Commission responds to deportations in Washtenaw County

Monday, February 11, 2019 - 1:14pm

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Kathryn Halverson

As immigration status has become an increasingly divisive political topic in recent years, student organizations and local activists are working to advocate undocumented students and Washtenaw County residents.

Local activist organization, Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, has addressed issues of immigration enforcement by advocating for and providing support to the families of undocumented individuals who have experienced raids or deportation orders by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

WICIR was founded in 2008 in response to a mobile home raid in Washtenaw County. Since then, ICE and local authorities have conducted several raids and local authorities, including a 2013 raid that displaced at least 15 individuals in Ypsilanti Township and a 2017 raid during which three employees at Sava’s in Ann Arbor were detained.

William Lopez, WICIR volunteer and Public Health professor, said the organization engages in anti-deportation campaigns, locates missing individuals and has implemented an urgent-response system for immigration-related issues. WICIR’s website also says the organization helps educate immigrants about their rights and resources.

According to Lopez, another main component of WICIR’s work is assisting the families of detained individuals. He said the families of detainees have basic needs that are often overlooked.

“People most often need food, they need diapers, they just need the stuff of everyday life,” Lopez said. “We focused so much attention on deportation that we forget the deeply human element.”

Immigration policies have shifted over the course of WICIR’s existence. Lopez said the Postville, Iowa raid of 2008, which led to the deportation of almost 400 workers, elicited such a negative public reaction that ICE began moving away from large-scale work raids. The Obama administration favored smaller raids and collaboration with local law enforcement officers, a decision that Lopez said decreased trust of police and led to a record number of removals.

Under the Trump administration, Lopez said, coordination between immigration officials and local police has continued. There has also been an uptick in workplace raids.

“With Trump, we see a return of these large-scale work raids,” Lopez said. “In my opinion, very purposefully visible flexing of muscle.”

The University of Michigan has also reacted to recent immigration policy changes. In response to travel restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, University President Mark Schlissel announced in 2017 the University would not disclose the immigration status of its students.

The University welcomes applications regardless of immigration status, according to a U-M website for undocumented students created by Student Community of Progressive Empowerment and the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives.

Noting none of WICIR’s anti-deportation campaigns have been successful since Trump’s election, Lopez said ICE appears to be less concerned with its image than in previous administrations.

“ICE’s public face used to be something that would cause them to change what they are doing. It’s no longer the case, generally speaking, anymore,” Lopez said. “They’re not ashamed of their violent immigration enforcement tactics.”

Because Washtenaw County is not located on a U.S. border, Lopez said most immigration enforcement occurs when an undocumented person gets a traffic ticket or an arrest. He said this makes undocumented immigrants less trusting of public services, especially since the Trump administration proposed a “public charge” rule in October 2018. The law would deny legal status to undocumented people who use certain public benefits.

“There’s this ambient fear of the unknown and of the potentially catastrophic that shakes folks’ willingness to use medical care and social services and interact with government officers,” Lopez said. “I’m not in the business of encouraging folks to trust law enforcement if their judgement tells them that they shouldn’t.”

Jason Forsberg, deputy chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department, said Chapter 120 of the city code, which prohibits public servants from asking about immigration status except in cases such as a criminal investigation, warrant or federal order, is meant to encourage undocumented people to trust law enforcement.

“The spirit behind that ordinance is that we don’t want people to be afraid to call us when they need help, and so that’s why when people are witnesses or victims of crimes, we would never ask for immigrant status,” Forsberg said.

Forsberg added most of the county follows a similar policy. The Board of Commissioners of Washtenaw County has published written support for local immigrant communities.

“Most, if not all, of the agencies in Washtenaw County, law enforcement agencies, have gotten together and we’re all sort of in agreement on how we would handle these types of things,” Forsberg said.

The U-M Division of Public Safety and Security follows a similar policy by only inquiring about immigration status in the case of a security threat, warrant or felony. According to DPSS Deputy Chief Melissa Overton, however, the University rarely has to communicate with ICE.

“We rarely have to talk to them,” Overton said. “We have had things in the past, but I can’t tell you how long ago it’s been. It’s mainly when somebody’s been arrested under another warrant and it comes up that they’re not here legally.”

LSA sophomore Sandra Perez is league representative for the Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, an organization that supports for undocumented and DACA-supported students. Perez said she and her peers are still pushing for change at U-M. For instance, SCOPE will attend the next meeting of the University’s Board of Regents to discuss the University’s 28-month policy, which states undocumented students only qualify as in-state students if they attended Michigan high schools and middle schools and matriculated to the University within 28 months of graduating high school.

Perez said the 28-month rule is unfairly stringent toward undocumented students, especially because undocumented students can’t apply for federal financial aid, making the cost of out-of-state tuition particularly challenging. SCOPE is working to eliminate the policy or change its interpretation.

“It is a discriminatory policy for undocumented students, specifically because a way to prove in-state residency is providing (proof) from middle or high school,” Perez said. “An undocumented student can provide all that information and more, and yet still be denied just because of the 28-month rule.”

Though there are no figures on the number of undocumented students on the University’s campus, Perez, who is under the protection of DACA herself, said SCOPE works with many undocumented students, helping them build leadership skills and find a community on campus.

“This is a very marginalized identity in a large university,” Perez said.