March 15, 2017

ICE enforcement surge makes some ‘live in constant fear’

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Every morning before he leaves to go to work, Yalil scans the street outside his home to see if any unusual cars are parked outside.

“If it’s something, we do have to plan not to go to work and stay the whole day home,” he said.

Yalil’s little brothers, both still in school and born in the United States, are too young to understand why their family needs to be so cautious. But they’re instructed every day to never answer the door, “not even to the missionaries, the people who are talking about God,” Yalil said.

“We just let them know they cannot open the door because my dad and my mom could be detained and we might not get to see them again,” he said.

Related: Corrales Village Council rejects resolution that would bar aiding in immigration enforcement

In the month and a half since President Trump signed an executive order expanding federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants, Yalil said he and others in similar situations “live in constant fear.”

Although U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents haven’t yet visited his home, Yalil said he’s seen agents visit other people in his neighborhood. Recently he saw six people wearing camouflage emerge from a white car and approach a nearby house, he told NM Political Report.“

Two of them knocked on the door and two went to the backyard just to make sure that nobody exited out of the back or through the windows,” he said.

Yalil came to New Mexico 12 years ago with his older brother for a better life. He was just 12 at the time and lived in the Acapulco region in Mexico, which was plagued by drug cartel violence and corruption when he left. Yalil’s mother had migrated to New Mexico two years earlier.

They have lived in the Albuquerque area since leaving Mexico. Yalil is now 24 and has been allowed to stay in the U.S. under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which went into effect in 2012. He calls DACA “the best opportunity of my life.”

Still, Yalil did not want to reveal his full name. He is afraid that the undocumented family members he lives with could be detained or deported.

His fear is real. Last month, news reports revealed the effects of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown in New Mexico, including agents detaining multiple people outside the Metropolitan Detention Center and Second Judicial District Court in downtown Albuquerque. Agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have also gone door-to-door conducting detentions in Las Cruces and Chaparral.

It’s unclear how many people ICE agents have detained in New Mexico since February, though immigration attorneys and advocates interviewed for this story estimated at least 20-25 people were detained that month in Albuquerque along with another 20 people in the Las Cruces area. ICE did not return multiple inquiries from NM Political Report for this story.

In recent weeks at Yalil’s workplace, immigration is the only topic that his co-workers, many of whom are also immigrants, seem to ever talk about, he said. Others haven’t shown up to the job since February and as a result were fired, according to Yalil (NM Political Report is withholding the name of his workplace on his request).

“We’ve been here for more than 10 years,” Yalil said of his family in the United States. “I’ve never seen this happen. I’m more in fear for my mom than anything.”

Yalil has no plans to leave the United States anytime soon. He is studying psychology and hopes to one day open his own mental health clinic “to help my community, the Latino community.”

“I know that this is not the country where I was born, but we all feel it is very safe here, it is better for my education and to grow not only professionally, but personally as well,” he said. “This country provides you many opportunities [that] unfortunately in my hometown I would not be able to do. And I refuse to get out of this country.”

System didn’t change overnight

Although the Obama administration aggressively pursued deportations during most of its tenure, both the rhetoric and actions from the Trump administration have heightened tensions and emboldened ICE agents, according to immigration attorneys and advocates across New Mexico.

“There are not any more ICE agents here than there were three months ago,” Pamela Kennedy,  an immigration attorney in Albuquerque, said. “The laws really haven’t changed. There are just a lot of more scared people.”

Related: NM cities push back against Trump immigration policies

Olsi Vrapi, another Albuquerque attorney who specializes in immigration law, estimates there are roughly 40 ICE officers, including administrators, in the entire state. But many of these agents are now emboldened by the new administration in Washington D.C. and its get-tough rhetoric, he said.

He also explained the new attitude as a trajectory of a federal immigration enforcement system that escalated with deportations since the Obama administration instituted a “zero tolerance” policy on the U.S-Mexico border in 2009. While people caught crossing the border illegally were typically given the leeway to “voluntarily return” to their country before the “zero tolerance” policy, the Obama administration began prosecuting these people.

“Trump didn’t change the system overnight,” Vrapi said. “He was given a well-oiled machine that he’s ramping up to capacity.”

For years, the Obama administration deported immigrants illegally in the U.S. But around 2014, the administration started shifting its focus mostly on detaining immigrants if they had serious violent or drug-related crimes on their record, according to Vrapi, as well as more recent entrants. In most cases, these immigrants would be detained after getting arrested on or convicted of serious charges.

Since Trump took office, that policy has once again reversed. Now ICE is going after immigrants with infractions like driving under the influence, according to Adriel Orozco, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.

ICE is also now conducting more “targeted arrests,” said Orozco, referring to when agents identify people before pursuing them. Orozco also said he was aware of at least three instances in Albuquerque of “collateral arrests” of undocumented people ICE found while detaining or arresting others.

“These are people at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Orozco said.

This practice appears to be also happening in southern New Mexico, according to Sara Melton, a community organizer with Las Cruces-based Comunidades en Acción y de Fé.

“They’re definitely operating with increased activity and blanketing folks and quite frankly racially profiling,” Melton said.

New Mexico has three federal detention centers, all located in rural areas of Cibola, Torrence and Otero counties. Altogether, they include about 1,100 beds, according to Vrapi.

These beds may always be full from now on. That’s because ICE has apparently stopped allowing bond to immigrants who’ve been detained and are waiting for a federal immigration judge to hear their case. Without a bond, they’ll remain in detention, some for as long as five months, Kennedy said.

Related: Trump invites bids to build wall, cites importance of ‘aesthetics’

ICE’s refusal to grant bonds to detainees started happening in February around the same time as Trump’s executive order, Orozco said.

The order has even affected immigrants seeking asylum. Those caught entering the border illegally can lobby for asylum status by claiming that they fear for their safety if they’re forced to return to their country of origin.

From there, asylum-seekers participate in a “credible fear” interview conducted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If the agency finds their fears credible, these immigrants can be granted asylum status, which gives them a better chance of staying in the U.S. Or at least this is how it used to work, according to Vrapi.

“Now it’s becoming nearly impossible to get out [of detention], even if they pass those interviews,” Vrapi said.

The Trump administration is also escalating “expedited removal,” an enforcement measure  dating to 1997 that allows border patrol to deport those crossing the border before they’ve had the chance to appear before  a federal immigration judge. The Trump administration is extending this practice into the mainland, according to Kennedy, and using it to target undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for less than two years.

Keeping the door closed

As heavy-handed as enforcement has become, attorneys and advocates are quick to point to the rights that immigrants and others still have. ICE, for example, uses mostly administrative warrants against people that they believe have entered the country illegally. These don’t carry the legal weight of search warrants signed by judges, which would give agents the authority to enter a home, for example.

“It’s really important that folks know they do not need to open the door if someone comes to their home unless they see a warrant signed by a judge,” Justin Remer-Phamert, executive director of New Mexico Coalition for Immigrant Justice, said.

Orozco takes it a step further, advising people to not open their doors from anyone they don’t know in all cases.

“If they have a legal warrant to enter, they will,” Orozco said.

Yalil said he fears that his DACA status could be removed for any infraction. He said a co-worker’s husband was deported after not paying for a ticket at metro court.

“If you miss a stop sign, you know that that can get you in trouble,” he said.

His family has made tentative plans should something happen. If his mother gets deported, for example, she’ll take his two little brothers with her to Mexico even though they were born here and are U.S. citizens.

“I cannot take care of my little brothers, support the house, pay insurance for the car. It would be hard,” he said.

Under that plan, Yalil and his older brother, who is also a DACA recipient, would stay behind and sell their house “to have money to survive.”