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Buyer’s Remorse: Why Did McFarland End Its ICE Contract?

The closure of an immigrant detention center could represent a setback for the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement policies.

Robin Urevich




California currently jails about 4,500 ICE detainees — more than any other state except Texas.

For four years the farm community of McFarland, Calif. (population 15,000), quietly earned extra cash through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE’s Byzantine protocols allowed the agency to jail 400 undocumented immigrants in the nearby city of Bakersfield — while McFarland collected a fee from the GEO Group, the private prison firm that actually runs the facility. No one questioned the arrangement until California’s attorney general and its state auditor started asking questions last summer.

Now McFarland has announced it will terminate its agreement to operate the Mesa Verde Detention Center, effective in mid-March, although questions remain about exactly how and why McFarland came to its decision, and about the town’s motives — were they political or strictly financial?

ICE often contracts with local governments to get detention centers up and running quickly and under the public radar.

McFarland’s decision to sever ties with ICE was made behind closed doors, but letters and emails Capital & Main obtained through a public records request reveal that state sanctuary laws — and an attorney general’s investigation authorized through one of them — prompted the move. Indeed, the McFarland case could be seen as an early victory for California in its efforts to rein in ICE, and proof that the state’s sanctuary laws have teeth and are not merely political gestures. The city’s pivot could result in the closure of the facility and represent a setback for the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement policies, which depend on an ample supply of detention beds.

ICE often contracts with local governments like McFarland’s to get detention centers up and running quickly and under the public radar. Using Intergovernmental Service Agreements, the agency can handpick a private prison firm while legally bypassing open competitive bidding that is otherwise required in federal contracting.

If localities continue to terminate contracts, ICE operations could get complicated, said one former senior ICE official.

California currently jails about 4,500 ICE detainees — more than any other state except Texas. They’re held in county jails and private prisons from Marysville to Adelanto to Calexico.

But the number of California’s detention sites is declining. Last summer, Contra Costa and Sacramento counties also terminated ICE detention contracts. If the trend accelerates, ICE operations could get complicated, said one former senior ICE official who asked not to be named.

“There are limited facilities,” she said. “If a few thousand beds dropped off the radar, it would be a challenge.”

In Sacramento and Contra Costa counties, activists had protested subpar detention conditions and demanded that elected officials take a close look at the facilities.

*   *   *

Nationwide, reports of detainee abuse compiled by human rights groups and the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General include accounts of spoiled food, unsanitary living quarters, unwarranted use of solitary confinement, medical neglect and preventable deaths that have become commonplace.

In 2016, ICE’s own inspectors found Mesa Verde deficient in 12 of 16 standards it reviewed.

“I think we’re chasing dollars at the risk of being morally bankrupt,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy last June as he announced he’d vote against renewing an ICE contract that brought $6.6 million annually to county coffers.

But McFarland came to no such public reckoning — city officials had been tight-lipped about their reasons for canceling their ICE contract, despite reports of substandard conditions at Mesa Verde by the American Civil Liberties Union and local activists, who recently raised concerns with the city about a suicidal detainee who was placed in solitary confinement and denied an outside visitor.

In 2016, ICE’s own inspectors found Mesa Verde deficient in 12 of 16 standards it reviewed, including those covering sexual assault prevention, medical care, use of force and telephone access.

McFarland didn’t provide minutes of the city council meeting in which the termination was agreed upon.

McFarland’s city manager, John Wooner, explained in a letter to GEO Group executive vice president Amber Martin that the city’s ICE contract “has been a satisfactory arrangement for the City until recent adoption by the state of California of legislation impacting facilities such as Mesa Verde…. and the recent demands by the State Attorney General and Auditor …”

*   *   *

Rural McFarland is one of California’s poorest cities. It enjoyed a moment in the spotlight when it was featured in McFarland, USA, a 2015 Disney film about a local high school’s underdog cross country team that beat the odds to win nine state titles. It’s home to three  private prisons operated by the GEO Group.

In 2015 McFarland officials made it possible for the company to also run Mesa Verde in Bakersfield; the lockup takes in at least $15 million annually, based on ICE’s daily per-detainee rates. The city agreed to sign an Intergovernmental Service Agreement with ICE for the facility’s operations — even though Bakersfield had declined to sign such an agreement. “The City of Bakersfield has chosen over the years not to own, operate or seek out prisons,” city manager Alan Tandy wrote to Capital & Main in a 2017 email, which Tandy says represents his current view. “It is not our preferred means of building the tax base. Several of the smaller cities in Kern County have chosen the opposite path.”

McFarland appeared unprepared for scrutiny from California’s attorney general and state auditor.

Wooner assured McFarland’s mayor and city council in a January 2015 memo that the city would have no actual role in running Mesa Verde, which, after all, is located 25 miles away. Instead, it would collect $35,000 a year for acting as an intermediary, passing GEO Group invoices on to ICE, and collecting GEO’s payments.

Such arrangements are in place with at least 16 other local governments around the country.

In practice the city had nothing to do with operations at Mesa Verde. However, on paper its ICE contract makes the city responsible for everything from providing medical care to hiring qualified staff, and it appears state officials tried to hold the city accountable.

Last August, both the state attorney general’s office and the California state auditor announced they would visit Mesa Verde and demanded a slew of documents about the detention center’s operations. The Joint Legislative Audit Committee also tasked the state auditor with investigating California’s immigration jails last year.

McFarland appeared unprepared for the state’s scrutiny; Wooner and City Attorney Tom Schroeter hired an outside law firm to handle the matter and fired off emails to GEO for guidance.

Today the fate of Mesa Verde and its nearly 400 detainees is unclear.

In a closed-door meeting with the city council in September 2018, Wooner said he had none of the records the state requested and that the city had no control over scheduling at Mesa Verde, the meeting minutes show.

However, Wooner suggested that if the price were right, maintaining the city’s detention contract would be a good move. He advised the city council to threaten GEO with termination of the ICE contract if it didn’t raise the city’s fee to a quarter of a million dollars, comparable to what Wooner said Adelanto receives from the company. The council voted 3-2 to accept Wooner’s plan.

But it ultimately terminated its ICE agreement, giving the agency 90-day notice on December 19.

GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez denied in an email that the city of McFarland asked for a raise.

It’s unclear how the city arrived at its decision because it didn’t provide minutes of the city council meeting in which the termination was agreed upon. City officials argued the minutes are not disclosable under the state public records act, and Wooner didn’t return phone calls for comment.

*   *   *

Now, the fate of Mesa Verde and its nearly 400 detainees is unclear.

By law, California cities and counties are barred from entering into new ICE contracts, making it unlikely ICE could find another local government with which to partner. It would presumably have to put the Mesa Verde contract out for bid to continue operating the facility. However, in Taylor, Texas, ICE continued to operate the T. Don Hutto Detention Center through a “short-term contract extension” with prison firm CoreCivic two weeks after officials in Williamson County ended their contract with ICE, the Austin American Statesman reported.

Paez declined to answer questions about whether Mesa Verde would remain open, referring queries to ICE, which also didn’t respond.

Immigrant rights activists say they’d applaud a closure; they’re currently protesting the lack of information about the facility’s fate.

“We’re trying to reduce detention,” said the Rev. Deborah Lee, a leader in the fight to end Contra Costa County’s ICE contract. “If they don’t have the beds, they’ll be forced to go to alternatives.”

Jordan Wells, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said he worried that detainees could lose their legal representation or be forced to stay in detention longer if their cases were delayed as a result of a move out of state.

“We’re concerned about lack of transparency and for the rights of people in Mesa Verde with connections to attorneys and families, and how transferring them out of state would infringe on those rights,” he said.

The ACLU was among more than 70 civil rights and grassroots groups that signed a statement this month demanding a “fair and just closure” if Mesa Verde ceases operations, along with answers to questions about any plans in place “for the transfer, relocation or release of those detained at the facility.”

Meanwhile, the state attorney general’s report on California’s detention centers is expected February 26.

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How Trump’s ‘Invisible Wall’ Frightens Legal Immigrants Out of Medical Care

Diseases don’t respect borders, nor do they care about passports, citizenship or residency.

Eric Pape




Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Immigrants of all stripes seem to be holding off on the medical visits they need.

President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant tweets and provocative border talk, along with his drive to toughen immigration enforcement around the nation, is scaring many immigrants away from medical care, claim a growing number of medical executives and health care professionals.

“Every other day he reminds us [with] all this talk about the Wall, the Wall, the Wall,” says Castulo de la Rocha, the head of AltaMed Health Services, whose medical networks serve large numbers of undocumented people in Southern California. “People see images of children caged by this government. It all spreads like wildfire in immigrant communities. Think about what it means for people who hear that they will be picked up by an ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agent. The rage that they have to deal with day in and day out accumulates very quickly.”

The end result is that more immigrants of all stripes seem to be holding off on medical visits they need.

Medical experts highlight some of the reasons that California’s clinics offer free health care to people who cannot otherwise afford it in the first place. Namely, public safety.

The White House clearly aims to make it easier to reject legal immigrants’ efforts to extend visas, obtain green cards or secure citizenship.

“Diseases don’t respect borders,” explains de la Rocha. Nor do tuberculosis, AIDS, Zika and countless other infectious diseases care about passports, citizenship or residency.

“The health care system is a backstop for society, to make sure that everyone receives at least a minimum level of attention so that they don’t undermine the health of others.”

*   *   *

Medical executives at several prominent Los Angeles-based organizations that provide free medical care to immigrants in need suggest that the Trump presidency’s most detrimental impact on immigrant health may lie in what is sometimes described as the “invisible wall.”

They point to the administration’s longstanding efforts to officially change the immigration-adjudication process so that large numbers of legal immigrants can be prevented from securing long-term or permanent status in the U.S.

Trump’s new rules have jolted many immigrants who are awaiting decisions on their legal status, inspiring shock waves that continue to destabilize immigrant medical care.

On October 10, 2018 the administration formally proposed new rules expanding the definition for immigrants of a “public charge”—i.e., someone deemed to be dependent on the government.

Whatever its final policy might look like, the White House clearly aims to make it easier to reject legal immigrants’ efforts to extend visas, obtain green cards or secure citizenship, based partly on their health care. Factors that may be given new weight in making immigration decisions include whether someone accessed children’s health insurance, used food stamps or benefited from Obamacare.

While the new policy hasn’t yet become official, it has jolted many immigrants who are awaiting decisions on their legal status, inspiring shock waves that continue to destabilize immigrant medical care.

Medical executives don’t keep track of exact numbers, but say that many immigrants suddenly began calling early in the Trump presidency to see if they could have their names scrubbed from health clinic and Medi-Cal rosters. They were afraid that cross-referencing might put an end to their time in the country.

‘Parents are coming in and asking for extra bottles of diabetes medication and extra copies of their children’s medical records in case they are deported.’

Other reactions have been more palpable, whether for undocumented immigrants fearful of ICE raids or for documented immigrants unable to convince immigration judges to let them remain in America.

“Parents are coming in and asking for extra bottles of diabetes medication and extra copies of their children’s medical records in case they are deported,” explains Joe Mangia, the president and CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles.

He speaks of the stress that many patients are under, citing an anecdote about a person hurrying into one center’s waiting room and announcing that they thought they saw ICE agents outside, sparking panic.

Immigration agents are allowed to visit the lobby of federally qualified health centers, but they are not supposed to violate the medical “safe haven” beyond without a warrant or some other form of special permission. Those rules, put in place during President Barack Obama’s first term, have already been stretched under Trump.

To soothe patients’ nerves at St. John’s network of centers, staff members have been trained to respond to possible immigration enforcement actions by forming a human chain around their clinic to protect patients from ICE, Mangia says.

*   *   *

The tug of war often revolves around the president’s tough-sounding pronouncements. After Trump hyped up new immigration-related measures at the start of 2018, Mangia says St. John’s centers endured a decline of 5,000 patients over the first six months of the year compared to previous years. That marked a 10 percent drop.

“The drop was really all about fear,” says Mangia. “We started calling all of our patients and saying [these primary care clinics] are safe spaces and we did the human chain training.”

Thanks to such outreach, he says, the center was quickly able to convince its patients to return, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case for other clinics. “The fear is still palpable and the tragedy—the heartbreak—is the people who do not come in.”

Odilia Romero, an indigenous-language translator and interpreter who frequently works in the medical sphere, says that many of the people she translates for are shaken and confused. “With all the news about the undocumented, people think they are not allowed to get services,” Romero says. “At the end of the day, people are always afraid things will affect their immigration status.”

The Trump administration is working to limit legal immigration on a plethora of fronts. The National Foundation for American Policy recently found that the State Department rejected 39 percent more visa applications — along with another five percent drop for non-immigrants who sought temporary visas — during the second fiscal year of Trump’s presidency. The justifications for many of those decisions remain unclear.

But there is little doubt that pitting immigration against public health affects U.S. citizens in ways that go far beyond the threats from infectious diseases. People who end up in emergency rooms because they didn’t get basic primary care tend to cost the health system far more money.

And many immigrants in California, whether legal or undocumented residents, have children who are citizens. Health care officials note that “invisible wall” policies help create difficult situations where parents must balance the risks to their time in this country and the health of their children.

“Instead of creating walls,” says de la Rocha, “we should be talking about bridges, particularly in medicine and health care.”

Copyright Capital & Main. This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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Why the Spending Bill Will Hurt Immigrant Detainees

Co-published by the American Prospect
Angry immigrant rights activists say the generous ICE funding flies in the face of many Democrats’ stated desire to put the brakes on the Trump administration’s deportation surge.

Robin Urevich




Co-published by the American Prospect

Both houses of Congress approved a $333 billion spending bill Thursday, granting President Trump $1.375 billion for border fencing—far less than the $5.7 billion he’d requested for a border wall. The bill also includes a record $4.2 billion allocation to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for its detention and deportation activities.

Before the vote, four freshman Congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) — issued a statement announcing they would oppose the bill because of the ICE funding increase.

“By any reasonable measure,” they wrote, “Donald Trump’s weaponization of ICE and CBP has been a failure. The Department of Homeland Security does not deserve an increase in funding.”

Immigrant rights activists were equally angry, saying the generous ICE funding flies in the face of many Democrats’ stated desire to put the brakes on the Trump administration’s deportation surge.

A statement from Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, lambasted the new budget deal, arguing that it would allow ICE to “lock up and deport as many immigrants as possible, including established members of our communities and refugees who arrived at our borders seeking safety.”

“I can’t tell you anything about this deal that is better than the status quo other than it removes the looming threat of a shutdown,” said Mary Small, policy director at Detention Watch Network.

The Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee bill summary claimed the bill’s increase of the ICE detention bed limit from 40,500 to 45,000 “preserves ICE’s flexibility to enforce the law and places no arbitrary cap on ICE detention.”

Some Democrats reasoned that the 45,000 detention bed limit will actually decrease the current detention population, a contention that immigrant rights activists dispute.

That’s because 49,000 men and women currently languish in detention, 8,500 more than Congress authorized in its 2018 spending measure. To comply with the new 45,000 annual limit, ICE would have to empty those 8,500 beds by year’s end.

“The amount provided in the agreement is intended to bring the current detention bed level of over 49,000 down to 40,520 by the end of the year,” an appropriations committee summary of the bill noted. Appropriators figured that if ICE achieved that reduction, its average daily bed occupancy would be at or under the 45,000 limit on average for the year.

But Small predicted the effort would fail. She argued that Congress has caved to ICE’s strategy of overspending, thus expanding its detention capacity. “ICE tried to change facts on the ground so Congress would bail them out and now Congress is bailing them out,” Small said.

Immigrant detainees are held in prison-like conditions in some 200 detention centers and county jails across the country, although they’re held only to await deportation or to compel their appearance at immigration court hearings, not to serve criminal sentences.

The detainee population has increased sevenfold in the past 25 years, even though arrests of undocumented immigrants along the Southern border are at historic lows.

Democrats also claim that now that they control the House Appropriations Committee, they can curb ICE overspending by denying DHS permission to transfer or reprogram funds to ICE from other DHS agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Coast Guard, as the department has done in recent years. It is customary for DHS to seek Congressional approval for such transfers or reprogrammings, but it’s not legally required. DHS is allowed to transfer up to 10 percent of its budget between agencies – if it does so, it customarily asks for congressional approval, but there’s no law that says it has to. It’s just what has always been done, according to one congressional budget staffer.

The Democrats further argue the new spending plan increases ICE accountability for detention conditions that have been criticized by human rights groups and DHS’s Inspector General. Congress will now require weekly reports from ICE on the number of detainees in custody. The bill prohibits the use of restraints on pregnant women who are detained, requires monthly reports on family separations and bars the use of federal funds to detain potential sponsors of unaccompanied immigrant minors unless they pose a danger to the child.

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Indigenous Asylum Seekers Find a Language Wall at the U.S. Border

Immigration activists allege that the CBP’s lack of awareness of indigenous language and culture poses a challenge for adequate medical care and treatment for indigenous migrants from Mexico.

Nidia Bautista




Last December was marked by the deaths of two indigenous migrant children in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention at the U.S.-Mexico border. While U.S. immigration officials dispute the causes of death for both children, immigration scholars and advocates say the fatalities point to broader issues facing indigenous language speakers in U.S. custody at the border.

Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and her father were among 163 asylum seekers who made it to Antelope Wells, New Mexico after a week of travel. They had journeyed from their hometown of Raxruhá, Guatemala and once at the border were interviewed by Border Patrol agents. The father’s lawyers said agents instructed Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz to sign an English-language form—Caal speaks the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language and limited Spanish—denying that either he or his daughter were ill. The family was detained on the night of Dec. 6; by around 5 a.m. of the next morning Jakelin’s father notified Border Patrol agents she was ill while on a bus to the Lordsburg, New Mexico Border Patrol station. She died on Dec. 8. at Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso.

Claudia Maquin, 27, poses for a photo holding her brother-in-law’s cell phone that shows an image of her daughter Jakelin Caal, in Raxruha, Guatemala. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)

Nearly three weeks later, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, an 8-year-old boy who had reached New Mexico from Yalambojoch, Guatemala with his father who spoke Chuj better than Spanish, died after 155 hours in immigration custody.

A study focused on indigenous language speakers from Mexico found that this group is less likely to receive medical attention than Spanish-speaking migrants.

Jeremy Slack, an assistant geography professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, participated in an academic study conducted between 2010 and 2012 at the U.S.-Mexico border that found 24 percent of indigenous language speakers received medical care while in custody, compared to 36 percent of Spanish-language speakers. The research involved surveying 1,109 recently deported Mexican migrants in Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo and Mexico City.

Mexican migrants surveyed spoke a wide variety of languages including Zapotec, Tzotzil, Nahuatl, Mixtec, Yaqui, K’iche, among other languages. The sheer breadth of languages spoken by indigenous migrants apprehended at the border presents problems because Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is only prepared to communicate in Spanish, says Slack.

“Migrants are speaking in a second language, which is Spanish, while some border patrol agents are also speaking in a second language, which also is Spanish. You see a greater lack of communication and a greater probability for miscommunication.”

Slack said part of the problem lies in how border enforcement views migration from Latin America.

“I think much of border enforcement and much of our asylum refugee systems is predicated on Spanish-speaking Latin Americans. The border patrol still measures all apprehensions as Mexicans and OTMs — ‘other-than-Mexicans,’” said Slack, referring to an official classification used by CBP to document Central American and other migrant groups.

*   *   *

Recently the CBP has noted a considerable shift in the past two decades from large apprehensions of Mexican migrants to groups from other countries. In the first eight months of 2018 the CBP reported that “other-than-Mexicans” comprised 52 percent of apprehensions on the Southwest border. Immigration expert Slack argues that such framing “doesn’t really provide the nuance for culture understanding of other groups.”

This is tied to an understanding of language as well. More than seven million people in Mexico speak an indigenous language and about 68 indigenous languages are spoken in the country. It is estimated that 40 million people speak an indigenous language in Latin America overall.

“Border patrol [training] is very much geared toward Spanish speakers. It’s the largest employer of Latinos in the federal government in the United States. And there’s an assumption that all border-crossers speak Spanish. So they’re set up to address that.”

*   *   *

Odilia Romero is the general binational coordinator of Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB), an organization focused on indigenous peoples rights, human rights and education programs for indigenous migrant communities. FIOB has trained indigenous language interpreters since 1997.

Most recently the organization put together a group of Mayan interpreters to help the Central American families separated by the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy. FIOB raised money with the help of Guelaguetza, a local Los Angeles business, to send interpreters to detention facilities in Texas.

Romero alleges that immigration enforcement officers’ racism and their lack of awareness of indigenous language and culture poses a challenge for adequate medical care and treatment for indigenous migrants.

(AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)

“There isn’t a big effort from [government agencies] to provide interpreters because many of these agencies don’t know the language variance and the diversity of indigenous people,” she said. “So they can call and request a Zapotec interpreter now, knowing that there’s hundreds of variants of Zapotec.”

Romero says that the lack of medical care doesn’t happen only at the border. “Once they leave the detention center, they often have to register their kids in schools or have follow-up medical appointments, and they don’t get interpreters in their language. A lot of these institutions don’t know about our existence as indigenous people, and a lot of the Spanish-English interpreters don’t know about our existence or they have a certain racism or prejudice against indigenous people so they don’t pay attention to our needs. That has been seen for the last 30 years here in the U.S., no matter where we go.”

When it comes to border enforcement, Slack says institutional changes are necessary to address the lack of adequate medical care and attention given to indigenous migrants.

“Some of the detention centers I’ve worked with almost immediately release people once they identify that they speak an indigenous language, simply because they’re aware of the logistics of translating or providing materials for them,” said Slack. Hiring more asylum officers onsite and obtaining support from groups and organizations focused on medical care would be key, he said.

“It’s an institutional issue,” Slack added. “There should be policies for how [they] deal with indigenous people.”

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Deadly Detention

ICE’s Missing Death Reports

In September 2017, Capital & Main requested reviews of 18 immigrant detainee deaths that had occurred in 2016 and early 2017. ICE has still not released four of the reports.

Robin Urevich




Even ICE’s more comprehensive detainee death reviews, obtainable only through Freedom of Information Act requests, have been criticized for not being comprehensive enough.


One hundred eighty-eight men and women have died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since 2003 — nine of them during Fiscal Year 2018 (from October 1, 2017 to September 30, 2018). On December 18, ICE released brief reports on six of those deaths, as required by Congress in its March budget bill.

ICE’s record-breaking $4.4 billion budget for immigration enforcement came with a requirement that the agency report on each in-custody death within 90 days of its occurrence.

But immigrant and human rights groups argue that the two-to-three-page reports are of little use in figuring out why the deaths occurred or how they could have been prevented. The reports detail each individual’s immigration history and contacts with law enforcement, which activists say are irrelevant to their deaths’ circumstances.

“ICE’s newly posted reports lack the information the agency has made available in the past,” said Grace Meng, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Unless the reports provide that information, ICE is unable to correct any underlying problems that led to the person’s death.”

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigrant Law Center, Human Rights Watch and Detention Watch Network have called the reports a sham whose release “dodges accountability and flouts congressional requirements.” The groups argue that they provide no analysis of the medical treatment detainees received. Nor do they note errors or violations of detention standards in each individual’s care, or make recommendations to improve care in the future. All six reports are late – exceeding the 90-day deadline for their release. Three FY 18 deaths are omitted altogether, as they occurred before the congressional mandate went into effect.

The current batch of reports don’t replace the agency’s more comprehensive detainee death reviews, which are conducted by its Office of Professional Responsibility and are available through Freedom of Information Act requests, ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett wrote in an email. However, these reports have also been criticized for not being comprehensive enough and often take months to fulfill. In September 2017, Capital & Main requested reviews of 18 detainee deaths which had occurred in 2016 and early 2017. ICE has still not released four of the reports.

One of the current reports concerns Roxsana Hernandez, a 33-year-old HIV-positive transgender woman, who was found to be feverish, starving and dehydrated when she saw a nurse at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico eight days after being placed in government custody. The New York Times reported last month that Hernandez, a Honduran citizen, appeared to have been physically abused before she died, according to an independent autopsy. The report also cited accounts of fellow detainees who said Hernandez, who died May 25, 2018, was dehydrated for days and received no medical treatment until she was seriously ill.

ICE’s report on Hernandez’s death says she received a medical screening after four days in ICE custody, and more than a week after turning herself in to Border Patrol officers. It mentions no medical visit prior to that. (ICE detention standards require a medical screening within 12 hours of a detainee’s arrival.) The ICE report does not note the hemorrhages of soft tissue and muscles over Hernandez’s ribs found by the independent pathologist, according to the Times report, and said its autopsy is pending.

ICE also released reports on the deaths of:

Efrain de la Rosa, a 40-year-old man who suffered from mental illness and apparently committed suicide while in an isolation cell at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia.

— Huy Chi Tran, a 47-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, who suffered from schizophrenia and depression, and was found unresponsive in his cell at Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center. (No cause of death is included in Tran’s report.)

— Ronal Francisco Romero, 39, a Honduran citizen, who died of complications of diabetes and sepsis at Texas’ Port Isabel Detention Center.

The reports also covered the deaths of Gourgen Mirimanian, a 54-year-old from Armenia, of apparent heart disease at the Prairieland Detention Center near Dallas, and 62-year-old Augustina Ramirez Arreola, who died after aortic valve replacement surgery while detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.

In the nearly three months since FY 18 ended, three more men have died in immigration custody.

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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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Deadly Detention

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.

Updated Dec. 19: One week after Capital & Main reported, below, that CoreCivic had warned the Georgia Bureau of Investigation against releasing its probe into Efrain de la Rosa’s death, Atlanta public radio station WABE reported that the GBI announced it had reversed course and released the documents to the 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.

Call your congressional rep today 202-225-3121 and ask that they sign the Harris Thompson bicameral letter to Nielsen…

Posted by UndocuBlack Network on Tuesday, October 9, 2018

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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