How U.S. immigration enforcement creates a 'climate of fear'

An interview with Immigrant Rights Leader Pedro Rios on the details often ignored during deportation.

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Complex Original

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On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials announced that officers arrested 244 people in Southern California following a four-day operation. The sweep targeted immigrants with criminal records who were in the U.S. illegally, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The sweep comes at a time when undocumented immigrants are extensively vilified in the media, especially during this election season. Since July, GOP presidential candidates have likened immigrants—especially those from Mexico—as criminals, rapists, invaders, and FedEx packages. The one-sided language being used paints a very negative picture. 

Amid the clamor, though, you see very little in the headlines about the humanity of immigrants in America.

To give voice to another side of the debate, NTRSCTN spoke with immigrant rights activist and leader Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S. Mexico Border Program in San Diego.

I worked with Rios as an undergrad during a 2004 summer internship at the AFSC when he was a program coordinator, a year after he began working with the organization. In 2006, Rios became director of the program and also currently chairs the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, a coalition of 34 organizations that work on immigration issues, such as legal, community, religious, and labor, in San Diego County.

Rios and I spoke about the recent sweeps, the current political climate, and the complexities often overlooked in the discussion about criminality of immigrants.


Broadly speaking, how have things changed since I worked with you in 2004?
You know, it's interesting because I would say in the past five years—a little bit over five years—[AFSC] started focusing more precisely on trying to hold Customs and Border Protection [CBP] accountable, and trying to make them implement transparent policies.

This all started after a case of brutality where [Anastasio Hernandez Rojas], who had been a resident of San Diego for many years, was killed after having been beaten and tortured to death by CBP agents. We started working with his family, and then shortly thereafter, there were other families who had also had loved ones who were brutalized and had been killed. We essentially started working on that issue more specifically, on trying to get CBP to become a much more accountable agency that would be able to be transparent in the investigations of cases of abuse of authority.

That's been our primary focus, but obviously we still do a lot of work on immigration issues. We follow policies as they're proposed from the local to the state to the national level. It's essentially non-stop. I think as the presidential elections are picking up now, we're going to see immigration to continue to be a hot topic, but more so border issues—especially as they're being framed from the perspectives of politicians that are running for office.

What we often find is that some of these individuals have already reformed their lives. 

So you see a lot more rhetoric of "criminality." How has that affected the environment, you know, with all this sensationalism from Trump and all those other candidates trying to keep up?
Yeah, it creates a climate of fear for those who are immigrants, or those who are undocumented, or those who have family members who are immigrants and undocumented. But it also creates an environment where people who follow those anti-immigrant points of view feel emboldened to commit acts of crime against people. There's a lot more intolerance, so we hear more about people who feel that they're being attacked simply because of the way they look.

That's just on a discourse of popular rhetoric and perspective; but even the way the state has framed its work on immigration—it's much more focused on militarizing not only the border, but also police departments, in general. Those who are disproportionately impacted are people of color. So when you have immigrants who are fearful already and not likely to report crimes against them, you know, it creates a lot more distrust with local police departments.

I imagine you heard about the "crackdown" over the weekend of the 244 immigrants who were arrested?
Yeah, it focused in Southern California—none of which were in San Diego, but in other parts of Southern California: Riverside County, L.A., San Luis Obispo, San Bernardino, the Inland Empire... It is certainly a type of operation that has happened in the past.

Maybe about three or four months ago, there was a similar one that was a nationwide operation, that netted over 2,000 people. What's interesting is that it's purportedly focused on those who fit a certain priority; so those who have been convicted of a crime in the past. What we often find is that some of these individuals have already reformed their lives. The crimes they committed were many, many years ago. They have a family, they are contributing members of society, but yet, because they have had this record on them, they are targeted, even though they can no longer be construed as being someone who would be a danger to society.

Yet, in reading some of the articles related to this most recent raid, you see some ICE agents will come in and say that "These individuals were targeting and affecting the rest of the immigrant community," without any real proof. That statement suddenly becomes a fact. It's unfortunate because it goes back to fueling an anti-immigrant sentiment that is espoused and promoted by people like Donald Trump, which then creates a very negative point of view about immigrants in general.

Do you feel like, when [immigration enforcement officials] evaluate criminality, they're not really being, for lack of better term, careful? They're just kind of indiscriminately determining this "criminality"?
I think for immigration purposes, there are different definitions of criminality. Someone who crosses the border once who was detained in Arizona, Texas, orNew Mexico, for instance, and who go through something called Operation Streamline, once they are deported, they are labeled as having committed a crime. If they attempt to return, then it's an "illegal reentry" crime, which counts against them. Suddenly they're entering as criminals even though, for all intents and purposes, they have not necessarily committed a crime, other than having attempted to return a second, third, multiple times across the border. So those individuals are also priorities for this government. When they say that they've caught 244 people with previous felony convictions and crimes, and that they're harming society, one has to raise questions about how that definition is construed.

Often times, people haven't had a chance to have legal representation. They're not guaranteed legal representation for immigration purposes. In some ways, there's a double jeopardy issue taking place because there's no accounting for how they might have reformed their lives if they had chosen to do so. And they probably already served their time. It certainly fits a narrative of going after hardened criminals, when, in fact, that might not necessarily be the case for all of the people that were netted in the 244 count.

Especially when, given the way that they talk about it, even just entering the country once, an individual's automatically a "felon," with regards to legal status.
Right, exactly.

Are there tiers of—you mentioned "priority"—are their tiers of priority? Is there anything formal like that? Or is it arbitrary like, say, the [post-September 11] terror threat levels?
There are tiers that are outlined in two separate memorandums that have been issued over the past couple years. The last one was on November 20, 2014. It essentially did away—that memorandum did away with something called Operation Secure Communities. That was an operation that allowed for local police departments to feel that they were obligated to detain people for immigration purposes once those individuals had already served their time. If the police department received a detainer request from ICE, they could hold that individual for up to 48 hours.

But what was interesting was there was a lot of pushback on that for several years, and those detainers were found to be unconstitutional. So ICE suddenly didn't have the support that they expected to have from local law enforcement. Now what ICE is doing is trying to find creative ways of detecting who might be in the country unlawfully or without proper documentation. One of the ways they're doing that is by finding information about people who have DUIs, because DUIs are on the priorities list. So are illegal reentries.

Obviously, there are some really horrible crimes that are on this list, as well, but then you have others that I think should not merit deportation. Although, I personally believe that no crime should merit deportation. Deportation should not be used as a way to penalize people for crimes that they've committed. But in this case, it's sort of double jeopardy, especially if people have served their time and they're being detained and deported. That is also seen as a punishment for having committed a crime they might have already served time for.

In the event someone commits a serious crime, what, in your opinion, would be a proper penalization?
Well, they should be held accountable for that crime. I mean, that's why we have due process. That's why there are laws that make sense. But once you get immigration agents involved, then the individuals don't have the right to an attorney for immigration procedures. They could be deported even though they could have served the time many, many years ago and reformed their lives, and are doing well.

We had a case here in San Diego, recently, where a pastor made a wrong turn. He was caught by Border Patrol. They determined that he was a priority because he had a previous felonious record from 20 years ago, and he was deported. Since that time, he raised a family, was committed to helping people get out of substance abuse, became a pastor, was a well-respected member of his community—and yet, the priorities list did not have that sort of flexibility to analyze this case and say, "You know what? If we deport this guy, we're separating him from his family, his youngest daughter has Down's syndrome, he should be someone that should not be torn apart from his family." But the way the Border Patrol read his case files was like, "He deportable, and that's that." There's absolutely no argument around it.

And I think in the 244 number of people [arrested], there might be many people who have reformed their lives and are labeled criminals incorrectly, simply because they might have messed up sometime in their past.

My hope is also that immigrants are at the forefront of organizing their campaigns, of demanding their rights, of ensuring that they're able to live with dignity.

So there's no flexibility and no real appeals process.

How have things improved in the past five years? Where do you want to see things go in the next five years?
I think at the state level, the State of California has really been a big proponent of passing favorable laws that deal with immigrants. The TRUST Act was one that tried to disentangle immigration enforcement with local law enforcement. That was a significant piece of legislation because it has prompted other states to consider passing similar types of legislation. It essentially pushed back on federal immigration enforcement agents trying to use the data from local law enforcement to entrap people for immigration.

They also passed the AB60 Driver's License bill, which was an important way for people to not have their cars impounded. They did away with the use of "illegal alien" as a legal definition for describing people.

There have been numerous laws at the state level. That's where most of our victories have been over the past five years.

I think where we will be in the next five years is certainly a difficult question to answer based on the rhetoric that we hear coming out of the presidential debates, which will continue into next year. My hope is that we're able to have immigration agencies that are more transparent, that are held accountable for their actions, especially if there's loss of life, or if there's an abuse of authority, and a lack of respect for the Constitution.

My hope is also that immigrants are at the forefront of organizing their campaigns, of demanding their rights, of ensuring that they're able to live with dignity.

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