Inflicting terror on immigrant communities

March 6, 2017

Nicole Colson reports on the new wave of attacks on undocumented immigrants and what it will take to stand up to the Trump administration's racist assault.

THEY TOOK Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez as he was on his way to drop his daughters off at school.

Footage of Avelica-Gonzalez's arrest, caught on video by his 13-year-old daughter on her cell phone, showed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers handcuffing the man before driving him away, as his distraught children sobbed uncontrollably in the family's car.

Joel Guerrero was grabbed at what he thought would be a routine check-in with immigration authorities--something he had done without incident every six months for more than six years.

Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old who came to the U.S. when she was just 7 years old, was snatched just moments after she finished speaking out at a press conference to denounce the escalating attacks on her community, including the arrest of her father and brother weeks earlier.

THESE ARE just a few of the horror stories of the terror being inflicted on immigrants by the Trump administration.

Making good on threats he made during his campaign, Trump has ramped up the deportation machine, ordering, among other things, that immigration authorities "[e]nsure that aliens ordered removed from the United States are promptly removed," as an executive order reads.

Then-candidate Donald Trump visits the Mexican border in Laredo, Texas
Then-candidate Donald Trump visits the Mexican border in Laredo, Texas

This has translated to a mass crackdown on those in the U.S. without documentation, regardless of their history or circumstances, their ties to the community, the families that rely on them, or what they might face upon return to countries that are, in many cases, wracked with violence and poverty.

The Trump administration claims it is simply rounding up "dangerous" immigrants--those with prior convictions and deportation orders first among them--in order to make America "safe."

In reality, many of those being arrested and deported are guilty of "crimes" that shouldn't be called crimes at all. In other cases, green cards were revoked and deportation orders issued after an individual missed a scheduled hearing because they were unable to read notices in English or when paperwork was sent to a wrong address.

Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, for example, was ordered to be ripped away from his children because of a DUI conviction from nearly 10 years ago and an improper car registration from more than 20 years ago.

In Joel Guerrero's case, officials recently decided to enforce a 2014 deportation order--one that he didn't know had been issued--stemming from a misdemeanor drug conviction and a missed court date.

"We got married last month," Guerrero's wife Jessica explained to the New York Daily News. "I'm six months pregnant. He's working. He pays taxes. He was doing everything right. At this point, what's done is done, but it was a single, small pot plant in North Carolina. Yes, he made a mistake, but this is an extreme punishment for something that's over a decade old at this point."

THERE ARE nearly 1 million "fugitive aliens" in the U.S.--immigrants who have been ordered deported, in some cases years ago, but who have remained in the U.S., often with families, including children who are U.S. citizens, and deep roots in their communities.

Most are guilty of little more than seeking a life in the U.S. "[S]lightly less than one in five people facing deportation has been convicted of a crime in the United States," the New York Times reported, but if there are deportation orders in place, regardless of why, those who are apprehended or who turn themselves in when ordered can be scheduled for deportation almost immediately.

Plenty of undocumented people without any criminal record also have been swept up in a dragnet supposedly aimed at convicted felons, to hear Donald Trump tell it.

Last month, when ICE agents came to Manuel Mosqueda Lopez's Los Angeles home looking for someone else, they discovered that the 50-year-old house painter was himself undocumented and put him on a bus to Tijuana, Mexico--until lawyers were able to temporarily stop his deportation.

Despite the myths perpetrated by the right, undocumented immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than any other demographic group. In fact, studies show undocumented immigrants are incarcerated at lower rates than the documented population.

And many of the "crimes" being used as a pretext for deportation are victimless. One commonplace violation is using a fake Social Security number to gain employment. What this actually amounts to is undocumented people contributing to the Social Security system that will pay benefits to other people, while never being able to access it for themselves.

As the Atlantic's Peter Beinart wrote:

Trump's allies may believe that sneaking into the United States, or using a fake social security number to get a job, predisposes people to rob, rape, or kill. But the evidence does not bear this out. So if Trump's goal is increasing public safety, publishing a list of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants is irrational. It's like publishing a list of crimes committed by people with red hair.

If, however, Trump's goal is stigmatizing a vulnerable class of people, then publicizing their crimes--and their crimes alone--makes sense. It's been a tactic bigots have used more than a century.

WHILE TRUMP may be escalating attacks on the undocumented, the response from the Democrats has been, at best, muted, in large part because the deportation machine was running at top speed by Barack Obama, who sent 2.5 million across the border during his presidency. As the Nation's Laila Lalami noted:

A significant percentage of those deported under Obama had committed only minor offenses, such as traffic violations or drug possession. Only after a huge outcry by immigration advocates did the administration change course and begin restricting its deportation orders to serious criminal offenders.

Now, if Trump gets his way, even worse may be in store for some of the most vulnerable undocumented immigrants. According to Reuters, the Department of Homeland Security is now considering an unbelievably cruel proposal to separate undocumented women from their children when they are caught crossing into the U.S.

The policy change would allow the government to keep parents in custody as they wait for asylum hearings and fight deportation orders. Marielena Hincapie, executive director at the National Immigration Law Center, told Reuters that if implemented, the new policy "could create lifelong psychological trauma, especially for children that have just completed a perilous journey from Central America."

For many of these undocumented who face deportation to Central and South America, their very lives are in danger.

The New York Times reported on the story of a an undocumented immigrant named Juan, who fled Colombia for the U.S. six years ago. He is scheduled for deportation on March 21 after being denied a request for asylum--despite the fact that he says he came to the U.S. after paramilitary forces in Colombia tried to kill him.

"I feel hopeless," Juan told the Times. "My wife is here, my son is here. They are my world. I have nowhere else to run to. I've run out of options."

THE ARRESTS taking place in immigrant communities seem designed to inflict maximum terror on a population already under constant threat. And they are being carried out by a wing of law enforcement only too happy to embrace its racist marching orders.

Take the case of Daniela Vargas, the 22-year-old who was taken into custody by ICE agents after a press conference advocating for the undocumented. Vargas had previously received protected status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but her status expired when she didn't have the money for a fee to renew it.

Despite the fact that she doesn't have a criminal record and recently filed to renew her DACA status, she was arrested--likely as payback for speaking out publicly after her father and brother were arrested by ICE in February. According to her attorney, the agents who pulled her car over after she spoke at the press conference reportedly told her, "You know who we are, you know what we're here for."

"It could be retaliation," Vargas' lawyer, Abby Peterson, told the Huffington Post. "They had been reading about her in the news, they had seen her at this press conference...[maybe] they didn't want to hear it anymore."

On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly touted his "support" from ICE. He was, in typical form, exaggerating--federal agencies don't endorse candidates.

But the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, a union that represents 5,000 federal immigration officers and law enforcement support staff, did endorse Trump on the basis that he would "protect American jobs, wages and lives." Additionally, 11 leaders of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 16,500 agents, also backed Trump's candidacy.

Trump's executive orders on immigration are a green light for the racists inside these agencies. This has given rise to incidents like a February one in which Customs and Border Protection agents demanded "documents" from all of the passengers on a domestic flight from San Francisco to New York City, as they searched for an individual who had been ordered removed by an immigration judge after a criminal conviction. (It was later determined the person in question was not on the flight.)

The fact that the demand to see passengers' documentation was likely unconstitutional didn't deter them.

Or there was the reported questioning--for nearly two hours--of Muhammad Ali Jr., son of famed boxed Muhammad Ali, at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport upon returning from a trip to Jamaica in February.

During questioning, Ali says agents repeatedly asked about his religious beliefs. "I was shocked more than anything," Ali told the Courier-Journal, adding, "Should I have had to say I'm a Christian to get back into the U.S.?"

Australian children's book author Mem Fox said that when she was detained by immigration officials at Los Angeles International Airport last month as she traveled from Australia to the U.S. for a conference, she and others--in particular, an Iranian woman who spoke Farsi--were berated for hours by Customs and Border Protection agents. Fox recounted:

I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don't have my power?

That's the heartbreak of it. Remember, I wasn't pulled out because I'm some kind of revolutionary activist, but my God, I am now. I am on the front line. If we don't stand up and shout, good sense and good will not prevail, and my voice will be one of the loudest.

FOX'S RESPONSE is the right one: Relentless opposition to Trump, his racist policies and all those who enable them--and relentless solidarity with those who are under attack.

The emergency networks springing into formation in cities and neighborhoods across the country--drawing hundreds and more who say they will turn out to confront raids and arrests--will be vital to stopping the deportation machine.

So will the pledge by a network of churches and private homeowners to act as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants and their families--and the universities and even cities that are following suit under pressure from community members to take a stand.

Such acts of solidarity--large and small--will be crucial in the coming weeks and months to beat back the bigotry of the Trump administration and send a message that we won't allow racist scapegoating.

As Ricardo Mireles, executive director of the school that two of Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez's daughters attend, said:

We held a school-wide assembly today for all of our students and staff so that we can be in solidarity with the family. What we wanted to communicate to our families was that we are in solidarity with that family, and we are in solidarity with all families. And we are going to stand together if this were to happen again.

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