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ICE Raids Target Undocumented Immigrants for Mostly Minor Offenses

President Obama’s policy to prosecute “bad immigrants” is less like reform and more like a means to continue deportations.

About 200 advocates for immigration reform march through downtown Long Beach, California, on July 2, 2013. (Photo: United Church of Christ)

While presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle argue over the relative merits of accepting refugees and protecting US borders, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been conducting a series of raids on immigrants throughout the country.

In late January and early February, ICE conducted coordinated raids that detained 82 people in 22 Utah cities including Salt Lake City and West Valley City. The detainees come mostly from Latin American countries; roughly one-quarter of Utah’s Latino population is undocumented. The arrests, which took place between January 30 and February 5, follow weeks of protests against similar ICE raids in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.

The Utah operation sets a disturbing precedent of targeting people with (mostly minor) criminal records for immediate deportation. Of the 17 criminal charges listed on the ICE website, five were related to drug possession and distribution while only two – assault and simple assault – were serious violent crimes. Other offenses included resisting an officer, making a false report, forgery, shoplifting and carrying a concealed weapon.

In the 2012 book Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, describes how criminalization functions as a method of immigration control: “The way the system works it to move the line of what counts as criminal to encompass and engulf more and more people into the territory of prison eligibility, if you will.” Expanding the criteria for deportation to include shoplifting works the same way. Challenging this method cannot rest simply on proving the innocence of the accused, but must include a challenge to the false “good immigrant/bad immigrant” dichotomy that causes us to ask why they are being targeted en masse for petty crimes in the first place, guilty or not.

Activists and community organizers protested at a rally at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and immigration advocates have advised the undocumented residents of Utah to not open their doors or sign any papers (ICE officers have a habit of forcing people who don’t speak English to sign documents in a language that they don’t necessarily understand). The sweep has generated a chill within Utah’s immigrant community as families wonder if their homes will be targeted next.

An umbrella group of advocacy organizations, religious leaders and human rights groups started a petition, which has since collected 130,000 signatures, demanding a permanent end to the deportation of refugees. Meanwhile, 20 Senate Democrats have called on President Obama to halt the raids and grant indefinite deportation relief to approximately 1.5 million Americans (while this number is substantial, it still adds up to only a fraction of the approximately 11.7 million undocumented US residents).

Luis Garza is the executive director of the advocacy organization Comunidades Unidas, which seeks to empower Utah’s undocumented residents by helping them apply for US citizenship and work permits, among other services. In the wake of the arrests that have left Utah’s immigrant communities reeling, Garza says his organization’s focus is now on “informing people about what’s happening with the detentions.” He prefers the word “detention” to “raid,” since the kind of targeted detention orders currently being carried out differ from the more typical variety of raid conducted in a public area like a workplace or school.

“The fear continues because of those detentions,” Garza told Truthout. “People are not sure why they’re happening.” Comunidades Unidas has been helping families come up with an emergency plan in preparation for a possible raid. The “family plan” includes “what’s going to happen with children, what’s going to happen with debt, the house, cars, things like that.” He also encourages immigrants to contact their consulate in case of trouble and to always have the name and phone number of an attorney.

Immigration lawyer Steven Lyons says that the deportations are meant to prioritize “those who are threats to national security, border security and public safety” and that Obama has avoided flak by not targeting those without criminal records. Lyons told Truthout the main question is “whether or not there is discretion being exercised based upon the severity of the conviction, and that’s always a judgment call and a fine line, and subject to varying opinions.” These authoritative judgments, as it turns out, include those of bureaucrats and law enforcement officials who have chosen to tear people away from their families and deport them for petty crimes.

The immigrants rounded up in Utah come from six countries: Mexico, Honduras, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala and Samoa. An ICE press release states that they “are being processed administratively for removal from the United States” and that the US attorney’s office will prosecute two of them for “re-entry after deportation.”

A variety of factors have led to the recent uptick in emigration from Central America, and a recent Honduran study suggests that the motives are primarily economic. Nevertheless, by sending asylum seekers back to their violence-wracked countries, the US government is putting refugees at the mercy of the humanitarian disaster currently occurring in Central America.

A recent study of homicide rates in the Americas places Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico first, third and sixth, respectively. In 2014, Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world, while 2015 saw 6,657 people killed in El Salvador – 104 per 100,000 inhabitants (by comparison, the murder rate in the United States is 3 per 100,000). Much of this violence, which includes torture and beheadings, can be blamed on warring drug cartels. In an ostensible effort to protect US borders, ICE is punishing people charged with largely nonviolent crimes with a possible death sentence once they return to their countries of origin.

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report on January 28 titled “Families in Fear: The Atlanta Immigration Raids,” which focuses on the raids that occurred in early January 2016. The Atlanta raids were conducted without warrants and ended with the detention of 121 immigrants, all women and children. Examining the legal implications of ICE’s aggressive tactics, the report’s introduction pulls no punches in its sweeping condemnation of Obama’s immigration stance:

The raids in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina signaled a new and alarming development by a federal government with a history of abusive immigration enforcement that is now only being made worse by its failure to effectively address the humanitarian crisis in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras …Under President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has pursued needlessly aggressive – and potentially unconstitutional – law enforcement action against vulnerable immigrants. The result has been the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, including the families swept up in these raids, over the last eight years.

The ICE sweeps are undoubtedly a massively disappointing continuation of immigration policy under Obama, who has touted himself as a proponent of immigration reform while deporting over 2.5 million Americans – more than any other president in history – even as the number of new undocumented migrants has fallen steeply. In January, Bernie Sanders exhorted the Obama administration to stop the raids and grant temporary protected status to families fleeing Central American violence.

Understanding how ICE functions as a self-proclaimed protector of US security is essential to putting the raids in their proper context. ICE is the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, which was formed in 2002 in response to 9/11. In 2003, the DHS absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and divided its duties between two agencies: US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and ICE. USCIS provides administrative services such as processing visa petitions, while ICE handles enforcement. As its place in the government bureaucracy would suggest, ICE is portrayed as a bulwark against any number of dangers that would threaten US citizens. Though the supposed larger purpose of the DHS is to safeguard the country against terrorism and natural disasters, the agencies that comprise it have proven more likely to go after undocumented immigrants for mostly minor offenses than those who pose major threats to public safety.

Many liberals have lauded Obama’s executive orders on immigration as progressive, and much of his language conveys the image of the United States as a beacon of hope for the “huddled masses,” like this passage from his speech on immigration reform in November 2014:

My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will. That’s the country our parents and grandparents and generations before them built for us. That’s the tradition we must uphold. That’s the legacy we must leave for those who are yet to come.

Obama is nothing if not a skilled orator, and any student of US history can testify to the fact that immigration has played a central role in its formation. That is why so many people describe the United States as a “nation of immigrants” – a term that has historical resonance despite the ways in which it glaringly omits the nation’s Indigenous residents. But if this country is to measure up to the ideal Obama so breathlessly describes, the Obama administration must end the hypocritical practice of detentions and deportations that have rendered his eloquent words hollow.

Democrats cannot justifiably continue to criticize Donald Trump and his xenophobic base for their white nationalism while treating immigrants so brutally. They cannot in good conscience claim the moral high ground while pandering to Latino voters during election season, only to turn around and support the mass arrest and deportation of Central American asylum seekers. The exclusion and demonization of outsiders has long been the province of the right wing, but what exactly do US liberals have to offer immigrants in comparison, besides the same policies with a faux-progressive veneer? At a moment when the debate over welcoming refugees has once again taken center stage, it is not a question to take lightly.

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