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The Year of the Immigrant Rights Movement

It’s been a rollercoaster ride of a year for immigrant rights activists with clashes with law enforcement and nationwide rallies for reform leaving many immigrants seeking a reprieve from a constant fear of deportation.

Raul Rios and his family friend Byron Rocael de Leon were walking to the grocery store in New Orleans in August 2013. Rios’ 4-year-old son was riding a tricycle along with them. An SUV passed them, but then lingered on the side of the road. A police officer got out of the vehicle and told them not to move, while an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) handcuffed Rios and Rocael de Leon without asking for identification.

As the men were being arrested, one of the law enforcement agents pushed the 4-year-old and kicked his tricycle. Rios told the ICE agent that he was a citizen, but the agent responded by saying, “shut the fuck up; you’re going to make it worse for yourself.”

Rios and Rocael de Leon were fingerprinted inside the SUV, and the ICE agent discovered that Rios was indeed a citizen. Rocael de Leon, whom Rios’ son regards as an uncle, was arrested and deported a few months later. Rios’ young son was traumatized by the incident and now fears law enforcement officers.

This is just one of several alarming stories included in a recent report by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice on the realties that Latinos face under the nation’s current immigration policies. The report specifically attacks ICE’s Criminal Alien Removal Initiative (CARI), a secretive law enforcement pilot program rolled out in New Orleans in 2013.

ICE, which has been ordered by the Obama administration to prioritize the deportation of dangerous undocumented criminals and repeat immigration offenders, has claimed that CARI teams do not conduct “raids” and only go to “preselected” locations to arrest specific individuals.

Stories chronicled in the New Orleans report, however, reveal an alarming pattern of racial profiling and harassment. ICE agents conducted indiscriminate raids at grocery stories, apartment buildings, Bible study groups and parks, picking up anyone who looks Latino and fingerprinting them in mobile units to determine whether they are citizens. One man arrested under CARI told civil rights advocates that ICE agents joked that they were “hunting” while they scoped the streets in a van and rounded up five additional detainees. Several local residents were wrenched from their spouses and children and deported under the program.

In November, the Latino and civil rights community in New Orleans fought back when hundreds of demonstrators blocked an intersection in the city’s business district, resulting in 22 arrests.

“I’m doing this for Juan Carlos Castillo Salazar, who was arrested by ICE after he dropped off his 5-year-old little girl at the school bus stop,” said Mario Mendoza Molina, a member of the Congress of Day Laborers, when he was arrested during the protest in November. “I’m doing this for Irma Esperanza Lemus, who cried when ICE agents handcuffed her and took her away in front of her husband and two children.”

A National Movement

Molina is not alone. The past year has been a rollercoaster ride for immigrant rights activists across the country. While Congress debated a massive immigration reform package that would hit a dead end in the House, immigrant rights activists across the country clashed with border patrol and law enforcement during 2013 as massive rallies and direct actions erupted nationwide.

In Tucson, about 100 people gathered outside a church in October and attempted to surround border patrol vehicles and prevent two men from being deported. Days later, immigration activists chained themselves to deportation buses full of detainees to stop expedited deportation hearings in Tucson. Similar direct actions have also been organized in New Jersey, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities across the country.

In Washington, the White House says it has made immigration reform a priority, but Congressional deadlock has put an overhaul to the nation’s immigration system on the back burner. In June, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill that would provide a long and complicated path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people in America, but the House refused to take it up, with Speaker John Boehner saying that House Republicans wanted to take their own piecemeal approach to reform.

By the time the reform package made it to the House, several immigrant rights groups had already dropped their support for the bill due to “border surge” provisions tacked on by Republicans that would increase security along an already militarized border. Border militarization has contributed to an ongoing human rights crisis and rising numbers of deaths along migrant routes in the borderlands.

“The record-level detentions and deportations, as well as discriminatory and punitive policing programs would remain in place,” Catherine Tactaquin, executive director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, recently wrote of the stalled reform package. “There is almost no hope of ‘improving’ on this proposal through the current House legislative process. Let’s face it: It’s a pretty lousy situation.”

President Obama recently said that immigration reform is one of his top priorities for 2014, and observers point out that recent moves by Boehner’s office suggest that the House may take up immigration reform during the next year despite opposition from hardline Tea Party members who oppose giving undocumented people a path to citizenship and support harsh immigration policies that would expand deportation and detention efforts.

A recent poll shows that 63 percent of Americans favor allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens if they meet certain requirements, and Republicans are under pressure to appeal to a growing Latino voter block, giving some reformers hope that there will be more action in Congress on immigration reform in 2014.

Immigrant rights advocates did win some important victories in 2013. Responding to mounting pressure from youth and media activists, the Associate Press dropped the term “illegal immigrant” from its style guide, which is considered an industry standard for journalists. A growing movement of youth activists who have publically “come out” as undocumented has also put a human face on the immigration debate and changed dominant perceptions in the media.

The Deportation Crisis

The Obama administration deported 368,644 immigrants this year, a 10 percent drop from the 409,849 deported in 2012, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). President Obama has, however, deported 1.9 million people since taking office, more than any other president. The administration says that it is prioritizing the deportation of dangerous criminals and repeat immigration offenders, but federally mandated quotas are muddling that effort.

DHS is funded to deport 400,000 people a year and is supposed to hit that mark. ICE is required to detain an average of 34,000 individuals in jails and detention centers every day. Under this mandate, law enforcement officials may ignore alternatives to detention that would allow people who pose no public risk to be with their families while awaiting an immigration hearing.

Michael Tan, an immigrant rights attorney at the American Civil Liberty Union, said that Obama could make good on his promise to prioritize immigration reform while Congress plays politics by using his executive authority to address deportation and detention quotas. For example, Tan said, there’s nothing stopping the administration from interpreting mandatory detention provisions as not necessarily requiring physical lockup, and instead allow law enforcement to consider alternatives such as releasing detainees with an ankle bracelet. The administration could also clarify how long someone can be held in jail before receiving a deportation hearing.

“There are things that [the Obama administration] can do right now to protect families and make the lives of immigrants in our country a lot better,” Tan said.

Detention and deportation relief is perhaps the most pressing issue for immigrants today. Recent research by the Pew Research Center found that, by a ratio of 55 percent to 35 percent, Hispanic Americans think that being able to live and work in the United States without living in fear of deportation is more important than securing a path to citizenship.

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