October 1, 2009

Co-Operation between Police and Immigration Agents Leads to the Deportation of Long-Term Residents of the US

I arrived at the airport just after 10:00am this morning to greet the two planeloads of deportees scheduled to arrive today. A flight from Miami, with 24 deportees, had already arrived when I walked in the door. One woman, twenty-three men. I was struck by the fact that at least five of the deportees were wearing their work clothes. One man had on a full McDonald’s uniform – cap and all. Another had on a crisp uniform with a striped shirt with the initials IBS on one side and his name “Domingo” embroidered on the other.

I had a chance to talk to one man who was wearing a golf course uniform – a green shirt with beige shorts. He told me he was getting ready to leave the house to go to work when ICE agents raided his house. He had been in the US for fifteen years, and had never been in trouble with the law. He was unaware that he had an outstanding deportation order, yet that was the motive for ICE agents coming to his house. In the US, he was an Evangelical pastor, and plans to go back to his town in northern Guatemala and spread the word of God.

Another man I met had lived in Orlando for four years. He took a Greyhound bus to Miami to get his Guatemalan passport. On the way back, ICE agents boarded the bus and checked everyone’s papers. He was undocumented, and ICE agents arrested him and deported him.

The second flight came in at twelve noon. There were 112 deportees aboard – only one woman. This flight originated in Louisiana, and made a stop in Georgia before coming to Guatemala. All of the people on board had been living in the US when they were picked up by ICE agents on the streets, in the criminal justice system, or in their homes.

I met two people who told me they were stopped on the highway at routine checkpoints. The first man told me he was pulled over in Akron, OH. According to him, the police officer pulled him over for DWL – “driving while Latino.” When the police officer found out he did not have a valid license, he was arrested and taken into custody. From the jail, the police called immigration and he was placed in deportation proceedings. Another person told me he was driving in Raleigh, NC when he was pulled over by the police in a routine stop. He had a valid driver’s license and his papers for his car were in order. However, the police officer noticed his accent and asked him for his immigration papers. He told the police officer that they were in his house. The officer arrested him and said he had to prove his legal status before he would be released. This man had been in the US for nearly twenty years. It turned out that his visa had expired, and he was deported.

A young man asked me to borrow my phone to call his family to come pick him up. When he finished talking, I asked him how long he had been in the US. He told me he had been there for 15 years, since he was three years old. In the US, he was a legal permanent resident, as were his parents. When he was 17, he got into trouble for driving without a license. He missed his court date, and was arrested. For these two crimes – driving without a license, and missing a court date – he was sentenced to two years in prison. As he was a minor, he only had to serve six months. At the end of his sentence, he was deported to Guatemala. I kept asking him to explain the details of his story to me, because it didn’t make sense to me that he could be deported on the basis of such minor infractions. I have no doubt that, with a good lawyer, he would have been able to avoid deportation.

I met another man whose story is unbelievable. He was adopted at the age of nine by American parents. They took him to the US, where he finished high school and went to college. He finished college and was working as a mechanical drafter. When he was in his thirties, he got into trouble with the law because of possession of drugs, and did time in prison. When he was released from prison, he was deported. It turned out that, even though his adoptive parents are American, they had to take the extra step to naturalize him in order for him to become a US citizen. They never did; he never did it on his own. And, today, he is not a citizen, and thus subject to deportation. Today, he found himself in Guatemala, the country he left with his parents at age nine.

What I saw in the airport today is that the cooperation between local police and immigration agents is creating a situation where police are asking people they encounter on the streets to prove their legal status in the US. I’d have to ask police officers to find out for sure how they are making the determination as to who is and who isn’t a citizen. However, it seems as if they are guessing on the basis of physical appearance and accent. And, in a diverse country such as the US, you can’t just look at someone and tell who is a citizen and who isn’t.

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