'On a mission to destroy families': Ice targets migrants in once safe spaces
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It was an ordinary Friday on the job for Pablo Villavicencio, a delivery man at the Nonna Delia’s pizzeria in Queens, New York.
The father of two pulled up with a bulk lunch order at Fort Hamilton, an army base about a half hour from the restaurant. But unlike previous deliveries , this time Villavicencio, an undocumented immigrant, was arrested by federal immigration authorities and taken to a New Jersey jail.
Villavicencio, 35, was fast-tracked for deportation despite holding no criminal record. Had it not been for intense media scrutiny of his case, Villavicencio might not have been granted reprieve by a federal judge last month – which temporarily stalled his deportation but left him in federal custody.
But his case is far from unique.
A month later, an elderly couple attempted to visit their pregnant daughter-in-law and her husband at another military base in New York.
Margarito Silva and his wife, Concepcion Barrios, both undocumented immigrants, arrived at Fort Drum on the Fourth of July holiday. The couple carried the same identification cards – available to New York City residents regardless of immigration status – that they had used to visit family on other bases before.
They, too, were arrested by Ice.
Stories like those of Villavicencio, Silva and Barrios put faces and names to the targets of Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration, which has instilled fresh fears of deportation in communities across America as they go about their daily lives.
Advocacy groups say the Trump administration’s reach is unfettered, as evidenced by the sharp rise in noncriminal arrests.
Under the president’s directive, which dramatically expanded the scope of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), immigration arrests rose 41% in 2017 compared with the same period from 2016. Noncriminal arrests, Ice’s own data showed, increased by 171%.
“Despite the rhetoric, Ice’s deportations are not focused on public safety threats,” said Lynn Tramonte, a director at the progressive immigration advocacy group America’s Voice.
“Under President Trump, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has become a political police force with a singular mission: to destroy American families with immigrant members, no matter the cost to children.”
Despite the rhetoric, Ice’s deportations are not focused on public safety threats
Felix Garcia, a father of three, was detained in January during a regular check-in with federal immigration authorities that for the past seven years had come and gone without issue. He begged an Ice officer for the chance to remain in the US, where he had lived for 23 years, for just a little longer to watch his eldest daughter graduate from medical school. Garcia was denied his request and reportedly deported to Guatemala in April.
“Me van a djar detenido, mija. Sigue adelante, mija. Tu puedes,” Garcia had texted his daughter, Belsy Garcia Manrique, words that translated to: “They are going to detain me, my child. Keep going, my child. You can do it.”
Syed Ahmed Jamal, a father of three, was arrested in February outside of his home in Lawrence, Kansas, after readying his children for school. The native of Bangladesh had been in the US for more than 30 years and, according to his lawyer, had no criminal record beyond speeding tickets.
An undocumented immigrant with Down’s syndrome was not spared after Ice’s homeland security investigations special agents carried out a search of a tent installation company in Florida.
Juan Gaspar-Garcia, 30, was one of 28 people detained in the March raid, which federal authorities insisted was a “criminal search”. Gaspar-Garcia, who came to the US from Guatemala when he was 14, was held in a detention center for three weeks and was released after his sister launched an online petition.
When questioned on the circumstances of such cases, Ice has repeatedly issued a standard statement noting that the agency “does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement”.
“All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” the agency has said.
The controversial tactics were put in motion less than one week after Trump took office. On 25 January 2017, the newly-minted president transformed rhetoric into reality by signing an executive order that paved the way for Ice to detain undocumented immigrants in the US regardless of whether or not they hold a criminal record.
The shift marked a vast departure from the final years of Barack Obama’s administration.
Obama was denounced by critics for deporting record numbers of undocumented immigrants in the early years of his presidency. But immigration activists said the Obama administration implemented clear priorities in its second term that focused on detaining those with serious criminal histories, such as felony violations.
An analysis of Ice data by USA Today found that an average of 4,143 undocumented immigrants without a criminal record have been arrested each month under the Trump administration. By comparison, an average of 1,703 noncriminal arrests were made in the final two years under Obama.
There isn’t the same recognition or protection of these spaces. It’s almost as if they’re being singled out
Ice has rebuked the characterization that low priority arrests are “noncriminal”, citing the act of illegal entry to the US or overstaying a visa as violations of the law.
Another change in Ice policy that has drawn widespread condemnation is the arrest of undocumented immigrants in so-called sensitive locations, including places of worship, schools, hospitals and courthouses.
The agency has maintained it is not targeting such spaces, but reports have suggested otherwise.
A 19-year-old undocumented man, whose record included a DUII charge, was arrested as he left a hospital. Two fathers were arrested by Ice agents as they took their children to school. They had intended to arrest a third father, who was able to escape by seeking refuge in a nearby church. The arrest of a man who had just dropped his daughter at school went viral, filmed by his own family as his other daughter was heard sobbing from the car.
Sarah Mehta, a human rights research at the American Civil Liberties Union, said such arrests have resulted in “a very significant chilling impact” on immigrant communities.
“Under this administration, there isn’t the same recognition or protection of these spaces,” Mehta said of places once generally avoided by federal immigration authorities. “It’s almost as if they’re being singled out.”
A report produced by the ACLU found the expanded presence of federal immigration officials at courthouses had a particularly corrosive effect on the relationship between immigrant communities and law enforcement.
The report, which surveyed law enforcement, judges, prosecutors and survivor advocates across the country, found that immigrants were less likely to report crimes or assist in police investigations in 2017 compared with 2016. More than half of the judges who participated said court cases were interrupted due to an immigrant’s fear of coming to court, compared with 43% in 2016. And an overwhelming 82% of prosecutors reported that domestic violence was underreported by immigrants since Trump took office.
“The climate has become significantly more toxic in the community, with immigrant community members and their families being afraid of the very services that are supposed to be there to protect their rights,” Mehta said.
Even in some of the cases where Ice has been able to point to a target’s criminal record, there has been little room for nuance.
Armando Nunez-Salgado, 39, was picked up by agents in February while gardening in the backyard of his home in Napa County, California.
According to Ice, Nunez-Salgado had accrued a number of criminal convictions over the past 18 years and had already been deported four times. His wife Helena Ponce, who filmed the arrest, acknowledged some troubles in her husband’s past but disputed the account.
Nunez-Salgado had not been to prison in more than 15 years, Ponce said, and was a dedicated father to their teenage daughter who spent his free time counseling young people to stay away from gangs. But her husband’s arrest confirmed what the family perhaps knew all along.
“He always felt like they would come and get him eventually,” she said.
US domestic policy
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