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ICE Creates Climate of Fear in Rhode Island

Activists have been scrambling to inform immigrants in the state about their rights.
 
 
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All day on July 15, the activist community in Providence, R.I. had the sense that something was about to happen. As an immigration panel convened by Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri met, rumors were flying about possible raids and arrests throughout the state.

In the early evening, calls began pouring in to an immigration hotline and to activists' cell phones. Dozens of people were under arrest following raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at six of the state's courthouses. Soon, supporters of a coalition of immigrant advocacy organizations in Rhode Island had assembled in front of the ICE headquarters in downtown Providence.

"Within a couple of hours there were 200 people at ICE downtown who knew people had been detained and were trying to figure out how to let them know that we support them," said Rachel Miller, the director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice. "And also to let ICE know, as much as they try, they don't operate in secret."

Since then, about half a dozen activist groups -- in addition to state legislators and attorneys working pro bono -- have been scrambling to help the 31 janitorial and maintenance workers detained that day and to inform other immigrants in the state about their rights in an increasingly hostile climate.

"For the last two years we've been organizing against the pretty virulent anti-immigrant sweep which began politically at the State House," Miller said. "The anti-immigrant policies that people are trying to get passed at the State House represent a huge threat to civil liberties and people's basic rights."

In March, Carcieri instituted an executive order cracking down on illegal immigration and requiring state agencies and contractors to use the federal "E-Verify" system to check employees' immigration status. President Bush issued a similar order in June for federal contractors.

The 31 people detained in July's courthouse raids were all employees of two state contractors, Falcon Maintenance and Tri-State Enterprises. Thirty of the workers have now been released on bond or for humanitarian reasons, but they still face court dates and possible deportation. They may even see criminal charges for identity theft and fraud, and some are forced to wear ankle bracelets and conform to an 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew, organizers said. One man decided not to fight his deportation order and returned to his home country, according to a lawyer representing some of those detained.

Alison Foley, a private attorney who has been working pro bono to assist some of the people arrested in the raids, said that several of them are applying for political asylum or for permission to stay in the United States for domestic violence reasons. But she expects that most will have to return to their countries or origin. "That's the unfortunate reality of immigration law -- once people are caught up in the system their chances of winning are small no matter how strong their cases are," she said. "The system is very slanted against the immigrant."

Miller and others said they believe Carcieri and some state legislators are looking for a scapegoat in a time of increasing economic hardship in Rhode Island, which is losing jobs and residents at a rate faster than almost any other state. Even the normally right-leaning editorial board of the Providence Journal wrote that Carcieri is setting up a straw man with this issue, noting that a Rhode Island College opinion poll in June found that only 4% of Rhode Islanders think immigration is "the biggest problem facing" the state. By comparison, 33% said the economy is the top issue.

Steven Brown, director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that, unfortunately, he does not believe the executive order can be challenged on constitutional grounds. If some state legislators had succeeded in passing a bill to require all business owners to use E-Verify, he said, the ACLU would have contested the legislation, but the governor's mandate applies only to state workers and contractors. When Carcieri issued the order in March, lawyers for the ACLU put together a memo on the issue noting that it will "encourage and exacerbate racial profiling in the state, burden small organizations and businesses, create bureaucratic difficulties for many citizens and legal immigrants, and cost the state unknown amounts of money."

But, the lawyers concluded, "It will now be up to the General Assembly to counteract this unfortunate executive foray."

With the assumption that they must deal with the executive order, at least for now, several groups have come together to counter what organizers called a "climate of fear" pervading the immigrant community. In the immediate aftermath of the raids, Miller said, her organization served as a clearinghouse for those affected and their supporters. Now, she is working on a conference set for Labor Day weekend to explore some of the labor abuses taking place with state contractors, while other groups have taken over the day-to-day work of raising money, supporting families with rent and food assistance, and providing legal assistance to the detainees.

Shannah Kurland, strategy and development coordinator for the Olneyville Neighborhood Association (ONA) in Providence, said that many groups are working together to provide a range of services for immigrants. The ONA has set up a hotline for people needing assistance with immigration issues.

"In the short term there's all kind of follow-up just helping people put together what they need to do for the folks who are able to get out on bond," Kurland said. "Then longer-term, it's figuring out how do we shape our organizing efforts to make sure people know their rights for the future."

Michelle Mejia Donado of the International Institute of Rhode Island said that her group is also holding "know your rights" sessions for people around issues like whether they have to open the door to police officers or answer questions when detained.

"I'm almost positive that there will be more [raids], but I don't know when, I don't know how," she said. "Even the people who are legalized in this country are fearful. It's a pretty scary thing for you to just be working and someone coming up and grabbing you."

In the days after the raids, she noted, many employers reported that immigrant workers -- documented or not -- were not turning up for their jobs. Miller said that the raids go to the heart of the workers' rights efforts of Rhode Island Jobs for Justice.

"Our message around the executive order and the anti-immigrant bills, around all of it, is that our immigration system is so fundamentally broken we clearly need a new path," she said. "None of this serves Rhode Island."

Rachael Scarborough King is a freelance writer and a beat reporter for the New Haven Register.

 
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