Can we really fight deportations one at a time?

In the last month we’ve seen a lot of exciting news on the political front regarding support for undocumented immigrants. Undocumented Dream Activists Jonathan Perez and Isaac Barrera turned themselves in at a Border Patrol office on November 10th in an effort to draw attention to conflicting policies in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency—ICE is not following internal policy to prioritize resources by only detaining and deporting serious criminals.

A little over a week later, on November 21, actions by the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ, One Family One Alabama Rally) brought together a number of elected officials from the states of California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Arizona to hear from Alabaman elected officials, law enforcement and community members about how the draconian HB56 is undermining the economy, security, and collective spirit of goodwill and justice in their state.

Countless journalists and media outlets are cropping up increasing the amount of in-depth, well-balanced coverage that the subject deserves (see our blogroll) This is positive press, and a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned. More and more people are questioning the increasingly intolerant environment that hardworking undocumented immigrants encounter in the U.S.  It’s more heartening than President Obama’s relative silence on the matter of being the one President who’s deported the most individuals (and his term isn’t even up). A perception of outrage and action is far better than the depressing panorama revealed by the competing Republican candidates for the 2012 elections with regard to immigration policy.

But there is one immigration and the media-related phenomenon that I feel like I ought to view as positive but that in reality I view as somewhat concerning. It is the amount of petition signing requests I’ve received regarding individuals on the brink of deportation in the last several months. Don’t get me wrong—ever since I became an environmental activist at 15, I learned the power of petitions for enacting change. And ever since I got Internet at my house where I live in exile with my husband (a former undocumented immigrant in Mexico), I dutifully sign on to these sites and sign the petitions. I don’t normally “state a reason” for signing the petition, but if I were to, I’d say something like, “Read the inscription on the Statue of Liberty” or “because this student wants to contribute to American society, and we need more people like him/her.” Then I think to myself, I hope they have better luck than we did, and go on with my day’s business. Some of them do, happily, end in victory.

It’s not that I’m not against getting signatures on petitions per se—the problem I see is that the cases aren’t letting up, much less ever ending. Today I read a tweet that we need to get someone home with their fiancee by Christmas. I think to myself, yes, we do, but how many other thousands of individuals besides this one person would also like to be home for the holidays with their loved ones? Last week I read an article by Valeria Fernandez about a woman from Michoacan whose husband is American and whose run of luck in the U.S. may be about to come to an end. She has all the same potential tragedy if she had to go back to Mexico as any of the petition requests I’ve received; she would be separated from her family, her business would be ruined, etc. But a quick search on revealed no hits for Maria Teresa Fuentes. As I read the article, her story sounded more and more eerily like my husband’s previous situation, and the sense of helplessness we had when facing our final decision to take destiny into our own hands and move to Mexico. Her husband’s comment: “I just want to go to Washington D.C. (to) meet with someone there and see what we can do to help my wife,” he said. “This gives me so much grief. Someone has to listen.”

But every time I receive a petition benefiting a single person’s case, I can’t help but wonder if trying to win immigration reform case by case is the most strategic direction for the movement to go in. Even though I’m experiencing the direct effects of displacement by deportation, I have yet to feel fully entitled to make my strategy criticisms public, since I’m “only a spouse” and “not an expert” (hopefully I’ll get over that issue). But I ask anyways: what would happen if we combined all the energy spent on individual cases and petitions and used it to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill that we can rely on, that’s truly fair and just, and/or, in the case of ICE, agency-wide policy follow-through?

More than most people I know, I want to see undocumented students be able to complete their educations and go on to be successful professionals as legal U.S. residents. I want immigrant spouses to be able to stay with their American families on U.S. soil (or wherever they choose) without having to go through stressful forced relocations the way we’ve had to (or worse). But I am concerned about the current nature of the discourse and political action regarding immigration reform.

My most idealistic expectation is that we shouldn’t need to start a petition, or find a representative in Washington for every single case. More than just victorious immigration cases that boil down to luck or influence, opportunities are needed for people who don’t have access to sites like but who still deserve a shot at legalization. I worry that today’s “good feeling” of one victorious petition campaign, despite making a positive but tiny dent, distracts us from the overall panorama—that millions of individuals are living in an undeserved underground due to a long detour in how our country values its immigrants of all skill levels and skin colors. We need to acknowledge the importance of all immigrants to American society, not just the wealthy, well-educated, or papered ones, and work to eliminate the knee-jerk biases that come with incomplete understandings of the system.

There is a lot of history to this movement that I’m not privy to, despite the fact that I’ve read and experienced much more about it than most of my friends and family. There have been all sorts of failed attempts at reform and even worse laws passed that have made things worse for immigrants and polarized the situation further. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, the U.S. immigration scene, the kind that pits descendants of undocumented immigrants against their brethren who don’t have the benefit of laxer laws or amnesty. It’s the kind of situation  that leaves activists with no choice but to split into factions and seek their best chances in Congress. Dream Activists may be uniquely suited for organizing around this issue, as students in a closer-knit collegiate setting. And it’s harder to argue with the idea that young children and students who arrived in the U.S. undocumented by no choice of their own ought to be extended the same rights as legal residents, vs. getting behind adults who, despite not having had “a line to wait in,” made an adult decision to seek economic refuge via illegal entry.

Perhaps that’s where the problem arises: the inherent lack of unity among the individuals affected by these policies (I’d argue, all of us).  It’s a difficult matter to speak frankly about, even in families with affected individuals. But it’s a matter we must address if we are to make any substantial headway in terms of comprehensive immigration reform.

And when it comes to activism that targets positive change in the lives of immigrants, I would hope that in addition to campaigns won by the individuals who manage to pull off major online mobilization or gain personal favor in Washington, public backlash will grow and coalesce against policies that unfairly target ALL individuals, students and adults alike, who frankly, the U.S. economy and many American families depend on.

Testing Alabama’s and ICE’s deportation process

Isaac Perez and Jonathan Berrera are currently in immigration detention in Louisiana

[quote]”Hey, what’s going on, Boss?”[/quote]

The cell phone video below shows two young activists going into a Border Patrol office in Mobile, Alabama and basically turning themselves in. Their names are Jonathan Perez and Isaac Barrera. They turned themselves in to the Border Patrol on Nov. 10 in order to test the Obama Administration’s use of prosecutorial discretion in pursuing deportations.

[quote]”What’s it to ya?”

“I’m undocumented too.”[/quote]

“We want to reveal the truth and show [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] for what they really are, as a rogue agency which has no accountability while they separate families,” Perez, a 24-year-old activist from Los Angeles, told after being detained and sent to the South Louisiana Correctional Center in Basile. Perez and Barrera are interviewing other detainees and collecting other deportation stories from inside .

The action was supported by Dream Activist, a national network of grassroots groups that support passage of the Dream Act and The National Immigrant Youth Alliance. According to the Colorlines story, Perez and Barrera have been issued deportation orders, but an ICE spokesperson told Cololines that the agency has not issued detainers against them. Either way, they are still being detained and activists are trying to pressure the agency to release them before Thanksgiving.

By organizing around specific cases, mostly through online petitions and flooding ICE offices with phone calls, immigrant youth activists have managed to prevent many deportations of low priority, low risk immigrants such as Perez and Barrera—Dream Act eligible youth, people with family ties in the United States or long term residents without criminal records. These are the people that Obama has pledged and ICE has been directed not to deport.

Still, the vast majority of people being deported do not have criminal records: From October 2010 through July 2011, 81.2 percent of people ordered removed from the country had only violated immigration rules—illegal entry, overstaying visas or other administrative violations, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That is 152,488 people. None of them had committed any other crimes.

Perez and Barrera have not gotten any press aside from the Colorlines report, as far as I can tell. But their action, along with a sit-in at the Alabama Statehouse last week and a rally at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church last night, the same church where four young black girls were killed in 1963 when white supremacists set off a bomb, is a powerful symbolic act in this time of renewed protest spirit in the United States. Risking arrest and, now, deportation, has a long history in this country of successfully demonstrating injustices to the public. The media needs to pay more attention to it.

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Americans, family members caught in Secure Communities dragnet

The airing of the PBS Frontline documentary Lost in Detention last week is part of a growing awareness across the country of the gravity of the Bush-Obama immigrant detention dragnet.

White House immigration advisor Cecilia Muñoz

I thought the film itself lacked focus and was dramatized in an unfortunate, made-for-television way. But the accompanying website, linked above is very useful and contains full text of the interviews that were obviously cut into sound bytes for the film, like this one of Obama Administration director of intergovernmental affairs and immigration advisor Cecilia Muñoz:

Frontline: Does President Obama believe that his aggressive policy in immigration and enforcement has been successful?

Cecilia Muñoz: The president has said a number of times, he swore an oath to uphold the law. It’s our responsibility to enforce the laws that we’ve got. Congress gives us resources to enforce the laws that we’ve got. But how we do it matters a lot. He’s talked about that as well.

And later in the interview, Muñoz picks up this same idea.

Muñoz: But at the end of the day, when you have immigration law that’s broken and you have a community of 10 million, 11 million people living and working in the United States illegally, some of these things are going to happen. Even if the law is executed with perfection, there will be parents separated from their children.

They don’t have to like it, but it is a result of having a broken system of laws. And the answer to that problem is reforming the law, making sure that we have an immigration system that works here. You can’t fix the heartbreaking things that happen as a result of immigration enforcement just through enforcement policy. You have to fix that by reforming the law, and that requires the Congress to act, which is why the president has been pushing them so hard.

It’s the same line that unnamed ICE officials have taken on a recent report from the UC-Berkeley Law School condemning Secure Communities for, among other things, possibly arresting some 3,600 American citizens.

ICE officials called the report “misleading and inaccurate,” saying Secure Communities has enhanced public safety and that the report failed to acknowledge ICE’s responsibility to determine who is in the country illegally.

“If there is a question about an individual’s status, ICE conducts appropriate follow-up. If the individual is a U.S. citizen, ICE takes no additional action. In exercising its civil immigration functions, ICE does not detain U.S. citizens,” the agency said in a statement released in response to the report.—Identical quote at San Jose Mercury News and

The report in question expands on an American Immigration Lawyers’ Association survey that we wrote about in August. The University of California—Berkeley Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy completed a study of Secure Communities [full report .pdf]. Among the findings:

  • Approximately 3,600 United States citizens have been arrested by ICE through the Secure Communities program
  • More than one-third (39%) of individuals arrested through Secure Communities report that they have a U.S. citizen spouse (5%) or child (37%), meaning that approximately 88,000 families with U.S. citizen members have been impacted by Secure Communities
  • Latinos comprise 93% of individuals arrested through Secure Communities though they only comprise 77% of the undocumented population in the United States

Let me repeat that: based on extrapolations of a smaller data set that the law school obtained through the settlement of a lawsuit between ICE and the National Day Labor Organizing Network, 3,600 U.S. citizens may have been held by ICE since October 2008 and some 88,000 families with U.S. citizen members have been affected by Secure Communities.

“Overall, the findings point to a system in which individuals are pushed through rapidly, without appropriate checks or opportunities to challenge their detention and/or deportation. This conclusion is particularly concerning given that the findings also reveal that people are being apprehended who should never have been placed in immigration custody, and that certain groups are over-represented in our sample population.” —Warren Report

The most chilling line in the report, for me, is that the family connections of detainees to U.S. citizens are likely underestimates: “… as immigrants may fear disclosing personal information to immigration authorities, particularly if they live in mixed-status families and fear negative consequences for family members because many detainees do not want to implicate their families in their immigration cases.”

But it works the other way as well. The 88,000 or more American families caught in this system are often not able or willing to speak out on behalf of their detained relatives because of legal concerns, family complications, lack of access to media, advocacy groups or legal aid and their sheer need to survive while a spouse or parent is held and likely deported. And so we rarely hear their stories. Obama does not hear their stories. Republican presidential candidates do not hear the stories of American citizens detained by ICE or the American spouses of immigrants put in deportation proceeding because of a broken tail light.

That is the collateral damage that Muñoz calls inevitable in our democracy, a mere budget line item, and the cost of doing law enforcement.

The other status: Dating while undocumented

Almost a year ago, I interviewed Matias Ramos for an article about the impending DREAM Act vote. Since that time, that vote failed and Ramos continued to fight deportation. Last week, he received another stay of his standing deportation order, allowing him to remain in the United States at least through March 2010 and buying him time for the Obama Administration review of low-priority deportations that is currently underway.

Ramos credits the more than 7,000 people who signed a petition on his behalf, as well as the many people who called Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking that he be allowed to stay and continue his work.

“It has a huge positive impact … in as far as I’m able to bring attention to the issue.” Ramos said. “It’s not just me against the government; my removal would have an impact on other people’s lives.”

Many undocumented youth and immigration reform leaders spoke up on Ramos’ behalf, as he is a powerful voice for immigration reform.

But another life that would be seriously impacted by his removal is that of his American girlfriend, Lindsay McCluskey. McCluskey has been with Ramos since before he was detained at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Feb. 2010, setting the deportation in motion. Ramos was detained at the airport after attending a historic meeting of undocumented youth in Minneapolis, though he had been public about his status for years. (He was flagged by TSA because of the ID he presented at the airport.)

“There is a whole community of people who feel it’s their self interest to not have him deported,” McCluskey said. “He’s changed me a lot in that regard. I didn’t used to see the struggle of undocumented youth as my struggle at all.”

McCluskey is a fellow activist and recent vice president of the U.S. Student Association. The two met in Aug. 2009 at Trivia Night at a D.C. bar, though Ramos’ reputation proceeded him.

“I knew about Matias before I actually knew him,” McCluskey said.

Of couse, he knew about her as well … they had met a few months prior, but McCluskey had forgotrten about it.

McCluskey separates their relationship into two periods: pre-work permit and post work permit. Ironically, it was only after Ramos was deported that he was given work authorization. There was a financial strain on their relationship at first, because Ramos did not have full-time work. Now that he is legally working as a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, they have a nicer apartment and more equitable date nights.

But there are still constant reminders of Ramos’ complicated relationship with the U.S. government. At a recent lunch at a diner with friends, Ramos took a phone call and came back to the table to announce that ICE just called to say he needed to buy a plane ticket to Buenos Aires by October 4. He paused and then delivered the punchline: they didn’t say what year though.

McCluskey also accompanied Ramos to a check-in with ICE on Sept. 13. After the check-in, an agent sent them down the block to another office, telling them only that it was an outfit that ran a program for ICE and that they were expected in a few minutes. When the couple walked into the office they looked around the packed waiting room and saw that everyone was wearing an ankle bracelet. Ramos left with one himself, walking out with his American girlfriend, feeling the shame of having to plug his leg in for three hours a day.

“It was disgusting having it on,” Ramos said.  When the batteries run low, the device beeps and then actually says: “charge your battery now.” B.I. Inc., a subsidiary of GEO Group, one of the largest private prison contractors in the country, provides “community based monitoring” for ICE.

Ramos’ attorney mentioned his American girlfriend in appealing the deportation order, to demonstrate that he has strong ties to the United States. The two have discussed marriage; Ramos could likely adjust his status in the U.S. if he married an American because he originally entered at 13 years of age, on the visa waiver program, essentially as a tourist from Argentina. But Ramos also hoped for the Dream Act to pass, conveying him legal status, or to have his case put aside after administrative review. And McCluskey never felt he needed her to get a green card.

“I’ve never felt that it was my job and Matias has never put pressure on me to do anything for his case,” she said. “For him it’s more than about his case. It’s about the relationship of undocumented people to the U.S.”

She means the official, legal relationship. But she could just as well be referring to the relationship between Americans and the undocumented people we encounter every day. Or to her relationship with an undocumented man, which has grown deeper through the stress of the deportation proceedings. Either way, the point is neither is alone—the relationship between America and the undocumented in her midst grows more and more intertwined every day.

As Ramos told me last year, on being public about being undocumented: “First you feel all alone, then you feel like other people have your back.”