Thursday, August 7, 2014
With Congress having failed to enact immigration reform and the border crisis continuing, President Obama is expected to slow or postpone the deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for many years. As he develops his recommendations, the president should learn from New Orleans, where his Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has been waging war on the Latino immigrant community with suspicious racial effects.
Last week I spoke to two men in ICE detention who were swept up in a raid at an auto-body shop under the so-called Criminal Alien Removal Initiative (CARI). On May 13, Wilmer and Yestel were arrested when ICE conducted a sweeping workplace raid of a Latino auto shop in a heavily Latino suburb of New Orleans. Yestel and Wilmer told me how ICE agents and local police surrounded the auto shop, blocking off all exits and grabbing all Latinos in sight, including workers and customers, men and women. Wilmer was a mechanic at the shop who was working on repairs, while Yestel was a customer who just happened to be at the shop getting his car repaired. After being processed with a high-tech fingerprint machine at the back of ICE van, both were arrested. Neither has seen their homes or partners since.
Under CARI, ICE squads -- sometimes accompanied by local police -- have been raiding apartment complexes, grocery stores, laundromats, Bible study groups, parks, and anywhere else Latinos might gather. The officers make stop-and-frisk type arrests based on racial profiling and indiscriminate mobile fingerprinting. The raids make daily routines such as going to buy groceries or bringing the car to get repaired a terrifying task that can lead to deportation.
While the CARI program name suggests that "criminals" are the target, in fact these raids are racial profiling-based area sweeps. Wilmer Irias Palma and Yestel Velasquez were arrested because they have prior deportation orders -- they don't have criminal records -- not even traffic tickets. Wilmer arrived six months after Hurricane Katrina to help with the reconstruction. Both he and Yestel did hurricane demolition and clean-up, exposed to hazards and surrounded by chemicals. The waste smell was awful, and they often got sick and developed skin rashes. Many Latino workers they knew suffered serious injuries on the job. Others died. Still, Wilmer and Yestel were happy to help rebuild the city and aid its economic growth. They, like other Latinos, settled in New Orleans and started families. They were happy that former residents were able to return to the city and live with dignity after so much destruction. Now, the Latino workers who made that possible feel hunted and treated like trash.
Last November, brave immigrant workers and community leaders exposed the destructive CARI community raids. And shortly after their arrest in May, Yestel and Wilmer courageously came forward to expose the ongoing ICE raids. They filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and asked DHS to end theraids. During their interviews with DHS civil rights officials, though, Yestel and Wilmer remained in detention, shackled even during the interviews, and under ICE surveillance.
Three years ago, ICE announced a Prosecutorial Discretion Policy indicating that upstanding residents like Yestel and Wilmer engaged in protecting civil rights would not be enforcement priorities. Under that policy, Yestel and Wilmer should have been granted immediate release from detention--especially as witnesses and victims participating in a civil rights investigation. In fact, like whistleblowers to unseemly official actions, they should be encouraged and protected.
Worst of all, on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Yestel and Wilmer participated in a Washington, D.C., civil rights briefing by telephone, ICE revoked their stays of removal and said they would be deported this Friday, August 8. ICE directly and spitefully retaliated against Yestel and Wilmer for speaking out about civil rights. This kind of retaliation creates a chilling effect that goes far beyond the individuals involved.
The fact that these ICE raids continue is deeply troubling. The fact that ICE can retaliate against immigrant civil right leaders for exposing abuse is even more disturbing. The vengeance raises the concern that this civil rights crisis is not an isolated product of a rogue ICE office in the Deep South, but rather a product of Obama's national deportation policies. The administration continues its record-breaking deportation pace, and as a result of CARI, Louisiana has the highest per capita deportation rate in the country, as well as the highest per capita rate of immigration arrests of any non-border state. The raids and continued detention of Yestel and Wilmer show that the administration is either incapable of addressing rampant civil rights violations by its own agents, or is willing to turn a blind eye to a rogue agency in exchange for record-setting deportation numbers.
As we await the President's announcement on further administrative relief, most immigrant rights advocates are focused on how extensive the action will be. But the stories from New Orleans, including Yestel's and Wilmer's, show us that what is at stake for the Obama Administration is not only a question of scale, but a matter of civil, labor, and human rights. Immigrant civil rights leaders like Yestel and Wilmer have shown true heroism in taking bold action to stop the abuses immigrants face every day. Their example demands that the President show the same kind of bravery.
As an immediate matter, ICE should immediately release Yestel and Wilmer from detention and take the threat of deportation off the table, making space for an investigation of these raids with full community participation. But this alone is not enough.
President Obama can no longer turn a blind eye to the civil rights and moral crisis his deportation machine has created. The Administration should eliminate immigration retaliation and intimidation from consideration in civil rights and workplace disputes. The President needs to clarify the process under which immigrants who stand up to protect their civil, labor, and human rights can apply for deferred action through US Citizenship and Immigration Services. These administrative enforcement reforms will ensure protections for workers and civil rights leaders, like Yestel and Wilmer, who come forward to expose the on-the-ground realities of law enforcement or employer misconduct.