Immigration arrests unleash debate: Where should line be drawn?

An El Paso County judge said the arrest of an undocumented immigrant seeking help from abuse 'is not who we are.' But others say rule of law must come first.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Supporters of immigrants' rights march downtown Washington during a protest Feb. 16. Immigrants around the US stayed home from work and school Thursday to demonstrate how important they are to America's economy and its way of life, and many businesses closed in solidarity, in a nationwide protest called A Day Without Immigrants.

Last week, in the middle of a nationwide immigration sweep, federal agents surrounded an El Paso, Texas, county courtroom, a place where victims of domestic violence – women, mostly – go to obtain orders of protection against their abusers.

Their target: an undocumented transgender woman. A survivor of numerous beatings from her live-in boyfriend, the woman, who court documents show had a history of criminal convictions and previous deportations, was seeking help. She had just been granted an order of protection before agents took her by the arm, escorted her outside, and took her into custody.

It’s a case that has shocked and outraged El Paso county officials, who called the enforcement action in their courtroom an unprecedented federal intrusion into a space meant to ensure their community’s public safety. Immigration advocates see it as another sign that the Trump administration plans to widen the scope of its priorities as it aggressively seeks to find and deport a wide range of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

“It’s just not tolerable,” said El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza, during a phone conference with reporters on Thursday. “We have really worked very hard in this community to reach out to victims of domestic violence to come forward, to make sure that they have access to law enforcement and the courthouse, and this puts a horrible chilling effect on this whole effort.”

Officials said no one could recall an incident in which immigration authorities entered a courtroom during a proceeding, posting agents inside and at each exit.

“And especially not in a courtroom that is reserved for victims of domestic violence,” said county attorney Jo Anne Bernal.

“This is not who we are,” said El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar. “What happened last week is not who we are as a community, and it’s not who we are as a nation. This is unacceptable.”

The incident – and the broader immigration sweep – has unleashed a visceral debate over where the line should be drawn between humane ideals and the letter of the law.

While the Obama administration carried out immigration raids much larger than the ones last week, it had a careful policy of prioritizing criminals, as well as written humanitarian guidelines that made exceptions for some family situations and also an immigrant’s “status as a victim.” In many cases, immigration officials followed a “catch and release” policy.

So far, it appears the Trump administration is setting aside such humanitarian considerations. While the executive order signed in the first week of Mr. Trump’s presidency maintains a focus on undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes, it classifies nearly every undocumented immigrant as a priority, without listing any discretionary guidelines for possible exemptions.

Fulfilling a campaign promise

It’s a hard line that many Americans and immigration analysts support wholeheartedly. And as the president himself noted, it fulfills the promises of his signature issue during the campaign.

“In a real prioritization system, the ‘bad hombres’ are job one,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of The Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization in Washington that supports the administration’s more aggressive approach to enforcement. “But that’s not where it ends.” When immigration agents target known criminals, he says, they should also arrest any “collaterals,” or other unauthorized immigrants discovered during the course of its sweeps.

“Yes, there has to be, and always is, some wiggle room in the law,” says Mr. Krikorian. “The problem is, we’ve had nothing but wiggle room for eight years. And now the very concept of enforcing the law against anybody is considered an outrage, and frankly, you’re a convicted felon – you don’t have a lot to complain about.”

In January, after signing his executive order at the Department of Homeland Security, Trump told immigration officials that they would now be enforcing the law more vigorously.

“For too long your offices and agents haven’t been allowed to properly do their jobs,” the president said. “But that’s all about to change...From here on out, I’m asking all of you to enforce the laws of the United States of America. They will be enforced and enforced strongly.”

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that the administration was considering using up to 100,000 members of the National Guard to help detain undocumented immigrants, according to a draft Homeland Security memo obtained by the AP. White House press secretary Sean Spicer emphatically denied the report, calling it "100 percent not true," but said he could not absolutely deny that the proposal had ever been discussed.

Regardless, the administration has deployed expansive priorities and aggressive tactics. They have led to the deportation of an undocumented mother of two US-born children, who had checked in with immigration authorities in Phoenix each of the past eight years. Though convicted of using a false Social Security number, she was not considered a priority for deportation since she had been in the country since she was 14 and had obeyed instructions since then. When she checked in this time, however, she was deported to Mexico.

“But she’s not separated from her children, because her children should be going with their mom,” says Krikorian, who says humanitarian exemptions should only be determined by a judge and based on federal law. “There’s no reason they can’t live with her. She never saw the United States until she was a teenager, so what’s so shocking that her children should be with their mom in a country they hadn’t seen either?”

Arrest of a 'DREAMer'

Yet many argue that the ripple effects of such an aggressive policy will only send undocumented immigrants underground.

This week, an undocumented mother of four in Denver, Jeanette Vizguerra, skipped her own appointment with immigration officials, instead seeking refuge in the basement of a Unitarian church.

And advocates reacted with alarm after ICE agents arrested a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant in Seattle, Daniel Ramirez Medina, father of a three-year-old son and a recipient of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Officials said he was a self-admitted gang member, which his attorneys vehemently deny, pointing out that he had been vetted twice by immigration officials, who gathered his biometric data and twice conducted criminal background checks.

“When ICE detained Daniel, the Trump administration betrayed the promise that the federal government made to Daniel and everyone else with DACA,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center, in a phone conference with reporters on Wednesday. “This betrayal is dangerous not just for him, but for all of us. It undermines our faith in the promises that the federal government makes to all of us to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.”

Reacting to the new aggressive enforcement landscape, a spontaneous call for a nationwide “day without immigrants” led to thousands of immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented, to stay home from work or school on Thursday.

Spreading virally on the social media platforms Facebook and WhatsApp, the #ADayWithoutImmigrants protest happened without the help of any advocacy organizations.

'Already had their time in court'

Yet even as advocates worry that the Trump administration’s aggressive approach to immigration enforcement could force undocumented workers underground, critics note that the undocumented transgender woman in El Paso had been deported numerous times and had herself been arrested for serious crimes, including possession of stolen mail and assault, according court documents cited by The El Paso Times, which first reported the woman’s arrest.

“If you can’t agree to have those people deported, those who have already had their time in court and have been deported, I don’t know what you can agree on,” says Marguerite Telford, director of communications at The Center for Immigration Studies. “At some point, the safety of American citizens should come into play. At some point there needs to be some balance of the victims who get so little attention.”

Attorney General Esparza doesn’t disagree, noting that El Paso county jails regularly honor federal detainer requests and turn over undocumented immigrants in custody.  

Yet he and other officials remain outraged at the “unprecedented” aggressive actions of the ICE agents who decided to stake out a domestic violence hearing. Nevertheless, according to the agency’s website, courthouses are explicitly not include among the “sensitive locations” agents are instructed to avoid when carrying out enforcement actions, such as schools, places of worship, and even public demonstrations.  

'They came into the courthouse'

“I don’t think it matters what your status is in the country, I think everyone has the right to be free of violence and to live in a safe community,” Esparza said. “My main concern is that they came into the courthouse. And I think that sends a horrible message to the victims of domestic violence whether or not they’re actually going to have the ability to seek justice in our courthouse.”

Officials, too, have raised questions about the sworn affidavit submitted by the ICE agents who apprehended the woman. The agents’ account makes no mention of entering the county courthouse, but describes approaching her on the sidewalk before making the arrest.

The officials are scheduled to meet with Congressman Beto O’Rourke and ICE officials on Friday, and they plan to bring up what appears to be a misleading account of agents’ actions, county attorney Bernal said. She added that since the only other person who had been informed of the hearing was the woman’s abuser, it seems likely that he was the one who tipped off the agency.

Local domestic violence advocates also decried the agency’s actions on Thursday.

“For persons who are survivors of violence and are undocumented, it’s even harder for them to reach out,” said Stephanie Karr, executive director of the Center Against Sexual & Family Violence in El Paso, who also joined the conference call with reporters on Thursday.

“And while we continue to encourage them to do that, we are afraid that the result of the action of agents at our courthouse is that those individuals who may gather enough courage to come forward may be increasingly reluctant to do so, because of fear of being deported,” she said.

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