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Stepped-up deportation actions result in anxiety among the undocumented

DOJ, local law enforcement at odds

Merdies Hayes | 3/31/2017, midnight
Most residents of Southern California strongly oppose President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. This assessment from a recent survey conducted by ...

Most residents of Southern California strongly oppose President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. This assessment from a recent survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries, plans for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the stepped up efforts by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of deportations have a majority of residents of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties as well as the Inland Empire standing in opposition to the new federal directives.

“Today, a strong majority of Californians say that undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay and eventually apply for citizenship,” the survey authors stated. After reviewing about 1,700 responses, the authors concluded that more than 70 percent of Los Angeles-area and Inland Empire adults, and 60 percent of Orange and San Diego county adults said that undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States should be allowed to remain. Statewide, the number was 68 percent in favor of allowing immigrants already here to stay and to be eligible for a pathway to citizenship.

County residents favor pathway to citizenship

Additionally, about 12 percent of LA County and Inland Empire residents (15 percent in Orange and San Diego counties) responded that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to remain in the United States, but should not be granted citizenship. About three in four adults in the Southern California area oppose construction of a wall along America’s southern border, and a considerable percentage of people (63 percent) disapprove of President Trump’s revised executive order banning most people entering the U.S. from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. Political affiliation had an impact on the survey findings as majorities of both Republicans (56 percent) and Democrats (92 percent) agreed that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to remain in the United States.

California’s elected officials have largely vowed to fight President Trump’s revised immigration policies which have broadly focused on the deportation of undocumented immigrants who are not violent criminals but may have committed a misdemeanor, those who have sought public benefits or, in short, anyone whom immigration officials believe may pose a risk to public safety or national security. The ICE crackdown has reportedly forced an increasing number of the county’s undocumented immigrant parents to take steps to ensure that someone will be there to care for their children in the event they are deported. A number of immigrant rights groups report that in the past two months, they have received requests from immigrant parents about ways to authorize a guardian for their children in the worst-case scenario.

Fear rises among immigrant children

“It’s heartbreaking seeing so many parents’ concerns about the plight of [their] children, if they’re arrested or deported while going to work or taking their children to school,” said Anabella Bastida executive director of the Council of Mexican Federations which is composed of state and hometown associations from Mexico. Bastida was referring to the unusual case of Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, who earlier this month had dropped off his 13-year-old daughter at school in Highland Park and was pulled over by ICE agents with his wife and 12-year-old daughter remaining in the car. Avelica-Gonzalez is from Nayarit, Mexico, and has been in the United States for 25 years. In this case, officers wearing jackets emblazoned with “police” in large yellow letters on their backs stopped Avelica-Gonzalez and ordered him to exit the car. When he asked what he had done wrong, he was reportedly told to “be quiet ... you know you have a deportation order.” Initially, immigration officials told him that he would be deported to Mexico immediately because of a DUI conviction in 2006.

After the incident, lawyers from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network stepped in and pressed local officials to call the field director of ICE to voice their concerns and also asked local activists to do the same. Avelica-Gonzalez’ four children are U.S. citizens, and while a petition has been circulated to convince ICE authorities to allow him to remain in the United States—and attempts by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis to intercede on his behalf—at press time, he remained in custody and the fate of this man and his family is far from certain. Solis in December joined the Board of Supervisors in a 4-1 vote to pledge $3 million to help undocumented immigrants fight deportation.

A 2014 report by the Mitigation Policy Institute estimates that LA County has about 490,000 children who have at least one parent who is undocumented, representing the highest number of any county in the nation. The same study found that 410,000 of these children are U.S. citizens. Most undocumented parents, if detained by ICE and facing immediate deportation, choose to take their children with them even, if their kids were born here. But an increasing number of these parents who may hail from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras—countries wracked by drug-war violence—will opt to leave the children here for fear of them being lured into drug gangs or, even worse, killed.

Increase in ‘caregiver affidavit’

Some undocumented immigrants are taking the unusual step of filing a legal “caregiver affidavit” that empowers the designated person (usually a relative) who is a U.S. citizen to act as their child’s legal guardian, if they find themselves arrested and subject to deportation. Parents complete the form and have it notarized, thereby ensuring that if they are separated the child will remain enrolled in school, able to see a doctor, or later on obtain a Social Security card or vote.

“Maria,” a 46-year-old undocumented mother of an 11-year-old son and a teenage daughter residing in Santa Clarita, has completed a caregiver affidavit. Once her document is notarized, it would transfer guardianship to her two sisters each born in America. “Maria” has resided in the United States for 14 years and says that the past two months have been like nothing she has ever witnessed in terms of anxiety among the county’s undocumented population.

“For as long as I’ve lived here, I never worried like I have since Trump took the oath on Jan. 20,” she said. For the past month, she has been consulting with immigration attorneys to learn more about her legal options. “Gathering information and learning about my rights makes me feel better ... a little more normal.”

The fallout from the increased ICE enforcement has placed law enforcement in an unusual situation. Bound to uphold local laws—and also to carry out certain federal statutes—the aforementioned case of ICE agents posing as police officers has Sheriff Jim McDonnell walking a fine line between breaking ranks with other area politicians who support “sanctuary cities” while drawing a line with federal agents, who want to take custody of people released from county jails. As an elected peace officer, McDonnell has to stay neutral in a dynamic situation that seems to change week by week.

McDonnell caught in a bind

“I’m not a ‘Trump’ guy and I’m not an ‘anti-Trump’ guy. I’m just a cop protecting the public,” McDonnell told the Los Angeles Times last week. “I’m getting hit by the Trump administration one day, and the next day I’m called ‘anti-immigrant.’ I sympathize with the undocumented immigrant. I know all they want is to make a better life for themselves and their children in America.”

Presently, a bill that would make California a “sanctuary state” is being debated in Sacramento. Democratic leaders believe SB 54 can be a way to help shield undocumented persons from deportation and, in the process, avoid separating families. SB 54, introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), would limit the information ICE receives about inmates in county jails, thereby making it harder for immigration agents to know who is behind bars. Under the bill, McDonnell would be forbidden to share databases with ICE or provide an inmate’s release date. “Hold requests” are another sticky aspect to the controversy because these documents allow the inmate to be held for an extra 48 hours—this would be barred by SB 54. As well, all requests to notify ICE of an inmate’s release date or help with an inmate’s transfer would be prohibited. The Sheriff’s Department describes the hold requests as often applying to people who have been arrested for serious or otherwise violent crimes, or those who have prior convictions for certain crimes.

McDonnell believes the bill could have unintended consequences for immigrant communities, because if ICE agents cannot apprehend people from jail, they’ll probably go looking for people on the street and that could be anywhere from home, school, work or even the grocery store. This method, McDonnell explained, would instill fear in immigrant communities and make them less likely to cooperate in a police investigation. Both the Sheriff’s department and Los Angeles Police Department have seen a recent decline in the willingness of undocumented persons to interact with law enforcement out of fear that they’re being tricked and will be arrested and deported.

“[ICE] will have no choice but to go into the communities and arrest not only the individual they are seeking but also the people who are with that person, or other people in the area who are undocumented. None of us want this,” McDonnell said.

DOJ issues threat?

McDonnell oversees the nation’s largest jail system and even without the proposed sanctuary state legislation, his department may risk losing federal funds, if the Trump administration makes good on its promise to punish law enforcement agencies who refuse to help ICE in its “enforcement surge.” This week, the Sheriff’s Department was included on a list of specific agencies that “endanger Americans” by failing to hand over all of the jail inmates requested by immigration agents. And it got worse a day later, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that local jurisdictions seeking U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) grants must demonstrate that they are not sanctuary cities. This threat could potentially apply to some municipalities (e.g. Bell, Cudahy, Maywood in the southeastern portion of the county) which through the years have declared themselves as relatively safe destinations for illegal immigrant families who by their presence need not fear deportation.

“The American people know that when cities and states refuse to help enforce immigration laws, our nation is less safe,” Sessions said. The DOJ’s office of Justice Programs and Community Oriented Policing Services expects to issue about $4.1 billion in grants during the current fiscal year; last year, L.A. County received $3.4 million from the DOJ’s State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, representing about one-tenth of 1 percent of McDonnell’s yearly budget.

Maywood declared itself a sanctuary city 11 years ago, thereby enacting a law that said local police are forbidden to enforce U.S. immigration law. Councilman Eduardo De La Riva said he expected the Trump administration to follow through on its campaign pledge to step up deportation enforcement, noting that the issue will likely be settled by the courts.

What is a “sanctuary city”?

“I’m confident that when this latest move is challenged in the courts, this too will prove to be yet another loss for this administration,” De La Riva said. The county this week joined three dozen jurisdictions nationwide in filing a court brief in opposition to President Trump’s executive order threatening to withhold federal funds from sancturary cities. The court papers argue that pulling funding from cities would threaten public health and safety, while noting that forcing local law enforcement agencies to become “arms of federal immigration agencies” would lead to a “loss of cooperation” between immigrants and the police.

There is no specific definition of a sanctuary city or state, but the term often refers to law enforcement in a specific city or county that refuses to notify ICE that it is holding an illegal immigrant in custody, according to the federal government. Federal law requires notification, even if the person has not been convicted of a crime. While the DOJ has become increasingly concerned that many jurisdictions continue to ignore this requirement, last year the Sheriff’s Department processed about 1,000 inmates to ICE agents, representing a tiny fraction of the more than 300,000 people it released from jail last year.

Supporting Immigration Reform

Californians have supported immigration reform before President Trump took office. In 2012, the Public Policy Institute took a survey that found that 70 percent of respondents thought employed undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for two years should be granted a path to citizenship. But this year, despite the state’s strong opposition to increased enforcement of immigration policies, only 16 percent of survey takers said the issue was the most important the state faces. Nearly 20 percent said jobs and the economy were the foremost issues of concern, with schools, health care and the environment trailing among the list of most important issues. Four years ago, California had an estimated 2.6 million undocumented immigrants, including 814,000 in Los Angeles County, 247,000 in Orange County, 170,000 in San Diego County, 124,000 in Riverside County and 118,000 in San Bernardino County, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The move by the DOJ to step up deportation procedures has a number of state leaders taking a forceful stance against what they believe is an affront to the sovereign rights of California. In Sacramento, de Leon characterized the DOJ move as promoting race-based fear and scapegoating. “Their gun-to-the-head method to force resistant cities and counties to participate in Trump’s inhumane and counterproductive mass-deportation is unconstitutional and will fail,” he said.