Starting on Monday Feb. 6 and reaching a crescendo on Thursday and Friday, February 9 and 10, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the immigration law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, carried out immigration raids across the country arresting at least 680 people and beginning deportation proceedings against them.
Although the government claims the people seized are all “hardened criminals,” information from the communities where the raids took place indicates many had no criminal records at all, other than being undocumented. In other cases, the offenses of which they were accused were minor and nonviolent. What crimes those arrested are supposed to have committed is impossible to know at this point because the government has not released such information.
ICE claims these were routine enforcement actions similar to those carried out under the Obama administration and are not something new under President Trump. However, their “routine” nature is being questioned at the grassroots and in Congress.
On Tuesday Feb. 14, acting ICE director Thomas Homan cancelled a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus where he was likely to have been raked over the coals. He dodged the meeting on the spurious grounds that this was not a “bi-partisan” group” and therefore violated a supposed rule for such meetings.
The Obama administration did carry out the deportation of more than 2.5 million people. But the strong immigrants’ rights movement in the country – supported by organized labor, the churches, African Americans, Latinos and other important mass sectors – had pushed Obama to change course as the 2012 elections approached.
In 2012, Obama set up the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for undocumented youth, known as “Dreamers”, who had been brought to the United States as minors. In 2014, the president tried to add to this the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program for undocumented parents of U.S. citizen youth.
This, however, was blocked by Republican litigation in the federal courts. Obama also established criteria for deportation of undocumented immigrants which focused narrowly on individuals who had been convicted of serious crimes. People who had only violated immigration laws and not engaged in serious criminal activities, especially if they had families here and roots in U.S. communities, were the lowest priority for deportation. “Prosecutorial discretion” was to be used to decide whom to arrest and deport.
Part of Donald Trump’s election strategy was not only to demagogically harvest the votes of people who already were prejudiced against Latino and other immigrants, but to intensify those prejudices and spread false information so as to increase the fear and hate felt toward the targeted groups.
Trump said that he was going to quickly get rid of what he claimed are three million “criminal” aliens in the country. The claim raised questions as to whether three million of the eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States are actually serious and dangerous criminals. Some evidence suggests that undocumented immigrants have a lower rate of serious crime than the general population.
But when, in late January, Trump issued several of his now notorious “Executive Orders” covering immigration enforcement and who is to be prioritized for deportation, things became clearer, and more frightening.
One of Trump’s executive orders promises to abolish the DAPA program entirely and to allow no new applications to DACA. Persons who currently have work permits under DACA will not have them renewed when they expire. Also, the policy of “prosecutorial discretion,” of not routinely deporting “Dreamers” or parents of U.S. citizens, will be dropped.
That executive order potentially harms millions of honest working young people who, under DACA, were able to “come out of the shadows,” work honestly, support their families in many cases, go to school or college, and plan for their futures. These people will be driven back into the shadows, subject to super-exploitation as they are forced to work for subminimum wages without any labor rights.
Another executive order expands the Obama administration’s criteria for priority arrest and deportation, rules which authorized the removal of people convicted of serious crimes, to people “charged” with such crimes, or “believed” by the police to represent a criminal danger.
The measure dramatically lowers the threshold required to brand someone a criminal meriting deportation. Under this order, people who committed infractions such as using a false Social Security number to get a job are high priority for deportation, which was not the case under the Obama administration.
Using a false Social Security number is often the only way undocumented immigrants are able to obtain work. This means that they contribute to the Social Security Trust Fund, but, for fear of being detected, they cannot apply to get Social Security benefits. They are, in effect, subsidizing the Social Security system to the tune of billions of dollars.
A notorious case reported on in the media recently was that of Mrs. Guadalupe García de Rayos, an undocumented mother in Phoenix, Ariz. She had been in the United States since she was 14 years old – more than two decades. Earlier, she had been prosecuted for using a false Social Security number, an imaginary one she had simply made up to get work, but had been regularly checking in with ICE as required. She had had no further trouble with the law.
Under President Obama’s criteria, she would have been the lowest priority for deportation, but when she went to her regular check-in on Wednesday Feb. 9, she was abruptly arrested based on the old Social Security conviction and deported – in spite of the fact that she has U.S. citizen children. It is feared that she could be the first of many.
Under Trump’s new rules, a person can be branded as a criminal alien not only if they are found guilty of a crime, but also if they are simply charged with a crime. No guilty verdict from a court is necessary. The Trump criteria open up the possibility that a person could be deported on the mere decision of an ICE officer, without being found guilty or even charged with a crime.
Another new practice will be the arrest and deportation of immigrants on the basis of alleged gang ties. The trouble is that there is no generally accepted definition of what is a gang, and in some areas, the police are known to claim young people are gang members who turn out not to be.
This past week, it was revealed that in San Francisco, a 23 year-old undocumented immigrant covered by the DACA program, Daniel Ramirez Madina, has been arrested and is being processed for deportation. The immigration authorities claim Mr. Ramirez confessed to being a gang member, but his attorneys claim that this “confession” was the result of police pressure. Mr. Ramirez has no criminal record.
Recall the many, many cases of abusive police behavior we have seen in this country recently and in the past – the racism, the corruption, the abuse of power. Recall the Ramparts police scandal in Los Angeles a decade-and-a-half ago, in which police, among other things, set up innocent Latino immigrants for deportation.
Under Trump’s new rules, local police who happen to dislike certain people will have free rein to declare that they are a danger to society and, in cooperation with ICE, arrange for them to be arrested and deported.
To allow punitive action to be taken without a finding of guilt turns the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head. That is a bad precedent to set, and not only for immigrants. It is also something that will greatly increase the danger of racial profiling by the police while undermining all civil liberties.