Story and photos by Pete Shaw
Activist and faith community members rallied outside Portland’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prison on October 10 to demand that President Obama immediately end the deportations that have torn apart the immigrant community. An insistent crowd called for ICE to cease its recently ramped up–and arguably illegal–efforts to deport people without documentation. The group focused on Francisco Aguirre in particular, the man whom ICE tried to arrest without a warrant three weeks ago, and who now has taken sanctuary in Augustana Lutheran Church in NE Portland.
“We’re gathered here for a beloved member of our community,” said event emcee Patricia Vazquez. “We’re here to demand that Francisco is released and that the threat of deportation is stopped so he can come back and be with his family and his community.”
Aguirre’s plight is not unique, nor are the circumstances that compelled him to seek refuge at Augustana Lutheran. According to Destructive Delay, a recently released report from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), ICE has become more aggressive in its attempts to detain and deport people without documentation and has also been painting community leaders without documentation–such as Aguirre–as criminal threats. These actions follow a long history of ICE’s racist depiction of all immigrants–or at least those from Mexico, Central, and South America–as drug dealers, rapists, murderers, and other sorts of violent criminals. In reality, the vast majority of those people detained by ICE are guilty of crimes amounting to little more than traffic violations.
Romeo Sosa, Executive Director of the VOZ Workers Rights Education Center, where Aguirre also works, noted that while President Obama “delays executive action on immigration, ICE is not waiting to attack our families.” Sosa reminded the crowd that it has been almost eight months since Obama said immigration policy needed to be more humane “and he is still telling us he’ll get to that. But our families are suffering, our children are scared, and people are losing trust at every level as ICE blends with local agencies, and the White House still hasn’t done anything to hold it accountable.”
But even as ICE has become more aggressive. According to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) “over the past several years, three states, the District of Columbia, and at least 257 localities (26 cities and 231 counties) have officially restricted the extent to which law enforcement may continue to detain individuals to hand over to ICE.”
In Destructive Delay, NDLON notes that “…as localities seek to build protections from what many feel is the agency’s (ICE) overreach, ICE appears to be retaliating and penetrating into new areas such as court rooms and even DMV facilities…” While ICE claims it no longer takes part in immigration raids, but rather conducts “targeted enforcement” to arrest “priority” individuals who present a danger to the public, it is making a distinction without a difference. “As implemented by ICE,’targeted enforcement’ looks very much like a raid,” reads the NDLON report, “In a targeted enforcement operation, ICE stakes out a single home, apartment building, business or–in some cases–an entire neighborhood in search of its target.”
“Along the way,” the report notes, “ICE agents request identification from anyone they encounter, often arresting and placing in deportation proceedings individuals who were not the stated target of the operation.”
Some of these targeted raids are also, according to NDLON, thwarting the US justice system and denying people their due process. “By arresting immigrants at court, during probation, or after decades-old criminal convictions, ICE undermines the functioning of the criminal justice system. Despite its many flaws, the criminal justice system provides more opportunity for robust due process protections than any immigration proceeding. Immigrants released after attending court or complying with probation have been deemed fit by the criminal justice system to live amongst their family and community, and, in some cases, to receive treatment or a chance for rehabilitation. By detaining and deporting these individuals, and framing their deportations as a public safety measure, ICE is undermining the decisions of the judges who deemed these individuals worthy of a second chance.”
While the corporate media has been keen to follow ICE’s lead in its racist depiction of people without documentation, little has been mentioned of this disruption of the justice system. For example, Aguirre has a criminal record related to drug trafficking charges from about 15 years ago. It is a conviction he disputes. Originally charged with 20 counts, all but two were dropped. Aguirre plead guilty, but says he thought he was pleading his innocence. Not long ago he was pulled over under suspicion of driving under the influence, the result, he says, of drinking two beers.
When ICE raided Aguirre’s home on September 19, he was in the middle of applying for a U-Visa which is available for immigrants who are victims of serious crimes and who have cooperated with authorities in prosecuting those crimes. Clearly, whatever his record might be, the US government is considering letting Aguirre’s past be in the past. But with ICE’s threat to detain and deport Aguirre, that U-Visa is on hold. ICE is effectively acting extralegally and subverting the US justice system.
Heightened ICE enforcement also has other negative outcomes. A May 2013 report from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Urban Planning and Policy detailed results of a survey that found a substantial number of Latinos are less likely to report crime–whether they are victims or witnesses–because “they fear that police officers will use this interaction as an opportunity to inquire into their immigration status or that of people they know.”
The NDLON report adds that in some raids ICE officers “have worn vests with the word ‘police’ on them. The officers identify themselves as immigration agents only after people open the door for them or in some cases only after people actually allow them inside their homes. People whose family members were arrested in this way report that they no longer open the door to help police officers out of fear that the police are actually immigration agents.”
While Aguirre was unable to appear at the rally, a statement from him was read. “I am not able to be here today because of the aggressive actions like the key findings in this report. I am in sanctuary because ICE is targeting me and people like me. I have been instrumental in building bridges between police and the Latino community–to do workshops between police and community members, which attempted to build and strengthen relationships between police and community, and ICE has violated trust in our community, using their early morning raid at my home as a tactic to instill fear and interrupt a process that is more humane.”
Emphasizing NDLON’s finding that Aguirre’s interaction with ICE was clearly commonplace, Rosa Navarro of the Migrant Collective and United with Francisco stated, “There are many Franciscos. ICE is out of control. ICE needs to let the process work out. We’re here to demand accountability for ICE. They come as they please and tear apart our families and our communities.”
While the immigrant rights movement has achieved many significant victories, the most important one may be the least obvious: the battle for immigrant rights is being joined by more and more groups realizing that any fight for greater justice is everyone’s fight. Over 300 faith and religious groups around the country have already entered the fray, and people from the private prison divestment campaign, the $15 minimum wage campaign, and labor rights groups attended Friday’s rally.
That’s many people who are coming together in outrage, and more importantly, willing to use that outrage to affect change. Pastor Mark Knutson of Augustana Lutheran Church spoke about how the real crime people were witnessing was not that of people without documentation being in the country, but of a country “that has fallen on its ideals” as found in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty proclaiming, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Achieving those ideals, Knutson said, was an immense challenge, while reminding the crowd of some of the great movements that have led to greater justice, such as the US Civil Rights movement, the anti-Apartheid movement, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“Great things happen when we work in solidarity,” Knutson said.