We the Immigrants
Editor’s note: The story of America is the story of immigrants. But since Donald Trump became president, the immigration issue has become a humanitarian crisis in the United States. Truthdig political correspondent Bill Boyarsky investigates the impact of Trump’s anti-immigrant racism on Los Angeles—home to 1 million undocumented immigrants—in this ongoing series for Truthdig called “Demonizing the City of Angels.” You can read all of Boyarsky’s stories in the series here.
Inventing immigration law as they go along, President Donald Trump and his crew are rapidly expanding the government’s already substantial power to deport undocumented immigrants.
It’s easy to lose sight of this effort. Media attention is focused on the tumultuous Trump White House and whether the Trump team dealt with the Russians in the lead-up to the election. Who can resist a good spy story?
However, in contrast to the administration’s inept performance on everything else, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a power in immigration policy, and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, who heads the nation’s immigration enforcement, are quickly manipulating and interpreting immigration law, rules and regulations in a way that gives much more power to the enforcers.
These efforts show how the Trump administration is bringing police-state tactics to the treatment of Muslim and Latino immigrants and their families, who find themselves fearing deportation.
Immigrants from Mexico and Central America are particular targets, although immigration law enforcers also are zeroing in on those from the Muslim-majority countries named by Trump in executive orders.
There are about 11 million undocumented immigrants, mostly Latino, in the United States. In addition, there are immigrant citizens or those with documents permitting them to live and work here. With immigration enforcement intensifying, even immigrants who become citizens fear being caught up in the net and treated as guilty until proven innocent.
Trump used executive authority in January to greatly broaden the power of immigration cops to stop, question and arrest anyone they suspect of being an undocumented immigrant. Trump also wants local police to assume the duty of immigration enforcers, joining the 10,000 additional federal officers the president aims to hire. Localities that don’t obey are threatened with the loss of federal funds, running into the billions nationally.
These are known as sanctuary cities, counties or states. The term is not precise and varies from municipality to municipality. But generally, they are jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Monday, the California State Senate passed a bill, SB 54, or the California Values Act, prohibiting local police officers and sheriff’s deputies from enforcing federal immigration laws. It still must be approved by the Assembly and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Last week, Sessions reiterated the threat to take away federal funds from such cities, counties and states.
“I urge our nation’s states and cities to consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to enforce our immigration laws and to rethink these policies,” Sessions told reporters in the White House briefing room. “Such policies make their cities and states less safe and put them at risk of losing valuable federal dollars.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a leader in the resistance to Trump’s anti-immigrant policy, replied sharply. In an email to me, through his press secretary, George Kivork, Garcetti said:
L.A.’s values are not for sale, and there are constitutional protections against the kind of punitive, counterproductive actions proposed today by the attorney general. Our policies are designed to keep our residents safe. Slashing funds for first responders, for our port and airport, for counterterrorism, crime-fighting and community-building serves no one—not this city, not the federal government, not the American people. We will fight to protect the safety and dignity of all Angelenos, and we will work closely with our representatives in Congress to make sure that Los Angeles does not go without federal resources that help protect millions of people every day.
Garcetti got to the heart of the matter when he invoked the Constitution and the protections it gives to everyone, including immigrants.
As the mayor’s statement reflects, the Trump administration is adopting policies, rejected by the Barack Obama team, that lower courts have ruled unconstitutional.
The most important example of this is the use of “detainers” from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Detainers are a key ICE tool to round up and deport undocumented immigrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union website explains that a detainer “is a written request that a local jail or other law enforcement agency detain an individual for an additional 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays) after his or her release date in order to provide ICE agents extra time to decide whether to take the individual into federal custody for removal purposes.” The names of everyone placed in a local jail are forwarded to ICE, which then decides who is in the country without documents and issues detainers.
According to a fact sheet issued by the Department of Homeland Security, the ICE net is wide and deep: “All of those present 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 ACLU contends that this may be unconstitutional. “ICE’s use of detainers to imprison people without due process and, in many cases, without any charges pending or probable cause of any violation has raised serious constitutional concerns,” the ACLU website says.
These detainers were also issued by the Obama administration, which enforced the immigration laws so vigorously that President Obama earned the title of “deporter in chief.” But so many detainers were overturned by the courts on constitutional grounds that Obama eased the policy. Now Trump is returning to the earlier, tougher standard.
A former top Homeland Security Department official under Obama, Seth Stodder, wrote in Politico: “Some administration officials have said the main focus remains on removing criminal undocumented immigrants, but the language of Trump’s executive order could not be clearer: it applies to everyone. And with every news report of an ICE raid in front of a school, or an enforcement action against a noncriminal undocumented immigrant, many justifiably fear that a broad roundup of all removable aliens is coming.”
Many police chiefs have long been reluctant to obey detainers or enforce other aspects of federal immigration law, although some sheriffs go along with it. Since 1979, Los Angeles police have been ordered not to ask the immigration status of people they stop. The LAPD attitude, and that of departments in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York and other cities, is that roundups of undocumented immigrants would disrupt immigrant communities and frighten them off from reporting crimes, including domestic violence. In 2006, long before the coming of Trump, an organization of big-city police executives, the Major Cities Chiefs, said:
Any initiative to involve local police agencies in the enforcement of immigration laws should be completely voluntary. The decisions related to how local law enforcement agencies allocate their resources, direct their workforce and define the duties of their employees to best serve and protect their communities should be left in the control of state and local governments. The decision to enter this area of enforcement should be left to the local government and not mandated or forced upon them by the federal government through the threat of sanctions or the withholding of existing police assistance funding.
But those aren’t the words guiding Trump and his attorney general. Rather, Trump and Sessions are relying on the tactics used by the discredited Joe Arpaio when he was sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz. For years, his Phoenix-area deputies routinely stopped dark-skinned people and often arrested those who couldn’t produce identification papers. Arpaio campaigned with Trump, who praised his tactics.
Arpaio was defeated last year and now is charged with contempt in federal court for ignoring a court order in a racial-profiling case that aimed to stop his immigration patrols.
The Trump policy will encourage that kind of racial profiling and persecution on a national basis. Mayors like L.A.’s Garcetti and their police chiefs should continue to resist Trump. Their resistance reminds us that we’re a nation of immigrants, with each generation enriching and strengthening the United States.