When 121 Central American mothers and children were removed from their homes by the feds earlier this month, it sparked an uproar from both activists and politicians who saw the perceived enforcement surge as a new low for the Obama administration. The president's willingness to deport illegal immigrants has been unmatched by any predecessor in US history, but to many, this latest action crossed a line. The families removed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had, for the most part, fled worsening violence in Central America within the last two years, and upon deportation to their homeland now face the prospects of continued persecution.
On Wednesday, VICE News reported that many of the families picked up still had legal recourse—specifically asylum—to avoid deportation, even though US Secretary of Homeland Security declared in a January 4 letter that the immigrants "have no outstanding appeal or claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws."
So how exactly did ICE choose these families to target for enforcement? And do these removals truly represent a new front in the effort to maintain record numbers of deportations?
"The families we've worked with who were picked up earlier this month all had legal representation working with them on ways to avoid deportation, they just weren't very good lawyers," explained Mo Abdollahi, advocacy director for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), an organization that has been providing assistance to the families picked up by ICE.
So far, advocates there say they've been able to stave off the removal of at least 12 of the families. According to immigration attorneys, these families can still apply for refugee or other legal status while they continue to delay their removal.
"One of the previous attorneys for a family that was picked up by ICE in Atlanta charged them $5,000 and was actually told by the judge in their case that they had to do a better job defending this family," Abdollahi told VICE. "That attorney never even bothered to file an official asylum claim."
Many of the families targeted by the raids earlier this month were victims of both inadequate representation and geographical circumstance. Cities in North Carolina and Georgia both have significantly less of a backlog in their immigration courts system than metropolises like New York or Miami, and are filled with judges who aren't as sympathetic to immigrants as some courts are in larger states.
"Where the raids happened, in those immigration courts, those folks cases went through at a faster rate," said Abraham Paulos, Executive Director of Families for Freedom, an advocacy group that works with immigrants who have interacted with the criminal justice system. "If you look at New York, some people don't have to be in court until 2019. The chance of you being ordered deported this quick is going to be based on the courts you go through."
Another gigantic hurdle for immigrants attempting to establish some form of relief can be traced to miscommunication about when, exactly, they have to appear in court. Of the 987 completed cases involving adults with children who were put in detention by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at some point between July 18, 2014 and the end of last year, 788 have resulted in orders of removal, according to stats provided to VICE by the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review. A startling 538 of those orders were issued in absentia, meaning that the final order was given with neither the family facing deportation, nor their representative, in attendance at the court hearing.
The numbers get even worse for unaccompanied children: Of the 9,695 removal orders issued during that time period, 8,510 were issued in absentia.
It's unclear how many of the families rounded up earlier this month had been given final orders in absentia, but the available numbers suggest that a large portion of families ordered removed do not show up in court. Many advocates believe that is because they were simply never informed of their court date.
"The 121 families pick up last week, that's incredibly sad, but honestly, ICE does that with one hand tied behind their back," said Paulos. "They do those numbers every single day. It's the announcement that has really angered people. It boggles the mind that they would publicize this action against families when they do this sort of work every day."
Indeed, since the November 2014 announcement by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson of new enforcement priorities, home raids and other invasive methods of apprehending immigrants (including stalking courthouses) have become more widely used, according to interviews with both immigrants and advocates. The new priorities specifically target three groups of immigrants: those with criminal records, new arrivals, and people with deportation orders given after 2013. Ninety-eight percent of removals by ICE last year were attributed to one of those three priorities. The raids across the south earlier this month fell in line with the priority of removing new arrivals, while 59 percent of all 2015 removals were of individuals previously convicted of a crime.
The removals of the families this month were a direct result of the 2014 memo, according to a source at ICE. This targeted enforcement has been termed by the Obama administration as focusing on"felons, not families," which ignores that two of ICE's stated priorities can result in families being targeted.
"Since the beginning of this year, what we've seen is that ICE is conducting enforcement in the same manner that they've been doing it since November 2014, targeting communities that fall under their new priority enforcement program," said Genia Blaser, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project. "There's been no uptick in the amount of enforcement, but because of the raids earlier this year, immigrant communities are more aware of what's going on, and there's now a lot of fear."
The early-morning raids of the Central American families represent fairly common practice for ICE, which has been accused by immigrants of entering their homes under false pretenses to make an arrest and being especially aggressive once inside. Drawings by children taken during the early January raids that were provided to VICE depict the early-morning law enforcement activity, with crying babies and kicked-down doors.
An ICE official told VICE that "ICE officers and agents conduct immigration enforcement actions consistent with their authorities under federal law and in accordance with the Constitution. ICE officers and agents receive extensive training on this subject."
Advocates for immigrant communities have been told otherwise.
"Almost all of the raids we're hearing about in New York City involve people being told it's the police at their door, and not ICE, or using some ruse to get inside their homes like saying someone's identity has been stolen, or they're looking for a suspect in their home," said Yasmine Farhang, an immigration attorney at Make the Road NY, an organization that provides legal services to the immigrant community in New York City.
Immigrant communities across the country have been on edge since the announcement of raids targeting Central-American families, but the circumstances under which they happened, and the enforcement priorities ICE was apparently adhering to, have been in place for some time. Whether the fresh outrage on the part of immigrants and their advocates results in some kind of re-think on the part of the Obama administration remains to be seen. The Secretary of State has announced plans to ramp up refugee screening efforts in three Central American countries in an attempt to slow the amount of people crossing the border, but have not announced any further relief for people already inside the United States.
Asked about plans for upcoming enforcement activities, an ICE official told VICE that it's not their policy to disclose any information regarding future operations.
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