In an adult education course at the United Methodist Church in Ypsilanti, Spanish speakers gather twice weekly in front of volunteer teachers to practice English and learn the nuances of American culture: what to expect on Halloween, how to navigate the bus system, what to do if a police officer pulls you over. “Conozco mis derechos,” the teachers instruct their pupils to say during that last lesson. “I know my rights.”

Courtesy of WICIR

For Washtenaw County’s undocumented immigrants, whose rights are the focus of an impassioned national debate, that last lesson is tricky. Laws and policies that either hinder or facilitate the work of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement have cropped up in state and city legislatures across the country. In the first half of 2008, 1,267 bills addressing illegal immigration have been considered in 45 state legislatures. At least 175 laws and resolutions having been enacted in 39 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some city police forces have made enforcing federal immigration law a local priority. Several cities on both coasts and every region have also taken the opposite stance, becoming “sanctuary cities” by enacting policies to protect their illegal citizens.

Where does uberliberal Ann Arbor fall on the spectrum? Not as left as you might think. And with ICE zoning in, undocumented immigrants living in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County are starting to feel it.

Staying out of custody comes down to avoiding the wrong place at the wrong time and, most importantly, knowing friend from foe. A network of activist organizations like the Washtenaw County Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights have taken up the banner for undocumented immigrants, staging several demonstrations against ICE here and in Detroit during summer and spring, and lobbying city government officials in Washtenaw County to enact protective policies.

WCICIR member Laura Sanders said that ICE has taken action in Washtenaw County more than 20 times since March, and that often several people were detained at once when the agency set out to arrest just one. But those are just the cases that people brought to the WCICIR’s attention—ICE doesn’t record the number of arrests made in individual counties or cities. Immigration activists, though, say ICE seems to be putting on the heat more than ever. “My own sense is the right-wing administration is trying to further their agenda before they’re out of office,” said WCICIR member Max Heirich, a former University sociology professor.

ICE spokesman Gregory Palmore said in an e-mail that the federal agency has upped its efforts everywhere, thus becoming more visible even in counties where the immigrant community it small. On the outskirts of Washtenaw County, where much of the undocumented population lives in trailer parks, ICE’s looming presence is like the boogey man. One day an officer might come for you. Or he might come for your friend and take you, too. ICE officers have the power to interrogate anyone about their identity and immigration status, so when they set out with a deportation warrant for one person, they often end up detaining the target’s companions, too.

ICE’s work in the county is wrapped in stories of human rights violations. Sanders said she has heard about front doors being broken down and parents roughed up in front of their children. Whether those are fact or fearful rumors is hard to say, but Sanders said when ICE makes an arrest the detainee’s family and friends generally don’t stick around—let alone report abuses and risk drawing questions about their own immigration status.

Palmore denied that violence occurs during ICE arrests.

“Under ICE, you will find the most humane detention system possibly in the world.” Palmore added that the agency adjusts the detention warrant for immigrants with children, detaining only one parent, or in the case of a sole-caregiver, allowing the family to stay at home and ordering the adult to appear in front of an immigration judge later.

But the personal aspects of immigration law enforcement, such as the breaking up of families, doesn’t bode well with some people, creating immigrant sympathizers among far-left liberals and conservative Christians alike. This contingent’s views are reflected in the more than 20 “sanctuary cities” with municipal policies that flaunt federal law and extend citizen rights to undocumented immigrants.

While Congress continues to vacillate between immigration reform and tighter regulation, state and municipal governments have skirted a lack of federal direction by enacting laws that make clear where they stand on the issue. Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and Jersey City all have ordinances banning city employees and police from asking about immigration status or collaborating with ICE.

Yale University’s hometown of New Haven endorses naturalization by providing municipal ID cards regardless of immigration status. But Ann Arbor, where many undocumented immigrants work, is conspicuously missing from the list of sanctuary cities.

Instead, Ann Arbor’s policies are vaguely noncommittal on supporting immigrant interests and leave the door open to a crackdown.

In response to the passage of the Patriot Act, Ann Arbor City Council approved a civil liberties resolution in 2003 opposing legislation that broadened federal agencies’ investigative powers as a violation of civil liberties. Although not legally binding, the resolution is still seen as a stride forward by WICIR members who have urged other city governments in the county to adopt something similar, Snyder said.

The resolution, which rails against solicitation of library records and racial profiling, contains strong language in support of the city’s immigrant community: “WHEREAS, The Ann Arbor Police Department has undertaken numerous efforts to build police and community trust in its enforcement actions and the USA PATRIOT Act and its related executive orders and regulations as adopted and implemented have the potential to drive a wedge between immigrant communities and the police who protect them.” City Council, it says, “strongly supports the rights of immigrants and opposes measures that single out individuals for legal scrutiny or enforcement activity based solely on their country of origin and/or religion.”

But for all its huff and puff about immigrant rights, the resolution stops short of banning the Ann Arbor Police from assisting ICE, throwing out the section in the draft originally proposed which ordered city police to “refrain from participating in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.”

The resolution City Council approved only discourages police involvement, saying that police should “continue to limit local enforcement actions with respect to immigration matters to penal violations of federal immigration law (as opposed to administrative violations) except in cases where the Chief of Police determines there is a legitimate public safety concern and in such public safety instances, to report the situation to the City Council no later than 60 days after the incident.”

The question of what constitutes limited enforcement arose last March when city police responded to a request from ICE officers for assistance in arresting two men in a car. Ann Arbor Police then observed the ICE officers detain a man for whom they had a deportation warrant and his acquaintance who had failed to prove his citizenship, AAPD Chief Barnett Jones said.

This situation troubled members of the Interfaith Coalition, who spoke in front of City Council last spring urging for a stronger resolution to completely ban city police from cooperating with ICE. The Michigan Daily reported at the time that Mayor John Hieftje sided with Jones in agreeing that a full-out ban on cooperation would not be in the interest of the city’s citizens, legal or illegal.

In an interview last week, Jones said AAPD officers observe ICE arrests to assure the situation doesn’t get violent and no human rights violations occur.

“Inside of the city of Ann Arbor, police action is the responsibility of the Ann Arbor Police,” he said. “If we are there, we can react to what happens. If we aren’t there, we can’t respond to what happens.”

But Sanders said the presence of AAPD officers at ICE raids leads the immigrant community to associate local police with ICE, making them unwilling to report crime or solicit police protection at the cost of their own safety. Public safety is one of the reasons sanctuary cities give for prohibiting police officers from asking immigration status.

The logic goes that even if part of a city’s population is illegal, any deterrence to call the police just means more unreported crime plaguing the city.

In Ann Arbor, individual officers decide how much attention to pay to the city’s undocumented workers and residents. But Jones said immigration law enforcement is not on the force’s regular agenda. “I have interpreted it that we are not actively going out to find out someone’s immigration status,” he said.

While the AAPD’s presence at ICE arrests troubles immigration activists, Snyder said WICIR members felt assured in their meeting with Jones. “When I met with him he said, ‘I will do what my bosses tell me to do, and my bosses are the mayor and City Council.’ “

If Jones were a different man, one with zeal for 1,969-mile border fences, the situation for Ann Arbor’s undocumented immigrants could be much different. On the other end of the spectrum from sanctuary cities, local police forces elsewhere have made immigration law a top priority by participating in ICE ACCESS, a training program that bestows the power to enforce immigration law on local officers. Through the program, local officers can interrogate and detain people on the suspicion that they are illegal immigrants. Palmore said no Michigan police forces have signed up for the program. Jones, who had not heard of the program, said he was uncertain whether he would allow ICE to train any of his officers.

In a break from Ann Arbor’s progressive reputation, the city’s policies trail timidly behind the vanguard in advocating immigration law reform. But WCICIR member Bob Snyder said he has spoken with several government officials in cities throughout the county who seem open to immigrant-friendly policies. In a meeting with WCICIR last spring, Hieftje and city council members said the resolution should be reviewed in light of alleged violence during ICE raids. Councilman Mike Anglin (D–Ward 5) said in an interview last week that the city should move toward sanctuary city-status to better reflect the citizenry’s position on immigration law. “Other cities have done a better job than we have and we need to take a stance that this is what we believe in,” he said.

But as Snyder acknowledged, a touchy issue like illegal immigration is not something politicians are wont to tackle head-on during election season.

“The problem as we know is it’s an election year, and who wants to handle a hot potato when there are a few hotter potatoes right now?” he said.

Nationally, Barack Obama is trying to market himself to more moderate voters, while John McCain is trying not to highlight his conspicuous defection from much of his party by playing up his support of bipartisan immigration legislation. Ann Arbor’s indifference on the issue could be the national course for a while.

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