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The Cold Heart of ICE

The future of a North Carolina nursing student rested in the hands of immigration officials on Valentine’s Day.

The future of a North Carolina nursing student rested in the hands of immigration officials on Valentine’s Day. It’s hard to believe anyone could turn away the gentle and sincere 25-year-old, who embraces each of his supporters with an extended hug and a big smile. But he was there expecting to be deported.

Felipe Molina Mendoza travelled from Durham to Charlotte, NC this morning, prepared for what he thought would be his last moments as a free man in the United States. Brought to the US when he was 8, Felipe attended middle and high school in Durham. He felt compelled to return to a barely known Mexico upon graduation, when he, a straight-A student, could not continue his education because he was not a legal resident of the United States.

Unable to parse the subtle maneuvers a young gay man in his new community must make, the American-bred-if-not-born teenager was subjected to taunts and assault and became seriously depressed. He was strip-searched and ridiculed by Mexican police for lodging a complaint after being threatened with gang rape. “Growing up here, I always thought the police would do something,” he explained last week in Durham. When his grandmother died after his first semester, he needed to come home.

Turned back at the US border in 2013, Felipe tried again and petitioned for asylum in 2014. He was further traumatized by a stay in the infamous “ice box” and a harrowing time in a privately-run immigration detention center. “They put chains on my hands and feet just to take me to court,” he said, his voice breaking as he relived the experience. But he passed his “credible fear” interviews and was allowed to return to Durham and his family after they raised a $7,500 bond and an American citizen, how his husband, came forward to sign as his sponsor. Felipe began to study for a career in nursing and has been working in a Chapel Hill restaurant to pay for it, his hard-won work permit in hand.

“The only thing I’ve done is try to be a good citizen and a good student and make a life for myself….It’s not true what they say on TV, that they only want to deport people with criminal records. My work permit runs to November next year.”

Agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, aka ICE, the US government’s immigration police, were out in force in a number of states on Thursday morning, February 10, 2017. According to ICE’s own confirmation, 160 immigrants were arrested in Southern California, 200 in Georgia and the Carolinas, with ICE admitting to 680 apprehensions nationwide. The agency insists that it is only targeting dangerous criminals and avoiding sensitive locations with children, but numerous community reports show that its agents are using racial profiling, making arbitrary stops of construction vans, and casing work sites and, in at least two cases, elementary schools. The raids, not unlike the ones that wracked the immigrant community under the Obama administration last year, took place in or near the perceived sanctuary cities of Charlotte, Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Seattle and Atlanta.

Many of the people being arrested by ICE have no criminal records. A salient aspect of their stories is how many were in the process of residency or asylum petitions, such as Daniel Ramírez Medina, a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient in Washington State. In other words, despite the government’s insistence that it is arresting only the worst of criminals, it is apparent that ICE is abusing the list of immigrants who are “waiting in line” and “playing by the rules”.

ICE contends that Daniel is a gang member, which he denies, based on a tattoo they say he sports that reads “La Paz BCS”. La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, is the city in Mexico where Daniel was born. If he indeed were in a gang, however, he would be an American-made member, since he came to the US when he was 7. He has never been a suspect or accused of any crime.

In its executive order prioritizing criminals for deportation, the Trump administration has effectively re-categorized misdemeanours such as traffic violations and working and paying taxes without or with a false social security number as felonies for undocumented immigrants, and gives ICE agents the authority to arrest immigrants they suspect could be a criminal or, “in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.”

People like Felipe, who have made more than one attempt to rejoin loved ones in the US, are called repeat immigration offenders, even if they are later found to have a credible claim. When the police racially profile drivers, the number of tickets, DWL’s (driving without a license) and DUI’s (driving under the influence) become higher for Latinos and people of color. When local attempts to provide driver’s licenses to the poor and undocumented are banned, driving without a license may be the only alternative to get to a job, take care of children or in an emergency. Driving violations are misdemeanours, if you’re leaving a party at Mar-a-Lago — but not if you’re an immigrant.

Nestor Ávila Miranda had a prior DUI. Like Felipe, he was brought to the US when he was only 8 years old. The star athlete and Appalachian State graduate is now in Stewart Detention Center, in a makeshift hospital bed because the driver of the ICE van he shared with other arrested immigrants collided after engaging in a road rage race with another vehicle. His right foot is swollen and, because of lack of care, a bone infection has set in and it may have to be amputated. DACA and now U-visa eligible, he remains incarcerated.

Natalia Quintana-Rondón, a 46 year old mother, had just married a US citizen a week before her arrest on February 1. She and her new husband were in the process of adjusting her status when the car she was driving was pulled over in a traffic stop in Fort Mills, SC, outside of Charlotte, NC. Her daughter was present and attempted to reason with officers until Natalia’s husband could arrive with proof of his ownership of the car. Natalia, who speaks little English, was driving with a Venezuelan license, and is now awaiting transfer to an ICE detention center in Georgia. Her family is hoping that she will be released on bond.

It was the Obama administration that started this epidemic of arrests, beginning with an operation specifically targeting Central American unaccompanied minors and women with small children who were seeking political asylum in the United States, especially over the summer of 2014. One of them, Ingrid Portillo Hernández, was learning English in the 11th grade in Durham. She had fled El Salvador after her father, a community activist, was assassinated during a period of increased violence in their home country. She was arrested walking to her new school in May, accompanied by two younger relatives, a little more than a month after she had turned 18. Ingrid was swiftly deported in September, despite the intercession of a US Congressman from North Carolina, G.K. Butterfield, who has also interceded on behalf of Felipe and many others.

As February’s round of raids is taking place, North Carolina’s House of Representatives passed the Citizens’ Protection Act, defining it as:

“An act to reduce identity theft by increasing penalties for the possession, manufacture or sale of counterfeit documents; to create a rebuttable presumption against the pre-trial release of certain undocumented aliens; and to enact a penalty for cities and counties that violate state laws related to sanctuary cities.”

Using another person’s social security number (SSN) to get a job and work would not only be a victimless crime, but also a benefit to the original owner in that another person is paying into their retirement. But usually, the “fake social” undocumented immigrants use is an Individual Tax-payer Identification Number (ITIN). An ITIN is provided by the government for financial transactions, akin to an SSN except that it does not convey the right to work. Using an ITIN, undocumented immigrant employees pay taxes and Social Security but cannot claim tax deductions or reap benefits if they are injured on the job, become disabled or retire. In the recent past, ITIN’s were routinely converted into SSN’s upon approval for residency, and working on an ITIN was evidence of being a model immigrant at an immigration hearing.

Arresting compliant, previously registered individuals is an easy way to boost ICE’s numbers. And people who have good cases are a windfall for private, for-profit detention center corporations GEO, based in Boca Raton, Florida, a half-hour’s drive from Mar-a-Lago, and CCA — which has “rebranded” its name to CoreCivic — headquartered in Nashville, TN. The longer one’s case takes, the more money is to be made in their facilities, which detainees themselves maintain for a dollar a day. Families need to send money to pay the prison corporations’ extortionate prices for toiletries and phone calls.

Felipe never had a DUI or committed any other infraction, he has only worked with permission, he should have been DACA-eligible, yet he has spent three years on the brink of deportation. His Valentine’s Day hearing ended in a reprieve, but only until March 5.

This is Felipe’s page on Facebook, hosted by AlertaMigratoriaNC and Education Not Deportation.

And here is more information and a petition on behalf of Nestor.

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