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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.

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.

Copyright Capital & Main


Resistance in the Heartland: Fighting ICE in Small-Town Iowa and Nebraska

Co-published by Law at the Margins.
Mass arrests and mistreatment of immigrants split local communities.




Photo courtesy IowaWINS

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

“You have to leave the country now that Trump is president.” That’s what Latinx children heard from some white schoolmates in the small southeastern Iowa town of Mount Pleasant in the days after Donald Trump was elected.

Eighteen months later, the threat of deportation seemed much more real than a schoolyard taunt. On May 9, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained 32 men—22 from Guatemala and the rest from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras—at Mount Pleasant’s Midwest Precast Concrete (MPC) plant. A concrete mixing plant that started up more than a decade ago, MPC owes its building and success largely to migrant Latino labor, including that of some highly valued supervisors who were swept up.

The raid came out of nowhere, without warning. “They had a canine unit and a helicopter,” arrested MPC worker Nelson Lopez Sanchez told a reporter through a translator. “Some people got beat up. As they were trying to get away, officers used force. Agents were very impolite, making racist comments.” Sanchez came to the United States 14 year ago, fleeing corruption and violence in his native Guatemala.

When college student Juana Barrios learned about the detention of her father, an MPC worker who had worked in the United States for 17 years, it was like living a nightmare. “Scary … the worst feeling I’d ever experienced in my life,” Barrios told an Iowa Public Radio (IPR) interviewer nine days after the raid. “[My father] was our rock, our everything. We need him.”

Other families hit by the raid also were traumatized. Many became afraid to leave their homes. For two days after the raid, 90 children stayed out of school. Three of the detained men were married to U.S. citizens and in the process of becoming citizens themselves. Each of them nonetheless had to put up a $10,000 bond and pay hundreds of dollars for a work permit if they wanted to resume legal employment.

Others among the detained group were asylum seekers fleeing rampant drug violence and government corruption in Guatemala. It’s not illegal to seek asylum in the U.S, and you have to be on U.S. soil in order to apply for asylum here.

Grassroots Emergency Responses Activated

Latinx immigrants together with local and regional allies, responded immediately to defend and support detained workers and their families—to raise bond money and help them “find a way out of this.” Local churches and schools have provided critical caring, sanctuary and sustenance while regional activists have arrived to provide critical legal, counseling and organizing assistance.

Before the raid, Mount Pleasant was home to a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), an immigrant-led organization. LULAC leader David Suarez, a respected community outreach officer for a local bank and journalist, first alerted Mount Pleasant activists of the raid after a fellow Latino community member called him and informed him of a helicopter above and state police on the industrial perimeter.

On the day of the raid, LULAC hosted a meeting for families who were impacted, but because they were a brand-new organization, Suarez immediately reached out to First Presbyterian Church (FPC) and IowaWINS (Iowa Welcomes Its Immigrant Neighbors) for support and space. By nightfall after the morning raid, the church was packed with people ready to help.

The Rev. Trey Hegar at a rally in front of the courthouses in Mount Pleasant on May 10, the day after the raid. (Rafael Morataya / Twitter)

The Rev. Trey Hegar, the pastor at FPC and a Marine veteran, opposes what he calls “nationalistic politics and theology.” He counters the nativism of local Republicans by quoting Leviticus: “The stranger who resides with you shall … love … as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” After Trump was elected, Hegar agreed to make the church an immigrant sanctuary when and if “la migra” (as Latinx immigrants call ICE) arrived.  The church would soon become the place where the coalition work coalesced.

ICE actions have a history in Iowa. In 2008, a raid devastated the community of Postville—which is just 176 miles from Mount Pleasant—sweeping up 20 percent of the town’s population (389 people) and costing the local economy $5 million, according to The Intercept. Grassroots allies already were in place before ICE came to Mount Pleasant. They were prepared.

‘Fighting Back with Solidarity’

FPC is also home to IowaWINS, formed three years ago to support Syrian refugees. After the 2016 elections, the organization shifted its focus to defending local immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

IowaWINS raised $120,000 to pay for rent, groceries, utilities and legal expenses for impacted families. It distributes food and household goods from a pantry at the back of the church. One IowaWINS leader has become the legal guardian of a teenager who lost his sole parent during the raid. Another is a teacher who sees all her students, including the children of immigrants, as “like my own children.” She reports that many of the detained workers’ children are “DACA recipients,” or “Dreamers,” brought to the U.S. “illegally” and residing here on renewable two-year certificates of deferred action.

While support from white allies has been critical, immigrant and Latinx self-defense has been essential. Another early partner was Iowa City’s immigrant-led Center for Worker Justice (CWJ), whose former president, Mazahir Saleh, became the first Sudanese-American to hold an elective office when she won an Iowa City Council race in 2016. CWJ president Rafael Morataya and volunteers came to Mount Pleasant immediately after the raid, contributing translation, organizing experience and ally networks.

“Our success and survival,” the CWJ says, “depends on each other, regardless of where we are born, or what language we grew up speaking. In the face of attacks on immigrant communities, we are fighting back with solidarity. We’ve seen firsthand the destruction that comes from criminalizing immigrant workers. It terrorizes families, gives unscrupulous employers enormous power to intimidate workers, and weakens our entire community. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Since Trump’s election, the CWJ has trained hundreds of “rapid response,” “family support” and “legal team” volunteers. It will be on hand when ICE conducts another raid in the region. (Hegar reports that ICE agents recently visited the personnel office of a local meatpacking plant in search of undocumented workers.)

In reflecting on the coalition work in an interview with us, Suarez stressed the importance of “working in partnerships. That was key, he said, in Mount Pleasant. “Individual effort is important, but a unified effort is better.”

A rally in front of the courthouses in Mount Pleasant.

Bonding Out As a First Line of Defense

In time, other allies also have stepped up. Volunteers arrived from the University of Iowa (UI) Labor Center, a labor education program that has long advised and advocated for the state’s highly exploited Latinx farm workers. UI law professor Bram Elias brought law students to visit the detainees in jail and to advise the men and their families. Joining the resistance were the American Friends Service Committee, Iowa’s progressive teamsters local, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the Catholic Diocese of Davenport (Iowa), and the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project (EICBP), which raises funds to get detainees out of jail and into the federal immigration court system before they can be deported.

“What we need to do [first and foremost],” LULAC director Maria Bribesco told Our Quad Cities one day after the raid, “is … pay the bond … so they’re not deported immediately.”

Under the leadership of its co-founder, Natalia Espina, a Chilean-American Iowa City activist and LULAC member, the bond group has played a pivotal role. Paying bonds for the detained workers before they can be removed from the country puts them into a federal immigration court system that is backed up for as long as five years in many cases. This turns folks who were undocumented and living in the shadows into people who are legally safe for as much as half a decade.

The bonds—ranging from $3,500 to $10,000, depending on the immigration violations detainees are charged with—must be paid in person at the regional ICE administrative office in Omaha, Neb., a five-hour drive.

Early legal intervention is imperative, CWJ member Joe Marron reports. In the great majority of cases where detained workers receive rapid legal assistance and bond support, release is achieved.

At this moment, 26 of the 32 MPC workers seized last May have been released on bond. Four have been deported. Two remain behind bars.

Top-Down Raids vs. Bottom-Up Organizing

In Mount Pleasant as in other small towns across the American heartland in 2018, the story has started the same way—literally from the top down—as the Trump administration has re-initiated the high-profile, military-style workplace immigration raids that last occurred under George W. Bush.

The existence of immigrant leaders like Suarez and allies like FPC, Iowa Wins and CWJ were instrumental to the release of the detainees. In other towns, like in O’Neill, Neb., the Aug. 8 raids were a new experience for the community. The topic of immigration had not been discussed among neighbors, which caused the town to be split on the issue.

High school teacher and wrestling coach Bryan Corkle, father of four and a longtime resident of O’Neil, grew up on Rush Limbaugh conservative media. He experienced his own shift on immigration after seeing his immigrant students work hard, get a high school diploma, and unable to find work or continue to college.

“It started with my kids,” Corkle explains. “I fell back on my faith. I was a voice of one, but moving forward, it is changing. Do unto them, as we would want for our ancestors.”

Brian Corkle speaks at a rally in support of affected families in O’Neill on the lawn of the county courthouse the day of the raids.

Pastor Brian Loy, who leads the First United Methodist Church in O’Neill and helps run a food bank every week, reported to us that he had lost old high school friends of 30-40 years over his support of laborers.

“Fifty percent of what I knew about immigration was wrong. I was learning as the raid was unfolding.” That’s why, he says, “we need to educate, educate, educate our communities on immigration.”

The grassroots infrastructure that existed in Mount Pleasant was not yet developed in O’Neil. “We did not have experience responding to raids at the moment, but we relied on statewide groups like Nebraska Appleseed and Center for Rural Affairs,” said Corkle.

Corkle views the faith community as playing a leadership role in protecting immigrants in O’Neill and building support and financial systems for immigrants and their families. This was also true in Mount Pleasant.

In O’Neill, Pastor Loy is working with his church leadership to create an emergency response plan, which he hopes will be distributed to the 1,000-plus Methodist churches in the Kansas and Nebraska areas. This, he hopes, will better prepare other small towns where their churches are located to respond to raids and protect their immigrant congregants. He also is creating an immigration council comprised of impacted families to ensure they are part of the process of coordinating any assistance.

Both Loy and Corkle acknowledge the importance of involving the immigrant communities in humanitarian work and developing their leadership. This approach seems to be key in Mount Pleasant where Suarez and other immigrant leaders have helped bridge the divides between the town. Even there, Suarez shares, they did not have support of 50 percent of the town, but they were successful because they were unified among the remaining 50 percent.

Corkle finds future hope for such leadership in his immigrant students like Stephanie Gonzalez.  Stephanie’s mom was among the immigrants detained in the raids in O’Neill and, to this day, remains in detention, leaving Stephanie, 17, a high school senior, and her two younger brothers (elementary school aged and 1 year old, respectively) in the care of her high school friend’s parents.

“I’m scared about my future,” says Stephanie, but “I’m determined to go to college because my mom came here to give me a better life. I want her to be proud of me. When I get my dreams, she will also get hers.”

For now, she is worrying  about how to pay for nursing school, in which she has already gained admission and hopes to create an organization after completing her studies that would help families like hers.

Catch-22: Freedom Isn’t Free

There are real limits to what local and regional immigrant rights first responders have been able to achieve for those targeted by ICE. Getting bonded out of detention is one thing. Being able to work legally is another. The 26 “liberated” Mount Pleasant detainees are “stuck in a catch-22,” Hegar admits. Without the right to be gainfully employed in the U.S., many are tempted to “voluntarily self-deport” back to their original home countries. But “if they leave the country prior to receiving an immigration hearing,” Hegar says, “the men forfeit their right to return and risk never being able to see their families again.”

It’s a dark twist on the bumper sticker maxim one commonly sees on the back of pickup trucks in the rural heartland: “Freedom Isn’t Free.”

Hegar sees some of the released detainees’ “heads hanging” as they come into the church’s food pantry. “These guys aren’t takers. They’re workers,” Hegar observes. “The men don’t like relying on charity, their spouses and their older children,” some of whom have had to defer education and careers to take low-paid jobs.

O’Neill has the same urgent need for resources, Pastor Loy says, to help families with rent, food, so that they can stay in the community.

Volunteer psychology students from the university are counseling some of the men in Mount Pleasant on how to process the great blow to their pride and their traditional role as breadwinners.

Some of those detained and released are thinking seriously about returning to the terrible conditions they fled in Central America and Mexico.

“That’s the point of the raids,” Hegar concedes. “To deter immigration.”

People gather at 13th St. and Norfolk Ave. in Norfolk to protest immigration enforcement in north central Nebraska…

Posted by News Channel Nebraska on Thursday, August 9, 2018


Morataya from CWJ wonders “who benefits” from a federal immigration policy that spends millions of taxpayer dollars on terrorizing and devastating families and stripping employers of a highly valued labor supplies. Suarez echoes this point.

“Mount Pleasant is a growing rural economy and needs immigrants,” explains Suarez. “The evidence is in the open jobs that are not being filled.” Suarez reports that Latinx workers perform difficult, dangerous and dirty work tasks (such as animal slaughtering and meatpacking) that white and a growing number of documented African (chiefly Sudanese and Congolese) immigrant workers tend to reject in Iowa—a state that is home, the EICBP reports, to 40,000 undocumented immigrants.

This is not uncommon in other parts of rural America. Corkle, for instance, says that unemployment in O’Neill is 2 percent due to the booming agro-business. “Places like Mount Pleasant and O’Neill are part of a Midwestern regional hub of rural economies, where if you want a job, you can get a job, and so there are no economic reasons to prevent immigration.”

The support detained workers and their families have received in Mount Pleasant and other heartland communities subjected to ICE raids has granted them needed space and time to make deliberate and informed decisions on how best to move forward.

Still, Hegar, Suarez and Morataya say that the nation’s immigration system is “fundamentally broken.” It is in dire need of a “comprehensive reform” that provides a clear and reasonable path to citizenship and removes the constant fear, stigma and insecurity experienced by millions of immigrant workers on whom the nation depends for its economic vitality.

“We need immigration reform as soon as possible” says Suarez. In the meantime, LULAC will continue to help detainees because the immigration process can take a long time. Suarez knows this firsthand: “I am a first-generation immigrant. It took me 10 years and $20,000 to become a U.S. citizen. I know what the families who have no resources are going through.”

Corkle knows what is needed for O’Neill. “I want to see proactive immigration reform to stop this endless cycle of raids.” He believes that a majority of rural Americans agree that the immigration system needs to be fixed, but disagree on how to fix it.

Stephanie see immigration reform as the only solution to unite her family separated by the raids.

Still, Corkle says, “Rural America gets a bad rap as not being welcoming. “What I find lost in the national conversation is that on the far right, they are trying to build the wall, and to the far left, they want to abolish ICE. The oxygen is being taken out for a reasonable position on immigration reform.”

Hegar also worries about the nation’s political silence on the United States’ role in creating the miserable conditions that so many workers and farmer are trying to escape in Mexico and Central America.

Direct service and solidarity are important, but there’s no “way out of this” without effective advocacy for sweeping systemic and policy change.

Paul Street is an independent journalist based in Iowa City, Iowa. Chaumtoli Huq is the editor of Law at the Margins.

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Why Does CoreCivic Want a Detainee’s Death Report Kept Sealed?

Co-published by Fast Company
How a private prison company silenced the Georgia Bureau of Investigation from releasing details about an immigrant detainee’s death.

Robin Urevich




Photo: Robin Urevich

CoreCivic, which operates immigrant detention centers, warned a law-enforcement agency not to make its investigation into a detainee’s death public.


Co-published by Fast Company

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has refused to release the full results of its investigation into the apparent suicide of Efrain de la Rosa, an immigrant detainee at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The 40-year-old de la Rosa died July 10, 2018. In the past 19 months, three people have died at the prison, which an employee told federal inspectors was a ticking bomb because of safety issues.

The refusal marks an abrupt change by the GBI, whose director, Vernon Keenan, has been lauded for his agency’s transparency.

The 40-year-old De la Rosa, a Mexican citizen and longtime U.S. resident, is believed to have killed himself while in solitary confinement — and under circumstances similar to those of Jean Carlo Jimenez Joseph, a 27-year-old Panamanian who, like de la Rosa, suffered from mental illness, and hanged himself in an isolation cell. The GBI investigated both the Jimenez and de la Rosa cases, and released its full investigation of Jimenez’s case, but not of de la Rosa’s.

The GBI’s 2017 investigation into another detainee suicide revealed mismanagement at the Stewart Detention Center.

Ginny Davis, the GBI’s deputy director of the office of privacy and compliance, told Capital & Main that Stephen Curry, an attorney for CoreCivic, the private prison company that operates Stewart under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, recently alerted her to a federal regulation which, he said, prohibits states and local governments from disclosing information about federal detainees.

“He said you can’t disclose any of this under open records,” Davis said. “It was a warning letter.”

The GBI consulted with the Georgia attorney general’s office and decided against disclosure, Davis said. Curry, who represents CoreCivic, did not return a call for comment.

Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director of the civil rights group Project South, which is seeking the records said, “We find this attempt to shield the prison corporation from accountability extremely troubling and will be exploring our various legal options.”

Is a federal rule meant to protect an individual’s privacy rights being used to hide information about detainee fatalities?

The GBI’s 2017 investigation into Jimenez Joseph’s case revealed mismanagement at the Stewart facility. The guard assigned to check Jimenez’s cell at 30-minute intervals on the night of the detainee’s death was fired for falsifying logs to cover for his failure to do so. Records released in the investigation also revealed that Jimenez Joseph was being given insufficient doses of the psychotropic medication he’d been prescribed before his detention and that his many pleas for help with his mental health condition were ignored.

At Detention Watch Network, an advocacy group that opposes the widespread detention of immigrants, policy director Mary Small said the abuses go far beyond the Stewart Detention Center.

“At every turn,” Small said, “whether it’s [through] the Office of Inspector General or the Department of Health and Human Services looking into the facility at Tornillo, or ICE’s own death investigations, we’re seeing abusive conditions, inadequate medical care and harm caused to people who are detained. It’s in that context that their refusal to provide information is so concerning.”

The Mexican consulate in Atlanta also wants the full investigative report on de la Rosa’s death, said the Consul General, Javier Diaz de Leon. The GBI’s Davis reported Diaz de Leon’s request for records was granted under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. But Diaz de Leon said the medical report he was given consists only of about nine pages and appears incomplete.

By contrast, the GBI’s summary of its investigation into the 2017 death of Jean Carlo Jimenez Joseph at Stewart was 236 pages long. The GBI also produced audiotaped reports of numerous interviews its agents conducted with staff and detainees, along with videotaped evidence, guard logs, incident reports, solitary confinement logs and audio recordings of Jimenez Joseph’s conversations with his family members.

Diaz de Leon said that in mid-November he requested additional documents but has received no answer as of December 5.

Mark Fleming, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, an immigrant rights group, said that during the current presidential administration, states and localities have increasingly invoked the federal regulation that seems to prohibit disclosure of records of federal detainees, 8 CFR 236.6.

He noted that courts in at least three states have upheld a local government’s refusal to release information about federal detainees under the rule, but said its use to prevent disclosure of information on those who are deceased is questionable.

Fleming added that the underlying reason for the rule is to protect an individual’s privacy rights, which no longer exist after death.

“It would seem odd that the government has rights that are broader than the individual’s,” Fleming said.

Under the federal rule, ICE could provide records of the GBI investigation under a Freedom of Information Act request. However, such requests now take months or even years to process.

Update: After this story was published, Rodney E. King, a spokesman for CoreCivic, emailed the following statement.

“This matter was investigated by a state agency, GBI, but it occurred in a facility we operate on behalf of a federal government partner, ICE. In these situations, it’s our standard practice to reach out to the state government body to ensure the necessary coordination with the federal government, which has the leadership role in determining how information about an individual in its care is shared. CoreCivic is committed to transparency. We comply with all applicable open records laws and share information freely with our government partners.”

Copyright Capital & Main

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South Asian Asylum Seekers Find Healing and Hope After Sheridan Heartbreak

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

Shannon Luders-Manuel




Advancing democracy in Oregon. (Rural Organizing Project)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it working?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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How Undocumented Black Migrants Are Navigating Immigration Hurdles

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

Carla Pineda




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

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

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

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

Sadat Ibrahim selfie. (Sadat Ibrahim)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

View this post on Instagram

#AfricansAbroad Africa might be a lot of things but the comfort of living in a mostly homogenous society where your Blackness is not being weaponized against you is a comfort that so many Black/African people living in the diaspora might never know. . . . “We had a big discussion whether to raise him in Africa or move to the states. We both grew up in Ghana. But I got my PhD in West Virginia, so moving to America was an option. The job opportunities would certainly be better there. Both of us are professors, and you’d probably laugh if you knew what we got paid here. Healthcare would be better too. You don’t hear of people dying in America because they can’t find an open hospital bed. But despite these things, we decided to raise our son here. Because he’d never have to think about the color of his skin. We never have to explain what it means to be black. Or the rules of being black. One day in West Virginia I got an Amber Alert on my phone. All it said was: ‘tall black male.’ I was the only one in sight so I nearly panicked. Then another day I was walking back to my dormitory. I’d just finished teaching a course. Someone drove by in a red truck, threw a hamburger at my head, and called me the ‘N Word.’ It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I don’t want to explain that stuff to my child. It’s exhausting to be conscious of your skin all the time. You either become militant or you become defeated. And I understand why it happens, but extremes of anything aren’t good.” (Accra, Ghana) via: @humansofny

A post shared by Amplify Africa™ (@amplifyafrica) on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But technology provides more than just communication tools.

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

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

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

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

Leighton Woodhouse




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ICE’s Stealth Campaign to Expand Its Budget

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

Robin Urevich




Photo: DHS/ICE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Grassroots of Survival: Scenes from the Migrant Caravan

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




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

Co-published by Newsweek

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homeland Security Kicks the Ladder from Under Immigrants Seeking Green Cards

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

Robin Urevich




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

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


Co-published by American Prospect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Increased rates of poverty and housing instability; and

• Reduced productivity and educational attainment.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fire and ICE Video: Adelanto — Rendered Invisible

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




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

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Fire and ICE: Detention Deaths in the High Desert

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

Robin Urevich




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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