is a first-year Advanced Placement history teacher in South Los Angeles, traces her decision to become an educator to the inspiration provided by her own high school history teacher.

“I grew up in East L.A. and I saw a lot of disparities, both in the education that we were receiving, but also in huge wealth inequity,” she remembered. “This teacher used to engage me in a lot of really interesting conversations and challenged me to go beyond just inquiring, to try to change something in my community. So, I was involved in the project that brought in a grocery store to the community.”

Reyes said this campaign transformed the way that she saw herself and her relationship to the community. “I felt like the best way to make folks feel empowered and like they mattered was through education.”

So, that’s what she did. She was at Pasadena City College when she received DACA protections soon after the program came into being. That enabled her to do what had previously been unthinkable: complete both her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles and enter a master’s program in UCLA’s school of education.

“There wasn’t ever a question in my mind of whether I was going to go to college,” she recalled. “I knew that I was going to be more … My mom would always remind me that folks who have an education have more power, more agency and they’re able to better advocate for themselves and for folks like them. Of course, I was worried about not being able to work in the field that I’ve chosen, but that’s still a fear today.”

It hit home in September with Trump’s decision to rescind DACA. Like the other teachers in this story, Reyes came to school that day to find her kids terrified both for her sake and by the specter of the uncertainty and instability it would bring if she were removed as their teacher.

“That day,” she remembered, “it was a lot of validating their existence, their feelings, and also making sure that they understood that DACA in the first place wasn’t something that was granted to us. It’s something that a lot of folks fought for, and that’s where our communities get their power from, from advocacy and from grassroots organizing. I let them know that our federal government is very strong, but our communities are strong, too, when we come together. We can stop deportation.”

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DACA Dreamers Vent Rage at Senate Deal

Each day that Congress fails to find a solution for Dreamers, another 122 DACA recipients lose their legal status, according to the Center for American Progress.

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Charles Davis




Photos by Joanne Kim


Undocumented youth called Republicans “racists” and Democrats “cowards” at a Monday evening rally in downtown Los Angeles. They were angry that the U.S. Senate reopened the federal government without resolving the legal status of more than 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

“To the Democrats in Congress, we want to tell you that we are outraged,” said a young woman, Diana, who was born in Peru and brought to the U.S. as a toddler. She was once protected from the threat of deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), but President Donald Trump rescinded that program last fall, setting a March 5, 2018 deadline for it to expire — unless Congress acts.

Each day that a legislative solution fails to materialize, another 122 DACA recipients, popularly known as Dreamers, lose their legal status, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.

Earlier on Monday, Democratic Senate leaders announced they had agreed to vote for a resolution funding the government for another three weeks in exchange for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-TN) promise that the chamber would soon take up the issue of immigration. More than 2,500 DACA recipients risk losing their legal status by the time funding runs out again.

Democrats “didn’t hold the line for us,” Diana said. “So we’re really, really furious. They don’t care about us. The Republicans as well. They’re heartless.”

Both California Democratic senators did vote against the move, which was acknowledged by speakers at the rally, organized by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). Senator Kamala Harris is rumored to be a 2020 presidential candidate, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein is facing a progressive primary challenge from California State Senate President Pro Tem, Kevin de León.

Manny J., a young man who’s had DACA protection since 2012, would like to stay in the country in which he grew up after his parents fled Central America — but not at the expense, he said, of other immigrants. “What we’re fighting for is a clean DREAM Act,” he said, meaning a bill that restores DACA without, among other things, funding a border wall.

“In every negotiation there’s a give and take,” Pablo Morales, political director at CHIRLA, said in an interview. “But we feel the conversation’s gone way beyond what’s been discussed in the past. In the past, when [Republicans] talked about a wall or more enforcement or changing the visa system, that was in exchange for 11 million undocumented immigrants having a path to citizenship. So now [they] want all that, and . . . to limit it to the Dreamers. And that seems to be not negotiating in good faith.”

CHIRLA is calling for a mass mobilization to demand a “clean” DREAM Act on February 3, five days before funding for the federal government runs out again.

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