Analysis Politics

Advocates: Dems Struggling to Address Detainment and Detention of Immigrants

Tina Vasquez

We as a country need to stop seeing detention and deportation as solutions for the immigration issues we have.

During President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night, he mentioned that he still hoped to pass comprehensive immigration reform before his term ended, something he “guaranteed” during his first year.

In the hour that followed, the president did not mention immigration again, despite nationwide raids being carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiative targeting Central American families. Thus far, 121 asylum seekers have been detained, the bulk of them women and their young children.

The president’s failure to address immigration in a real way during his last State of the Union address only seemed more glaring in the context of the raids and following Monday’s Brown and Black Democratic Presidential Forum hosted by Fusion, during which the deportation polilcy was a key concern. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley all participated in the forum, which provided a rare opportunity for the three candidates to address the concerns of communities of color.

Non-white voters are a growing part of the U.S. electorate, with Latinos in particular making up 17 percent of the population. Every 30 seconds, a Latino citizen turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote, which is one of many reasons the “Latino vote” has received unprecedented media attention.

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So it came as no surprise that immigration, often thought of as the primary concern of Latinos, took center stage at the forum, with each of the candidates taking shots at each other and trying to distance themselves from the more severe stances of GOP candidates like Donald Trump.

All three candidates denounced the ongoing raids. Sanders and O’Malley expressed particular concern for the children being deported back to places like El Salvador, where a 70 percent spike in violent deaths led to the most recent mass migration of asylum seekers presenting themselves at the U.S. border, as is required by U.S. asylum law. This same population, according to advocates, is being targeted by DHS’ new initiative foras DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement—coming here “illegally.”

Both Sanders and O’Malley said they would give Central American asylum seekers temporary protected status, which, among other things, means the migrants would not be removed from the United States. Clinton, who infamously said in 2014 that unaccompanied migrant children from Central American should be “sent back,” was forced to defend the statement. Journalist Jorge Ramos, one of the moderators for the forum, pulled no punches with Clinton, asking her if she had a “Latino problem” and if she was going to be the next “Deporter in Chief,” referring to President Obama’s roughly two million deportations while in office.

“The raids aren’t an appropriate tool to enforce immigration laws,” Clinton told Ramos. “To put it in a broader context: We have to have comprehensive immigration reform .… I would prioritize criminals and those plotting and planning threats against our public safety on my list [for deportation].”

When Ramos asked Clinton directly if she would deport children, she sidestepped several times before telling Ramos, “Let me say this: I would give every person, but particularly children, due process to have their story told. And a lot of children will, of course, have very legitimate stories under our law to be able to stay. … I cannot sit here and tell you I have a blanket rule about who or who won’t ever be let into the country to stay because it has to be done individual by individual.”

Clinton, like O’Malley, also vowed to put an end to private detention, a multimillion-dollar industry. O’Malley said for-profit detention centers, especially those that detain families, are a “shameful practice,” asserting that when U.S. citizens “learn our country maintains the largest system of immigrant detention camps of any developed nation in the world, they will rise up and say it’s not right.”

Undocumented organizers and activists aren’t as confident as O’Malley—and for good reason. It wasn’t too long ago that citizens showed up in Murrieta, California, holding signs saying “Return to Sender,” just to spit on the “deportation buses” of Central American children, asylum seekers being transported by ICE from detention centers to immigration processing centers.

Abraham Paulos, executive director of Families for Freedom, a New York-based multi-ethnic human rights organization by and for families facing and fighting deportation, told Rewire that the average citizen doesn’t understand the challenges of navigating the immigration system, let alone the impact the country’s policies have on migrants.

“There is not an understanding of how violent the immigration system and its policies [are] to families,” Paulos said. “There is a mainstream narrative around immigrants couched in terms of assimilation and citizenship. We [at Families for Freedom] tend to stay away from that type of narrative because it doesn’t present a full picture of brown and Black immigrants in this country or the conditions they face.”

While U.S. citizens place great importance in the statements of powerful politicians like Clinton condemning the raids, that condemnation does nothing to quell the very real fear undocumented communities have surrounding detainment and deportation. Paulos said politicians’ statements of support “don’t mean anything” and are only made out of political convenience.

“Raids in this country have increased since Obama gave his infamous speech … when he announced the priority enforcement program, which prioritized people [for deportation] that had been in the criminal system. It also prioritized recent arrivals, but no one saw that part because” of the attention paid to the “felons, not families” portion, he said.

Paulos added that it’s important to be as critical of Democratic candidates as it is Republican candidates, especially when you consider the current U.S. landscape—with a broken immigration system, thousands in detention centers, and millions of deportations—is a direct result of laws that were passed during a Democratic presidency. “Specifically, they were passed during the Clinton administration, and now we have another Clinton willing to uphold those policies,” he explained. “Hillary Clinton can denounce the raids, but what she should really do—and what all candidates should do—is denounce the really harmful laws passed in the 1990s. That would be more meaningful in our community.”

The laws Paulos referred to are the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of non-citizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them.

“Those laws passed during the 1990s, which also included the ‘war on drugs,’ were failed policies. They did nothing but destroy our communities,” Paulos said. “To think that Democrats have a better approach than Republicans is a farce. None of the Democratic candidates have presented anything that really addresses detention in a real way. The conversation is too wrapped up around citizenship. We need to really try to make sure our community members, our families, and our loved ones are living free from the fear of detention.”

U.S. citizens who identify as “liberal” or “progressive” have long been confused by undocumented activists’ approach to Democratic politicians they deem to be on the side of immigrants.

Obama, for example, is responsible for “deferred action,” has spoken out in support of the DREAM Act, and has promised comprehensive immigration reform. Why, then, do undocumented activists call him “Deporter in Chief” and “heckle” him? Because of his record deporting more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, the usual response from liberals is, “It would be worse under a Republican.”

Solutions to the United States’ immigration issues aren’t easy to come by. During the forum, all three candidates confirmed the need for comprehensive immigration reform that would include providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Before that can happen, however, we as a country need to stop seeing detention and deportation as solutions for the immigration issues we have.

Paulos said that when we talk about immigration and immigration enforcement, there is a “major elephant in the room,” and that is their relationship to the U.S. criminal justice system. Just as conditions were placed on deferred action, any candidate pushing for a pathway to citizenship will require beneficiaries to meet certain conditions, including no record in the criminal system.

Many of those deported by the Obama administration had contact with the criminal system. In this way, Paulos said, deportation is no longer separate from the criminal system; deportation is just an extension of mass incarceration.

It’s important to note that if you are deported and return to the United States to reunite with your family, for example, that is a felony. And as a felon, you immediately become a deportation target. So, when President Obama said “felons, not families” when announcing his executive action in November 2014, his administration, in very real ways, was ripping families apart.

“For these candidates, like Bernie Sanders, who discuss social inequality, they have to understand all of the intersections—and particularly what we’re seeing in the criminal justice system and in detention,” the executive director said. “A couple of months ago, 6,000 federal prisoners were slated for release, but more than 2,000 were non-citizens and now they’re slated for deportation. For U.S. citizens, a sentence can be deemed disproportionate, but for a non-citizen, it’s not disproportionate and it leads to deportation.”

As Paulos clarified, citizenship will help, but it can’t be framed as the cure-all for the many challenges Black and brown undocumented communities face.

“In the end, it’s short-sighted because no candidates on either side are doing anything about detentions and deportations; no candidates are talking about the 1996 laws that have created the current climate. If those things aren’t addressed, everything else is futile,” Paulos said. “Comprehensive immigration reform would only add more complicated laws our communities must navigate and I would argue that may not be the best approach. Trying to repeal the 1996 laws would change things in our communities. First, before anything, we need to step back and see that we have a violent system that detains and deports everyone. No one is safe.”

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.

News Human Rights

Feds Prep for Second Mass Deportation of Asylum Seekers in Three Months

Tina Vasquez

Those asylum seekers include Mahbubur Rahman, the leader of #FreedomGiving, the nationwide hunger strike that spanned nine detention centers last year and ended when an Alabama judge ordered one of the hunger strikers to be force fed.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for the second time in three months, will conduct a mass deportation of at least four dozen South Asian asylum seekers.

Those asylum seekers include Mahbubur Rahman, the leader of #FreedomGiving, the nationwide hunger strike that spanned nine detention centers last year and ended when an Alabama judge ordered one of the hunger strikers to be force-fed.

Rahman’s case is moving quickly. The asylum seeker had an emergency stay pending with the immigration appeals court, but on Monday morning, Fahd Ahmed, executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York-based organization of youth and low-wage South Asian immigrant workers, told Rewire that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer called Rahman’s attorney saying Rahman would be deported within 48 hours. As of 4 p.m. Monday, Rahman’s attorney told Ahmed that Rahman was on a plane to be deported.

As of Monday afternoon, Rahman’s emergency stay was granted while his appeal was still pending, which meant he wouldn’t be deported until the appeal decision. Ahmed told Rewire earlier Monday that an appeal decision could come at any moment, and concerns about the process, and Rahman’s case, remain.

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An online petition was created in hopes of saving Rahman from deportation.

ICE has yet to confirm that a mass deportation of South Asian asylum seekers is set to take place this week. Katherine Weathers, a visitor volunteer with the Etowah Visitation Project, an organization that enables community members to visit with men in detention at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, told Rewire that last week eight South Asian men were moved from Etowah to Louisiana, the same transfer route made in April when 85 mostly Muslim South Asian asylum seekers were deported.

One of the men in detention told Weathers that an ICE officer said to him a “mass deportation was being arranged.” The South Asian asylum seeker who contacted Weathers lived in the United States for more than 20 years before being detained. He said he would call her Monday morning if he wasn’t transferred out of Etowah for deportation. He never called.

In the weeks following the mass deportation in April, it was alleged by the deported South Asian migrants that ICE forcefully placed them in “body bags” and that officers shocked them with Tasers. DRUM has been in touch with some of the Bangladeshis who were deported. Ahmed said many returned to Bangladesh, but there were others who remain in hiding.

“There are a few of them [who were deported] who despite being in Bangladesh for three months, have not returned to their homes because their homes keep getting visited by police or intelligence,” Ahmed said.

The Bangladeshi men escaped to the United States because of their affiliations and activities with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the opposition party in Bangladesh, as Rewire reported in April. Being affiliated with this party, advocates said, has made them targets of the Bangladesh Awami League, the country’s governing party.

DHS last year adopted the position that BNP, the second largest political party in Bangladesh, is an “undesignated ‘Tier III’ terrorist organization” and that members of the BNP are ineligible for asylum or withholding of removal due to alleged engagement in terrorist activities. It is unclear how many of the estimated four dozen men who will be deported this week are from Bangladesh.

Ahmed said that mass deportations of a particular group are not unusual. When there are many migrants from the same country who are going to be deported, DHS arranges large charter flights. However, South Asian asylum seekers appear to be targeted in a different way. After two years in detention, the four dozen men set to be deported have been denied due process for their asylum requests, according to Ahmed.

“South Asians are coming here and being locked in detention for indefinite periods and the ability for anybody, but especially smaller communities, to win their asylum cases while inside detention is nearly impossible,” Ahmed told Rewire. “South Asians also continue to get the highest bond amounts, from $20,000 to $50,000. All of this prevents them from being able to properly present their asylum cases. The fact that those who have been deported back to Bangladesh are still afraid to go back to their homes proves that they were in the United States because they feared for their safety. They don’t get a chance to properly file their cases while in detention.”

Winning an asylum claim while in detention is rare. Access to legal counsel is limited inside detention centers, which are often in remote, rural areas.

As the Tahirih Justice Center reported, attorneys face “enormous hurdles in representing their clients, such as difficulty communicating regularly, prohibitions on meeting with and accompanying clients to appointments with immigration officials, restrictions on the use of office equipment in client meetings, and other difficulties would not exist if refugees were free to attend meetings in attorneys’ offices.”

“I worry about the situation they’re returning to and how they fear for their lives,” Ahmed said. “They’ve been identified by the government they were trying to escape and because of their participation in the hunger strike, they are believed to have dishonored their country. These men fear for their lives.”