Immigrant rights advocates say that despite the cloud of fear hanging over communities in the first 100 days of the Trump administration, there is also a growing and increasingly organized resistance.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of people apprehended for removal,” Melissa Chua, immigration director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told reporters on a national press call organized by New America Media and Ready California. “It’s not just growing infrastructure [for future deportations]…we’re seeing it in reality.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement made 21,362 arrests from January 20 to March 13 of this year, a third more than during the same period in 2016, according to numbers requested by The Washington Post. The figures include 5,441 non-citizens with no criminal record, double the number during the same time last year.
The statistics reflect a shift in priorities from the Obama administration, which sought to prioritize certain criminals and recent arrivals for deportation. Under Trump, the deportation priorities have expanded so much that they can be used to target almost any undocumented immigrant.
Immigrant and refugee rights advocates say the effect on immigrant communities is palpable.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), described it as “one of the most horrendous periods in American history for immigrant families.”
“What we’re seeing,” explained Salas, “is just a harsher way by which DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] is dealing with all matters of immigration, especially when it comes to stays of removal or requests for relief.”
Over 38 percent of the individuals detained in the Feb. 9 ICE raids in Southern California, for example, had only minor infractions, many of them from years ago, according to Salas.
“The other thing that we’re seeing,” she said, “is that they’re being harsher when it comes to individuals who had … stays of removal.
“ICE enforcement is going back and making decisions about those cases,” Salas explained. “Instead of continuing their stays of removal, they’re challenging their stays of removal, their administrative closure.”
Since taking office, Trump has signed executive orders that call for “sweeping changes on immigration,” said Chua of IRC, adding, however, that “many of these proposed changes face some real, significant hurdles.”
Some, like the construction of a border wall, can’t be implemented without funding. Others have been blocked by the courts, including the administration’s attempt to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities; and both versions of Trump’s “travel ban,” which aimed to curtail travel from certain predominantly Muslim countries and lower the number of refugees allowed admission into the United States.
“While many of the changes proposed by the administration may threaten refugees, immigrants and their families,” said Chua, “there still exist some real barriers to implementation, offering some real avenues of hope for immigrant communities.”
Advocates say many of these signs of hope lie outside of Washington.
“The immigrant rights movement is getting more organized, more powerful,” said Salas, pointing to local and state efforts that seek to protect the rights of immigrants across the country.
“What is incredible is the many cities and schools defending immigrants,” she said.
On May 1, she noted, about 30,000 people marched in the streets of Los Angeles to defend the rights of immigrants.
“California is moving forward a different vision, a different agenda,” said Salas. The state legislature has proposed various bills that seek to defend immigrants’ rights, from Senate Bill 54 (the California Values Act), introduced by Senate President pro Tem Kevin de LeÃ³n (D-Los Angeles), which would prevent state and local resources from being used to cooperate with deportations, to Senate Bill 6, by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, which would provide funding for legal services for immigrants facing deportation.
By contrast, Texas’ state legislature is moving further to the right on immigration. Texas Republicans just passed Senate Bill 4, a new law signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, which threatens law enforcement with jail time if they don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“In the mid-90s, California looked a lot like Texas does today,” said Salas, when California voters passed Prop 187. That ballot measure helped get its supporter, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, elected. But it led to an even bigger backlash against the GOP in the state, and is largely credited with the mobilization of Latino voters who have changed the face of California politics.
“Our community [in California] became engaged,” Salas said.
Texas, which has the nation’s second-largest Latino population after California, could see a similar backlash. “What we’re seeing in Texas is the same kind of mobilization,” she said.
Meanwhile, immigrant rights advocates are helping their communities stay informed.
“There are many families that are afraid,” said Adriana Guzman, immigrant outreach coordinator with Faith in Action Bay Area. “Our message to them is that there are steps they can take right now.”
Guzman said she is encouraging individuals to talk to a trusted legal services provider to see if they qualify for immigration relief, to make a family preparedness plan, including who will take care of children if something happens to their parents, and to carry the number of a trusted immigration attorney they can call in case of an emergency.
Most importantly, Guzman said, individuals should know that they have certain rights under the U.S. Constitution, regardless of their immigration status. These include the right to remain silent, the right to not open the door to agents without a warrant signed by a judge, the right to speak to a lawyer and make a phone call, and to not sign anything they don’t understand or that isn’t true.
“Thousands of community outreach workers are spanning their communities, delivering Know Your Rights presentations,” said Salas of CHIRLA. From helping eligible immigrants become citizens and register to vote, to protesting in the streets and supporting legal challenges in the courts, she said, immigrant rights advocates have been able to “make a statement in these very difficult days.”
Immigrant rights groups in Los Angeles are reporting that LAPD officers used handheld devices to scan the fingerprints of day laborers on the street corners. The incident, they say, raises serious concerns over privacy rights.
“These day laborers are not suspected of any criminal activity that we know of,” said Jennifer Lynch, author of a new report released Wednesday by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Immigration Policy Center that describes the episode.
“While most of us would be really suspect if a police officer randomly asked us to submit to a fingerprint scan on the street,” said Lynch, “when you feel like you have little voice in society and you lack power to challenge authority, I think harassment like this is a big issue.”
“The immigrant community is [already] scared of the police,” said Tony Bernade, a senior organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), who received the complaints from day laborers and street vendors last year.
CHIRLA and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) say they haven’t received similar complaints since, but add that it brings up larger questions of how and when these devices are used.
The ‘Blue Check’ Scanner
Sgt. Rudy Lopez of the LAPD said he doesn’t have any record of the incident in question, but says officers routinely use the portable fingerprint scanner, called a “Blue Check,” in the field. Since the technology was introduced in 2008, he said, officers have used it with more frequency.
Police officers are trained to use the device under three circumstances: when they have reasonable suspicion to detain someone; when they have probable cause to make an arrest; or in a “consensual encounter, with the permission of the person that they’re stopping,” said Lopez.
But immigrant advocacy groups claim that under these scenarios vulnerable populations such as day laborers may feel unable to say no.
“There’s a lot of gray area as to when a person feels they can and cannot say no,” agreed Lopez. “If an officer is overbearing, the way he’s talking to them, if he positions his car in a certain way, that all goes into the picture of if it’s consensual or not.”
The Blue Check system is connected to an internal computer system in the officers’ cars that matches the fingerprints to a criminal database. It takes two minutes to determine if there is a positive hit.
“Things that once seemed like science fiction – facial recognition photographs, palm and iris prints – are being shared through FBI and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] databases,” said Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to defending people’s rights in the digital world.
Biometrics – the unique markers that identify an individual – can include anything from physical biometrics (like fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scans, voice recognition, and DNA) to behavioral biometrics (like their signature, the patterns of their keystrokes on a computer, or even the way a person walks).
The federal government and all 50 states already collect fingerprints and DNA from almost anyone who comes into contact with the criminal justice system. In the past, fingerprints were stored as images. Today, Lynch said, the fingerprint data is turned into an algorithm. Checking two fingerprints against each other is now a mathematical calculation instead of a visual check; the same is true for a cheek swab, the most common form of collecting DNA.
More states are collecting other forms of biometrics as well, like facial recognition photographs and palm and iris prints, Lynch said. They share this data with the federal government through FBI and DHS databases. The government, in turn, shares the data across agencies through refugee and asylum programs, counter terrorism programs, and Secure Communities. The latter requires police to submit the fingerprints of anyone they arrest to federal immigration authorities.
The Next Frontier
DNA evidence is increasingly being collected from people who have no contact with the criminal justice system. New Department of Justice regulations require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to collect DNA from almost any non-U.S. person they detain. DHS estimates that the program could affect about 1 million people a year.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Lynch said, “We learned that the program could have been broader than anything we would have suspected because ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and DHS may be collecting DNA from juveniles as young as 14 and are considering collecting DNA from kids even younger than that.”
“The expansion of DNA collection is a real issue,” she said, “because DNA has the potential to reveal so much information about you – everything from who you are to your potential for disease to behavioral characteristics and possibly even sexual orientation.”
It also reveals who you’re related to, Lynch said, so even if your own DNA isn’t in the database, you could be identified through a family member who is in the database.
The next frontier for biometrics could be a government-issued ID card for all U.S. workers that contains digitally encoded biometric information. Sometimes called a “hardened Social Security card,” the biometric ID has been proposed by some members of Congress as a solution to employment verification of authorized workers.
Supporters argue the cards would be harder to counterfeit, though Wayne State University law professor Jonathan Weinberg says the costs outweigh the benefits.
With a price tag of some $40 billion to implement, plus another $3 billion in ongoing annual expenditures, Weinberg found in a report on the proposed cards that other issues -- including bad data and the continued potential for identity theft – make the plan unfeasible.
In addition, such cards would likely hurt the most vulnerable: the poor, sick, unemployed, homeless, low-income workers. And, he adds, it would “almost certainly be used for a broader range of purposes.”
For Bernade of CHIRLA, the signs are troubling.
“They are saving and keeping the data,” said Bernade. “Nobody knows how it’s going to be used.”
Civil rights groups are turning to a new potential ally in the fight against Alabama’s harsh immigration law: the state’s top automakers.
A coalition of six of the nation’s leading labor and human rights organizations sent out letters last month to Alabama’s top three car manufacturers – Honda, Hyundai and Daimler AG – to urge them to use their influence to convince lawmakers to repeal the law. So far they have received a response from Hyundai, which has agreed to meet with the advocates.
As Alabama state lawmakers begin a new legislative session this week, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Council of La Raza, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Service Employees International Union, United Auto Workers and Southern Poverty Law Center will be sending out more letters to the state’s top 50 foreign investors.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of LCCHR, is hoping that pressure from the state’s automotive industry and other foreign investors doing business in Alabama will convince state lawmakers that HB 56 is a “major black eye for Alabama.”
Alabama’s HB 56, known as the toughest immigration law in the country, has been criticized by both Democratic and Republican elected officials since it went into effect last year. The law, which requires police to ask people for their papers during routine traffic stops, also forbids the government from doing business with anyone who is undocumented. This means that Alabamans need to prove legal residence every time they want to do something as simple as renew their driver's license.
Several state Republicans, including Sen. Gerald Dial and Sen. Jabo Waggoner, have said they plan to make some changes to the law to address what they call its “unintended consequences.”
But national civil rights groups this week said tweaking the law is not enough.
“There is no fix for HB 56,” Henderson said, during a press conference Monday. “The only option that makes any sense – and the only option that will help Alabama restore its reputation in the U.S. and with the international business community – is for the legislature to approve a complete repeal of this obnoxious law.”
Foreign automakers have already seen the effects of the law on their own executives. In two separate, highly publicized incidents, Alabama police stopped a German executive at Mercedes-Benz and a Japanese Honda executive under the law.
Farmers in the state, meanwhile, have reported anecdotally that they don’t have enough workers in the fields since the law went into effect and many workers fled the state. While statistics are not available of how many people actually left Alabama since the law was implemented, the University of Alabama estimates that there has been an exodus of some 40,000 people.
In a recent cost-benefit analysis, University of Alabama economist Samuel Addy found that the state’s immigration law would also cost the state between $2.3 billion and $10.8 billion. According to his analysis, the law would lead to a reduction of between $56.7 and $264.5 million in state income and sales tax, and a reduction of 70,000 to 140,000 jobs.
Since HB 56 went into effect, Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said their hotline has received 5,164 “anguished” calls from families reporting that their water had been cut off; domestic violence victims who were told they would be reported to immigration authorities; lawyers who were told that they had to turn in their undocumented clients; Latino workers who were denied wages.
Cohen said the hotline has even received a “wave of reports” from various counties of U.S.-citizen children being denied food stamps they were legally entitled to, simply because their parents are undocumented.
In short, said Cohen, HB 56 has led to a “climate of fear.”
“Why would these 21st century companies want to do business in a state that is trying to replicate some of its most egregious sins of the past century?” asked Janet Murguia, president and CEO of National Council of La Raza (NCLR). “HB 56 harkens back to a very dark time in Alabama’s past that does not bear repeating.”
In fact, when Daimler first opened a Mercedes plant in Alabama in the 1990s, the company reportedly had concerns over the continued presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the state and made sure that the state had removed a Confederate flag it had flown at the capitol. Billy Joe Camp, director of the Alabama Development Office, told the Associated Press at the time, “I don’t believe we would have ever gotten this plant if the Confederate flag was atop the capitol.”
Next month, Alabamans will take to the streets to commemorate the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery. The message of the march this year will focus on two current legislative issues that recall a time when discrimination against communities of color was written into the law: this year’s voter suppression efforts and Alabama’s immigration law.
In building opposition to HB 56, civil rights groups are using a strategy similar to the approach they took in Arizona -- seek new allies in Alabama’s business community. NCLR was among the groups that called for a boycott of Arizona after that state enacted its controversial immigration law SB 1070. Reports estimate that as a result of the boycott, Arizona lost about $750 million.
“In Arizona,” Murguia observed, “we felt like the steps that we took have been validated. And we’ve seen, I think, a turning somewhat of the tide in Arizona, with the failure to pass more extreme legislation in this most recent legislature, but in particular, with the downfall of Russell Pearce, someone who was the architect of these laws.”
Murguia noted that Alabama has a different economic landscape and they are not calling for a boycott of the state, but are using “a similar approach, in looking at the economic power to push back” against a harsh immigration law that has already had economic consequences.
In April, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in a case brought by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who is challenging a federal judge’s move to block of some of her state law’s key provisions. The main provision in the Arizona law – which allows police to ask people for their papers in routine traffic stops – was replicated in the Alabama law.
“Obviously what the Supreme Court decides in that case will have a significant impact on Alabama,” noted Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But civil rights groups say they are not waiting for the court to address the problems in Alabama. As legislators begin their new session this week, civil rights leaders hope that the influence of the state’s auto industry will be the necessary push that will convince lawmakers to repeal HB 56.
Raul Cardenas just had his deportation case suspended, but he doesn’t feel like much has changed.
“I still cannot work. I still cannot support my family. I could still be deported,” said Cardenas. “I feel like I’m useless.”
Cardenas is among a group of people who have been identified as “low priority” for deportation in a pilot program being launched this week in Denver that is being seen as a test of the Obama administration’s new deportation policy.
Under the six-week pilot program, prosecutors in Denver’s Office of the Chief Counsel will review the immigration court’s entire docket of cases, which number about 7,700. They are suspending immigration hearings for six weeks in order to conduct the review.
The pilot program, which is also being launched in Baltimore, is part of the administration’s new national focus on prioritizing the deportation of those with criminal records. In a memo in June, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano encouraged the use of “prosecutorial discretion” so that the deportation cases of those who are identified as “low-priority” could be screened out of the system and put on hold.
Laura Lichter, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in Denver, called the review process a kind of “triage.”
“If properly implemented,” she said, “the current review will cut out those cases that common sense would agree are not high enforcement priorities, allowing ICE to focus on serious threats to our communities.”
But immigration advocates say that although it is a step in the right direction, the review doesn’t address the larger problem: Once their deportation cases are closed, undocumented immigrants will continue to live here without legal status.
“They’re putting the triage band-aid on our family, but they haven’t actually treated what the problem is,” says Judy Cárdenas, Raul’s wife.
Raul had worked for the same company for eight years when he found out the ID number on file for him belonged to a young girl. The father of three, two step sons and a daughter, turned himself in to take care of the ID question. After an hour and a half of being in custody, he was put on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold.
Raul’s case may have been closed, but that doesn’t solve the Cardenas family’s problem.
“Now we're even more in limbo than we were before,” says Judy, “because Raul can't leave the United States but he can't work to support his family here.”
The pilot program also doesn’t change the “deep structural problem” of an immigration system that is “built right now to cast a wide net,” explains Julie Gonzalez, director of organizing for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
The Obama administration, Gonzalez says, has taken a smart step in launching a case-by-case review to focus on deporting criminals. “And yet, today out in the street, across the state of Colorado, there are still local law enforcement officials who are forced to report people who are arrested for low-level traffic offenses, are forced to continue casting that wide net.”
The Secure Communities program, for example, which requires local police to share the fingerprints of all arrestees with federal immigration authorities, was originally touted as a program that would focus on deporting criminals. Yet, according to ICE data, nearly 60 percent of those deported under the program either had a minor misdemeanor or no criminal record.
In Denver, the case-by-case review beginning this week could present a potential for abuse, Gonzalez warns, as fraudulent notary publics and others try to use the announcement to promise people legal status in exchange for money.
“This is a very vulnerable population and people are desperate,” says Lichter of AILA. “It’s very easy for people to take advantage of the situation.” To help Denver residents avoid these scams, AILA is providing immigrants information about what the pilot program is, and what it isn’t: a path to legalization.
“What happens to the people if their case is closed? Will there be a way for them to support themselves?” asks Lichter. “Right now, this is a big open question.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Wednesday that it has deported a total of 392,000 people during the 2010 fiscal year. About 35,910 were the product of the Secure Communities program. Of these, half came from California.
According to the new figures, 195,772 convicted criminals were deported. Of these,150,227 were convicted of more serious crimes, and 45,545 were convicted of minor offenses such as traffic violations.
There were more than 23,000 more general deportations this year than in 2008, and 81,000 more deportations of criminals.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that the operation of programs such as Secure Communities are key to achieving this goal. Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of people arrested by local police agencies are shared with the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Currently, 650 jurisdictions across the country use the program. ICE expects this number to increase to 900 by next year.
Secure Communities has been seriously challenged by civil rights organizations. The government initially presented the program as voluntary. However, when jurisdictions such as San Francisco tried to opt out, it was not possible.
In California, where 38 of its 58 jurisdictions have implemented Secure Communities, 16,764 criminals were deported.
The day after Meg Whitman said that people who hire undocumented immigrants should be held accountable, a woman named Nicandra Diaz-Santillan came forward claiming to be her former housekeeper. She accused Whitman of knowingly employing an undocumented immigrant in her home for nine years.
Whitman denied the allegations, saying she fired Diaz-Santillan as soon as she found out the housekeeper was undocumented.
It’s the latest twist in Whitman's campaign to be the next governor of California, and it has political observers wondering how the news will affect her standing among Latino voters. The trouble is, where Latino voters stand on Whitman isn't exactly clear.
A poll released Thursday by the Public Policy Institute of California finds that Democrat Jerry Brown is leading his Republican opponent by 7 percentage points among Latino voters.
Two polls released last week presented two very different pictures: The Field Poll found Brown leading Whitman by just 3 percentage points among likely Latino voters, while an L.A. Times/USC poll by Latino Decisions found that Brown’s lead among the same group of voters was as much as 26 points.
Latinos have become some of the state's most sought-after voters, representing about one-fifth of California’s electorate. Whitman and Brown will even face off Saturday in a debate at California State University's Fresno campus, to be hosted by Univision and broadcast in Spanish—a first for a gubernatorial debate in the state.
But the wide variation in recent poll numbers has some political observers unsure about what they can expect from Latino voters in November.
“Both our survey and the LAT/USC survey were based on relatively small samples,” says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “Ours included 97 Latino likely voters, while the LAT/USC Poll included 209 Latino likely voters. Thus, the corresponding sampling errors of each poll are quite large.”
"There is considerable room for overlap between these two poll estimates," DiCamillo adds. "My advice from a statistical standpoint would be that the ‘true’ population value of Latino preferences in the governor's race falls somewhat in between these two estimates.”
The difference in the polling data may also reflect an inherent fallibility when it comes to predicting the so-called “Latino vote”—a term that includes both third-generation Californians and first-generation immigrants from Mexico to Argentina.
“It’s definitely a more diverse minority group,” admits Dr. Matt Barreto, a pollster with Latino Decisions and a political science professor at the University of Washington. “But we find very consistently that there’s a strong majority that identify as Latino, that have a shared experience with other Latinos in the U.S., and that’s especially pronounced in the wake of the [anti-illegal immigration] Arizona law … because when they pull you over, they don’t ask what generation you are.”
As a Republican in California, Whitman is going up against an anti-immigrant image the GOP has earned among Latinos that goes back to Prop. 187 in 1994.
“Most Latino voters have not forgiven the Republican Party for Prop. 187,” says Fernand Amandi, managing partner with Hispanic polling agency Bendixen & Amandi in Miami. “That feeling has been underscored in the last couple of years, that the Republican Party is not a friend of the Latino community in California.”
Prop. 187, introduced by Pete Wilson, aimed to ban undocumented immigrants from accessing social services. Instead, it sparked a backlash among Latino voters, which has been largely credited with a series of Democratic wins in the state. Wilson is now working behind the scenes as Whitman’s campaign chairman.
“There’s a saying in Spanish: Tell me the type of people you associate with, and I’ll tell you the type of person you are,” Amandi says. “The question is, Will Meg Whitman be able to win back support from the [Latino] community? Can she convince them that she’s a different kind of Republican?”
For her part, Whitman is advertising extensively in Spanish-language media, focusing on jobs, and performing a delicate balancing act on the issue of immigration. She has said she opposes sanctuary cities, driver’s licenses for undocumented, and a path to legalization. But she also has said she would not have signed the recent immigration bill enacted in Arizona and that she would support a guest-worker program.
But political observers say actions by the GOP nationally—including its opposition to the DREAM Act in the U.S. Senate and its sponsorship of Arizona’s new immigration law, SB 1070—have already galvanized the Latino electorate in California.
“That whole [Arizona] narrative has once again caused Latinos to be proactive in voting,” says Fernando Guerra, political science professor at Loyola Marymount. “Spanish-language media has pushed that message.”
The largest Spanish-language newspaper, La Opinión in Los Angeles, has also been carefully tracking the way immigration has played out in the campaign. A May 26 editorial called the GOP gubernatorial primary race “nasty,” as Whitman and Steve Poizner took jabs at each other to see who was more conservative on immigration. Editors encouraged readers to remember how ugly things had gotten when they went to the polls in November.
While some Spanish-language media blamed the recent failure of the DREAM Act on Republican senators, an editorial in the Sept. 26 edition of La Opinión blamed both parties—Democrats for introducing the measure during an election year, and Republicans for opposing it.
“What a dilemma Democrats and Republicans present for Latinos,” the editors wrote. “Democrats raise expectations, even if false, to win our voters’ support. Republicans are ready to spread slanderous rumors about our young people to win the votes of those resistant to immigration. One group wants to placate Latinos and the other to set them on fire.”
But despite these conflicting messages at a national level, political observers don’t expect Latinos in California to sit out the November elections.
Latinos know the stakes in this election, according to Guerra, who expects Latino voter turnout to be only slightly lower than that of the general population.
Polling data is only one possible indicator of the Latino vote, he notes; political observers also look at trend data—the voting patterns Latinos have shown in the past. “The actual votes show that Latinos have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidates for governor, senator, and president, by over 20 points,” Guerra says. “If you go by those trend lines, there is nothing to suggest that anything’s changed.”
“I don’t think you see a tremendous antagonism toward Whitman as a candidate,” Guerra adds. “However, there is an antagonism towards the Republican Party of California, and she’s the candidate of that party.”
“The strategy for Republicans is not to win the Latino vote,” Guerra said, “but to narrow that gap.”
Sor Vann never thought he would be deported for peeing. A construction worker from Houston, Texas, he urinated at his work site and was convicted of indecent exposure. Later, he did it again and was hauled in for violating his parole, according to The New York Times. In 2002, after serving four years in jail, Vann, 34, was deported to Cambodia, the country he had fled as an 11-year-old during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Vann was detained and deported under a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton. Representing a major change in U.S. immigration policy, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act increased penalties for criminal convictions of non-U.S. citizens.
The result, according to a report by the National Immigration Forum, is that "legal immigrants who have lived here for nearly their entire lives are being deported for minor crimes committed years – and sometimes decades – ago."
Virginia Kice, spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says deportations have increased in recent years as a result of the legislation handed down by Congress. "When Congress enacts laws, our responsibility is to enforce them," she says.
Before 1996, a category of crimes known "aggravated felonies" was limited to serious offenses like murder and drug trafficking and only applied to crimes such as theft if the sentence was five years or more. The 1996 law lowered the minimum sentence to one year. In what Joren Lyons, staff attorney for Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, refers to as "a rather Orwellian twist," the law now includes statutory rape, theft, vandalism and possession of stolen property.
Prior to 1996, legal residents facing deportation were entitled to a hearing that took into consideration factors such as their rehabilitation, family ties and community service, unless they had served five years in prison. The 1996 law virtually eliminated the possibility of such a hearing. Once immigration officials have initiated a removal proceeding, an immigration judge must issue a deportation order if the conviction qualifies as an aggravated felony. Removal proceedings can begin when legal residents renew their green card, apply for citizenship or return to the United States after a trip abroad, regardless of how long ago their criminal conviction occurred.
"The policies are written so that someone who has committed murder as well as someone who has urinated in public become eligible for deportation," says Loan Dao, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ethnic Studies at University of California at Berkeley.
"If you do not hold legal citizenship, that means that you are at risk of double punishment, being punished in a way that citizens are not," she says. "Remember, all these people have served their time."
In fact, some detainees spend more time in immigration custody than for their crime, according to a report by Lyons.
In the most recent interpretation of the 1996 law, the Supreme Court this month struck a blow against lengthy detentions, ruling it unconstitutional to indefinitely detain people who have been ordered removed if there is no practical means of deporting them. In a separate case, however, it ruled that the United States may deport immigrants to countries where there are no functioning governments (like Somalia) to engage in repatriation agreements with the United States.
This does not change anything for immigrants from Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, which have flatly refused to accept deportees from the United States. They still cannot be deported, though they continue to be detained and face a removal order that currently carries no weight.
Huyen Thi Nguyen, a 65-year-old Vietnamese immigrant convicted of food stamp fraud, was released last week after spending 16 months in jail while she fought her removal, according to Lyons. Nguyen, who had served four years in a Vietnamese political prison, argued that it would be unsafe for her to return to Vietnam, even though a deportation order would have no immediate consequences. She refused to accept a removal order to Vietnam, despite knowing it would have freed her from detention.
Cambodian immigrants faced a similar situation until 2002, when Cambodia, under pressure from Washington, began to accept U.S. deportees. Immigrants who had signed previously toothless removal orders were suddenly eligible for deportation.
Many, like Vann, had fled Cambodia as refugees in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge killed off one-third of the population. Deportees to Cambodia now face "the trauma of being sent back to a country whose (collective) memory is starvation, murder, genocide, war and deprivation of human rights," says Dao. The U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1970s, she says, also calls into question U.S. responsibility to those refugees.
"Deporting people based on the fact that they're non-citizens implies that immigrants carry with them this notion of criminality," adds Dao.
Two weeks ago, as President Bush declared that "el sueno americano es para todos" (the American Dream is for everyone) in a satellite speech to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the White House was working behind the scenes to sabotage any immigration reform bill from coming to a vote in Congress.
According to reports from the Wall Street Journal and statements by Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), the White House asked Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to prevent the immigration bill AgJOBS from being voted on in the Senate. The bill, sponsored by Craig, would have provided a pathway to legal status for up to 500,000 agricultural workers. It had wide bipartisan support from the agricultural industry and from unions, and was backed by 63 out of 90 senators, including 26 Republicans.
But if the Republican leadership thinks they can gain Latino votes by praising immigrants publicly, even as they work privately to pull the plug on any immigration reforms, they are underestimating the savviness of Latino voters, says Maria Echaveste, President of the Nueva Vista Group.
"Latino voters and immigrant voters are not easily fooled," she said in a National Immigration Forum held on Friday.
In fact, Latinos have been following the progress of immigration reform bills AgJOBS (the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003) and the DREAM Act (the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) on the front pages of Spanish-language newspapers and on Spanish TV and radio stations. They have also tracked the lack of progress of the much-publicized immigration reform bill proposed by President Bush in January.
Latino voters can see through the political rhetoric, according to a poll conducted after Bush announced his proposal early this year. The poll, conducted by Bendixen and Associates and released by NCM, found that a majority of Latinos (63 percent) said it was a valid criticism that President Bush does not care about immigrants and that his plan is only aimed at getting Latino voters to support him in the 2004 election.
Latino voters continue to feel ignored by political candidates. In a Zogby Poll released on June 23 of this year by the National Council of La Raza, 60 percent of Latino registered voters said the political candidates are ignoring the issues most important to the Latino community.
According to the poll, there is strong agreement across all Latino subgroups that undocumented immigrants that have lived, worked, and paid taxes in the United States should be provided a path to U.S. citizenship.
Whether the White House's attempts to block immigration reform could produce a backlash against Bush among Latino voters remains to be seen.
But it wouldn't be the first time, says Cecilia MuÃ±oz, Vice President of the National Council of La Raza. "When immigration heats up as an issue and there is anti-immigrant rhetoric, regardless of party affiliation, ethnic and immigrant voters get angry and vote. In the past this has been an issue that motivated people to turn out and vote."
"The White House has yet again broken its promise to Latinos," adds Echaveste. "The Republican leadership and the Bush White House are in danger of finally having people across the country understand that."
Despite Bush's pro-immigrant rhetoric, Eliseo Medina, vice president of Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles, says Latinos have seen raids in their communities, a climate of fear among immigrants, deportations to Mexico and the blocking of immigration reform bills.
"If the Bush campaign wants to win Latino and immigrant votes," Medina said, "I would suggest they save the millions of dollars on advertising and instead enact immigration reform."
"Of course," writes Pilar Marrero in a July 19 editorial in La OpiniÃ³n, "it is much easier to give grandiose speeches about how great immigrants are, and then not do anything to bring the majority of the country towards an understanding of the complex problem of immigration. That would mean exercising leadership."
If gay-friendly comedian Margaret Cho is your idea of the Korean-American community, look again. The image of Cho marching at a rally for gay marriage, as appeared in the May 19 edition of the Korean-language newspaper Korea Times, is anything but typical.
A commentary in the Korea Times just four days earlier may be a more accurate reflection of the community's politics, according to community insiders. The author compared same-sex marriage to mad cow disease: Gay marriage "destroys holy marriage and the cycle of life. It makes humans mad, so I call it mad human disease," writes Young Goo, who is a pastor at a Christian church.
Ethnic Christian coalitions are at the forefront of the movement against same-sex marriage.
On May 18, 100 people gathered in Los Angeles to voice their opposition to same-sex marriage. Among the speakers were Latino activists Luis Galdamez, spokesperson for the Campaign for California Families, and Vicente Martín, president of the organization Familia Hispana, which represents 1,900 Christian churches in California, reports Marilú Meza in the May 19 issue of Spanish-language daily La Opinión.
A recent "Rally to Protect Marriage" in Sacramento was co-sponsored by BOND (Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny), a Christian organization dedicated to "rebuilding the family by rebuilding the man."
"If California legalizes same-sex marriages," says BOND founder and president Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, "it will destroy the family, especially the black family."
On April 25, some 7,000 people in San Francisco's Sunset district -- primarily Chinese Americans and Christians from 180 Bay Area churches -- protested same-sex marriage, reports Julie D. Soo in the May 21 edition of San Francisco's English-language weekly AsianWeek. Gay marriage "could lead to the extinction of the entire human race," said event spokesman Rev. Thomas Wang, as reported in the Chinese newspaper Sing Tao. "There will be no future if the United States does not repent."
Marcos Gutierrez, host of a Bay Area Spanish-language talk show on La Grande 1010-AM, estimates that 65 percent of the people who call in to his show are against same-sex marriage. Most of these defend their beliefs by quoting the Bible.
Religion is the backbone of politics opposing gay marriage, according to a national survey of 1,515 adults of every ethnicity conducted Oct. 15-19, 2003, by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center. More than eight in 10 opponents of gay marriage said it ran counter to their religious beliefs.
Ethnic groups in San Francisco are far less supportive of the city's decision to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians than the city's white population, according to a citywide poll of 1,034 people conducted on March 2, 2004, by the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. While 76 percent of Caucasians said they supported the decision to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, only 62 percent of Latinos, 49 percent of African Americans and 38 percent of Asians agreed.
There are cultural and historic reasons for the Chinese community's strong backlash against same-sex marriage, says former political candidate Rose Tsai.
"Chinese, in 5,000 years of history, have acknowledged that homosexuality has always existed. But, it is accepted with the understanding that you don't glorify such relationships," Tsai is quoted as saying in AsianWeek.
Chinese Americans value family and community over the individual, adds Rev. Cal Chin, a senior pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown. "I wouldn't use 'conservative' to describe Chinese American views," Chin says in the same article. "I would say that Chinese Americans are more corporate in their thinking; they think about how an individual and an individual's actions impact the community. You can't act in isolation."
Many new immigrants, especially those from China and Korea, believe that same-sex marriage goes against their culture. But radio talk show host and San Francisco community leader Julie Lee says this may change as people become more educated. "China used to jail homosexuals, but even China has become more open-minded."
Some reject the notion that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue.
Rev. Raymond Kwong, who organized the rally in San Francisco, leads the newly formed Bay Area Christians for Traditional Marriage (BACFTM). "We are sympathetic to true minorities. Gays and lesbians are not a genuine minority," he says in the AsianWeek report. "I have talked to many African American ministers and they are incensed that the civil rights bus has been hijacked by a radical group. When were there separate entrances for gays and straights? When have gays gotten worse jobs and lower pay than straight people? I've never seen any gays who had to go to the back of the bus."
Detria Thompson, in the March 19 edition of the black newspaper San Francisco Bay View, writes that many African Americans believe that race "easily trumps sexual orientation in the now crowded different-discrimination sweepstakes." But this "assumes that lesbians and gays have the option, if not a duty, to mute their behavior so as not to alarm straight people." Yet, "all gays and lesbians can't 'pass' for straight, and even if it was possible to do so, being able to 'pass' misses the point."
White gays and lesbians may experience less discrimination than African Americans, but they still experience discrimination, just as educated middle-class African Americans still experience racism, Thompson writes. "Quantifying discrimination by demographics is necessary, but is usually futile and counter-productive precisely because your pain never quite measures up to mine."
Elena Shore works for NCM, an association of over 600 print, broadcast and online ethnic media organizations founded in 1996 by PNS and members of ethnic media. Aruna Lee contributed to this report.