The case of one woman who was suddenly taken away from her family illustrates the harsh mood in the US — but has also galvanised resistance to deportations, writes Marcela Valdes.
On Monday, February 6, two days before Guadalupe García Aguilar made headlines as the first person deported under US president Donald Trump’s new executive orders on immigration, she and her family drove to the modest stucco offices of Puente, an organisation that represents undocumented immigrants.
It was a postcard day: warm and dry, hovering around 21°C, the kind of winter afternoon that had long ago turned Phoenix into a magnet for American retirees and the younger, mostly Latin American immigrants who mulch their gardens and build their homes.
García Aguilar and her family — her husband and two children — squeezed together with four Puente staff members into the cramped little office that the group uses for private consultations.
Carlos Garcia, Puente’s executive director, had bought a fresh pack of cigarettes right before the talk; he needed nicotine to carry him through the discomfort of telling García Aguilar that she would almost certainly be deported on Wednesday. Until that moment, she and her family had not wanted to believe that the executive orders Trump signed on January 25 had made her expulsion a priority.
She had been living in the US for 22 years, since she was 14 years old; she was the mother of two US citizens; she had missed being eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme by just a few months. Suddenly, none of that counted anymore.
García Aguilar’s troubles with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began in 2008, after police raided Golfland Sunsplash, the amusement park in Mesa, Arizona, where she worked. She spent three months in jail and three months in detention. (ICE booked her under the last name “García de Rayos”.)
In 2013, an immigration court ordered her removal. Yet, under pressure from Puente, which ultimately filed a class-action lawsuit contending that Maricopa County’s work-site raids were unconstitutional, ICE allowed García Aguilar (and dozens of others) to remain in Arizona under what is known as an order of supervision.
ICE could stay her removal because the Obama administration’s guidelines for the agency specified terrorists and violent criminals as priorities for deportation.
But Trump’s January orders effectively vacated those guidelines; one order specifically instructed that “aliens ordered removed from the United States are promptly removed”.
García Aguilar, who had a felony for using a fabricated Social Security number, was unlikely to be spared.
Orders of supervision are similar to parole; undocumented immigrants who have them must appear before ICE officers periodically for “check-ins”. García Aguilar’s next check-in was scheduled for Wednesday, February 8. She had three options, Carlos Garcia explained. She could appear as usual and hope for the best. She could try to hide. Or she could put up a fight, either from a place of sanctuary or by appearing for her check-in amid media coverage that Puente would organise on her behalf. Whatever she decided, he said, she would be wise to spend Tuesday preparing for separation from her children.
The family was devastated. García Aguilar left the meeting red-faced with tears.
The next day, a dozen activists gathered at Puente to plan García Aguilar’s case. After reviewing the logistics for the usual public manoeuvres — Facebook post, news release, online petition, sidewalk rally, Twitter hashtag, phone campaign — they debated the pros and cons of using civil disobedience, or “CD” as they called it. In the final years of the Obama administration, activists in Arizona had come to rely on CD to make their dissatisfaction known. Puente members had blocked roads and chained themselves in front of the entrance to Phoenix’s Fourth Avenue Jail.
Shortly before 12pm on Wednesday, García Aguilar and her lawyer, Ray Ybarra Maldonado, entered ICE’s field office as supporters chanted “No está sola!” (You are not alone!) behind her. Telemundo, Univision and ABC shot footage. Supporters posted their own videos on Twitter and Facebook. ICE security warily eyed the scene. An hour later, Ybarra Maldonado exited ICE alone. García Aguilar had been taken into custody.
That night, a handful of protesters tried to block several vans as they sped from the building’s side exit. More protesters came running from an ICE decoy bus that had initially distracted protestors out front.
Manuel Saldaña, an Army veteran who did two tours in Afghanistan, planted himself on the ground next to one van’s front tyre, wrapping his arms and legs around the wheel. Peering through the van windows with mobile phone flashlights, protesters found García Aguilar sitting in handcuffs. The crowd doubled in size.
“Those shifty [expletive],” Ybarra Maldonado said as he stared at the van. ICE, he said, had never notified him that her stay of deportation had been denied.
Four hours later, García Aguilar was gone. After Phoenix Police arrested seven people and dispersed the crowd, ICE took her to Nogales, Mexico. By then, images of García Aguilar and the protest were already all over television and social media.
She and her children became celebrities within the immigrant rights movement. Later that month, her children — Jacqueline, 14, and Angel, 16 — sat in the audience of Mr Trump’s first address to the US Congress, guests of two Democratic representatives from Arizona, Raúl Grijalva and Ruben Gallego.
During the Obama years, most immigrant rights organisations focused on big, idealistic legislation: the Dream (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, and comprehensive immigration reform, neither of which ever made it through Congress.
But Puente kept its focus on front-line battles against police-ICE collaboration. For Carlos Garcia, who was undocumented until a stepfather adopted him at 16, the most important thing is simply to contest all deportations, without exception.
Ever since Arizona passed the US Senate Bill 1070 (SB1070), one of the toughest anti-undocumented bills ever signed into law, the state has been known for pioneering the kind of draconian tactics that the Trump administration is turning into federal policy. But if Arizona has been a testing ground for the nativist agenda, it has also been an incubator for resistance to it. Among the state’s immigrant rights groups, Puente stands out as the most seasoned and most confrontational.
In the weeks and months following Election Day 2016, Carlos Garcia was inundated with calls for advice. He flew around the country for training sessions with field organisers, strategy meetings with lawyers and policy experts and an off-the-record round table with senators Dick Durbin and Bernie Sanders in Washington.
A soft-spoken man with a stoic demeanour and a long, black ponytail, Garcia was stunned by Mr Trump’s victory. But organisers in Phoenix had one clear advantage.
“All the scary things that folks are talking about,” he told me, “we’ve seen before.”
On November 9, he likes to say, the country woke up in Arizona.
During the 1990s, after US president Bill Clinton’s administration cracked down on illegal entries at the border near San Diego, migrants crossed the desert into Arizona instead, and the state’s undocumented population swelled. In response, the US State Legislature passed laws intended to make the daily lives of the undocumented untenable. Arizona cut off access to driver’s licences, social services, and in-state college tuition; it reclassified the use of a fake Social Security number to gain employment as a serious crime.
In 2007, Maricopa County — an area that includes nearly 4m people and the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale and Mesa — went further, signing what’s known as a 287(g) agreement with ICE. These agreements give local law-enforcement agencies the power to place immigration detainees inside jails and to assemble task forces to arrest people suspected of being undocumented.
That year, Arizona’s undocumented population reached roughly half a million people. In Maricopa County, Sheriff Joseph Arpaio aimed to make that number plummet. He directed police to conduct “crime suppression” sweeps in predominantly Latino neighbourhoods and to raid businesses. Maricopa County voters appeared delighted with his tactics; for a time, “Sheriff Joe” was the most popular elected official in the state.
During its early years, Puente planned protest marches, organised boycotts against local businesses that supported Arpaio, and ran know-your-rights classes in Spanish.
When Arizona Republicans passed SB1070 in 2010, Puente and the National Day Laborer Organising Network began a national boycott that was estimated to cost Arizona over $200m (€117m) in cancelled business conferences; 100,000 people marched against the bill in Phoenix. Yet these actions did little to stop actual deportations. So in the wake of SB1070, Puente adopted a new strategy, setting up neighbourhood defence committees, or comités del barrio, throughout Maricopa County. Through the comités, Puente cultivated relationships with hundreds of undocumented people and their families with the goal of piecing together a detailed understanding of how ICE and Arpaio worked. By 2011, it could draw a map tracing the system from arrest to deportation — and mark each point on the way where a person had the possibility of release.
But even as the comités were being assembled, there was lingering tension within the broader immigrant-activist community on whether ‘Dreamers’, who had been brought to the US as minors, should represent themselves separately from the rest of the undocumented population.
Undocumented students at Arizona State University had organised themselves into their own tightly- knit group, the Arizona Dream Act Coalition (ADAC). Nurtured by other organisers and inspired by the national organisation United We Dream, ADAC members came out of the shadows to push Congress to pass the Dream Act and to fight for other legislative exceptions, like in-state tuition.
“Early on, a lot of Dreamers wouldn’t even talk about deportations,” Mr Garcia says.
“It was all about the Dream Act, figuring out tuition and those sorts of things, driver’s licences.”
He was irritated by the Dreamers’ tendency to portray themselves as innocent victims, a tactic that opened the door for conservatives to speak of Dreamers with empathy even as they cracked down on their parents as “criminals” (Mr Trump has expressed support for Dreamers). But after SB1070’s “papers please” law overcame court battles and went into effect in September 2012, collaborations between Puente and ADAC increased. In Arizona, the police were now obligated to question anyone that they had “reasonable suspicion” to believe was undocumented.
As a result, a new wave of undocumented residents, including many
Dreamers’ parents, found themselves snared in deportation proceedings.
The week ICE deported Guadalupe García Aguilar, more than 600 undocumented immigrants were picked up in raids across the country. This in itself wasn’t unusual: ICE surges had occurred many times during Obama’s presidency.
Yet because Mr Trump’s presidential campaign had promised millions of deportations, the surge could now be spun as a change in federal policy. Mr Trump himself basked in the news.
“The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise,” he tweeted that Sunday. “Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!”
On a blazing afternoon this May, signs lay stacked in piles throughout Puente’s large meeting room. Blue hummingbirds on one sign flew through the words “Resist!” “Resiste!”; on another, Aztec gods pointed like Uncle Sam over the question “Who you calling illegal, Pilgrim?” Maria Castro, an ADAC veteran who had become a Puente organiser, explained to me how Puente’s strategy had shifted in the months since the effort to save García Aguilar failed.
With a black crayon, she drew six boxes in a row, each symbolising a stage in the deportation process: police, city court, prison, ICE, immigration court, deportation.
Before Mr Trump, she said, Puente had focused its efforts on stopping deportations at ICE or after. But now that Mr Trump had vacated Mr Obama’s priorities and reduced the likelihood of prosecutorial discretion, “everything from city court forward no longer works”. She drew a red line through five of the boxes, leaving only one unscathed: The initial point of police contact.
After Mr Arpaio fully lost his 287(g) status in 2011 amid allegations of abuse, he allowed ICE to install an agent inside central booking at the Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix. Because that agent could question anyone charged with any offence right after fingerprinting, Ms Castro told me, most undocumented people who are arrested in Maricopa County have an ICE hold on them by the time they are arraigned.
Last year, ICE requested the detention of 3,483 people in Maricopa County jails. The signs lying around the room were for Puente’s May Day march, the theme of which was “ICE out of Fourth Avenue”. Last Autumn, many assumed that Mr Trump would instigate huge roundups of the undocumented.
Yet, so far, the process for deportations in Arizona has mostly followed the pattern set by Arpaio; the undocumented are first caught by the police. (Nationally, however, ICE’s non-criminal arrests have increased 157% compared to the first four months of 2016.)
“Trump doesn’t have to do much to deport anyone he wants to, because Obama has already built this machinery for him,” Garcia told me. Under Obama, 287(g) agreements proliferated.
Mr Obama deported nearly 3m undocumented immigrants, more than any president in American history.
For Puente, one of the stranger outcomes of Mr Trump’s election is that, for the first time, they stand a chance of dismantling some police-ICE collaborations. Fighting individual deportation cases has become harder, but policy battles have won traction in Phoenix, where Democrats still hold significant power.
That May Day, García Aguilar’s family joined hundreds of protesters for Puente’s march from Arizona’s Capitol to the Fourth Avenue Jail. “With ICE there’s now no right or wrong,” García Aguilar’s husband told me.
His wife had decided not to hide from ICE, he said, because living on the run “no es vida” — is not life. But as time goes by, he finds her absence more and more difficult.
“Now,” he said, “maybe it’s better not to show up.”
Mr Trump’s January 25 orders have made the concept of a single national strategy to stop deportations irrelevant. Under Obama, ICE’s prosecutorial priorities were consistent from state to state because they were clearly defined by the Department of Homeland Security and ICE in Washington.
Mr Trump’s orders, however, expanded prosecutorial priorities so broadly that , as a practical matter, there no longer exist any priorities at all. Much has been made of the fact that Mr Trump has essentially ceded America’s military strategy to its generals. His handling of ICE, whose field directors now set the agency’s direction, appears similar.
A week after May Day, Marco Tulio Coss Ponce, who had lived in Arizona under an order of supervision since 2013, appeared at ICE’s field office in Phoenix with his lawyer, Ravindar Arora, for a check-in.
ICE officers, Mr Arora said, knew that Mr Coss Ponce was about to file an application for asylum — several of his relatives had been recently killed or threatened by the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico — and they had assured Arora several times that Mr Coss Ponce would not be removed.
They said he simply needed to wear an ankle monitor to make sure he didn’t disappear. The fitting was delayed several times until finally Mr Arora had to leave to argue a case in court. After he departed, ICE officers handcuffed Mr Coss Ponce and put him in a van, alone. Three hours later, he was in Nogales.
Adapted from an article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
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