The first sign of trouble came late last year, when employees at local Mexican restaurants started getting pulled over.
The offenses were minor: failure to signal a lane change, stopping just a bit over the white line at intersections – the sort of ticky-tack stuff cops only seem to notice when they’re really looking for something else.
Juan, a naturalized citizen from Mexico who asked that his real name not be published for fear of reprisals at work, said that some suspected they were being followed as they drove between their homes and restaurants that provided a bootstrap existence.
“I call them the desperate housewives,” Juan says of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and their allies in state and local law enforcement. “They’re doing a job that’s not going to help anybody. It’s the most stupid thing they are doing.”
Stupid or not, they have badges. And they used them last March 27 during raids on three homes and four restaurants, including Good Tequilas on South Sixth Street and three Xochimilco locations in Springfield and Chatham. Nineteen illegal immigrants were arrested and charged with violating immigration laws. All have pleaded guilty and are either back in Mexico or on their way.
They were proverbial drops in a very big bucket.
Math alone shows the futility of current immigration policy and enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 11.5 million illegal immigrants are living in the United States. During July 10 testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee, John Morton, ICE director, said that the system has a capacity of 400,000 deportations per year. It works out to nearly 29 years of maximum-capacity deportations before all the illegals are gone, and that’s assuming no one without papers crosses the border again. And so authorities pick and choose who stays and who goes, with dishwashers and waiters at the top of the list – or the bottom, depending on one’s point of view.
In the aftermath of the March raids, Diane Lopez Hughes, a Springfield social-justice activist, and Juan met with officials at the Illinois Secretary of State’s office who acknowledged the truth: The police officer who had been pulling over Hispanics before the raids was employed by Secretary of State Jesse White.
“We expressed concerns because there’s an atmosphere of fear,” says Hughes, who has helped start a group called Advocacy And Support For Immigrants, which provides such assistance as finding apartments and arranging for transportation for illegal immigrants. “They (immigrants) don’t know why people are being stopped. They’re worried about their families and their jobs, whether they’re documented or not.”
David Druker, White spokesman, is candid: The officer overstepped her bounds and has been ordered to cease making traffic stops as part of her work for an ICE task force.
“We put an end to that,” Druker said. “There was at least one incident. Our people are there to check on the status of driver’s licenses, not stop people. The original intent was for her not to be on the road. Her role is to check records.”
Druker said the officer will still work for the task force, ensuring that driver’s licenses found on folks under ICE suspicion aren’t phony. But she’ll do it from behind a desk, not from behind the wheel, Druker said.
Hughes says that the secretary of state has more important tasks than enforcing immigration law.
“It shocks me, that at a time when the secretary of state is talking about laying off 60 people that the secretary of state’s office would pay for this position to support ICE in a totally discretionary type of procedure,” Hughes says.
The willingness of the secretary of state to help ICE stands in contrast to the stance of Gov. Pat Quinn, who has ordered state police to withhold information from feds on the hunt for illegal immigrants. Officials in Cook County have also refused to provide information to ICE that could lead to deportations. The recalcitrance in Illinois has frustrated the feds to the point that Morton has talked about withholding federal funds from Cook County and perhaps suing to force the county to funnel illegal immigrants into federal custody.
Why is the secretary of state helping ICE?
“Our attempt here is to fight identity theft and get false documents out of the system,” Druker answers.
With the Secretary of State cop no longer allowed to pull over dishwashers who don’t use turn signals, ICE has reached out to the Sangamon County sheriff’s office for help in enforcing immigration law.
“We have talked to ICE, and we’re in talks with them right now about developing a task force,” said Jack Campbell, chief deputy for the sheriff’s office.
Campbell says talks began last spring. Deputies would work part-time for the federal agency, which would pay all costs, he said.
“We were approached by them about adding a deputy to the task force,” Campbell says. “It’s about having marked squad cars that are better able to make traffic stops.”
While deputies would have a chance to make extra money by working for ICE in addition to their regular duties, the sheriff’s office could benefit by getting a share of money or anything else of value seized during immigration enforcement actions, Campbell said.
“We enforce every law on the books,” Campbell said. “Part of our job is to provide a blanket of security.”
Traffic cops working for ICE, which has been deporting immigrants in record numbers since Barack Obama became president, sounds scary to critics of federal immigration policy.
“That’s very inconsistent with their public statements, and very inconsistent with civil rights,” says Jacqueline Stevens, a Northwestern University political science professor who has written extensively about the history of immigration and immigration enforcement. “They’re using traffic stops as a law-enforcement technique to deport people, and that’s absolutely what they’re denying that they’re doing.”
In response to concerns about ICE’s priorities, an advisory committee composed of lawyers, law-enforcement officers, academics and others last year issued a damning report, saying that ICE should reconsider deporting people hauled in on minor traffic offenses.
ICE didn’t disagree.
“ICE agrees that enforcement action based solely on a charge for a minor traffic offense is generally not an efficient use of government resources,” ICE officials wrote in an April response to the critical report.
ICE also says that it does not tolerate racial profiling when enforcing immigration law and that it prioritizes cases. In response to critics who say the government has better things to do than deport otherwise law-abiding immigrants who don’t have authorization to live or work in the United States, ICE in April said that it would wait for convictions before deporting illegal immigrants stopped for traffic infractions.
The first priority, ICE says, is deporting criminals. Nearly 217,000 people, or 55 percent of more than 396,000 people deported last year, had committed crimes, with nearly 17 percent of those offenders having been convicted of drunken driving and more than 20 percent found guilty of drug offenses, ICE says.
Next on the agency’s priority list are people who have engaged in immigration fraud or committed multiple immigration violations, such as returning to the U.S. after a previous deportation or ignoring a court order to leave the country. ICE says that more than 96,500 of the people deported last year, or 24 percent of deportations, fell into that category. Recent border crossers are also a priority, with 45,938 deportations, or nearly 12 percent of the total, consisting of people who had recently snuck into the country.
Nearly 10 percent of deportations in 2011 did not fall under any of ICE’s priorities, according to the agency’s statistics, which have come under fire by critics such as Stevens, the Northwestern University professor, who says that a large portion of the people ICE considers criminals are guilty of nothing more than illegally re-entering the United States or possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Even immigrants who are here legally are living in fear, according to Hughes and others.
“Like in every other community, people start getting paranoid,” said Claudia Fabian of Springfield, a naturalized citizen from Argentina who works for the state Department of Public Health and is active with Advocacy And Support For Immigrants. “You start thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t speak Spanish when I go out.’ … Even if you are not on my side, the other side is insane. What are we becoming, a police state?”
“I told them I was a citizen”
ICE’s zest for deportations can overcome safeguards designed to protect legal immigrants from ending up in jail on suspicions that prove empty. Ask Jhon Ocampo of Springfield.
Ocampo, 26, is no saint. He’s done time in state prison and has a felony record that includes aggravated battery and destruction of property. Sangamon County court records also show guilty pleas for shoplifting and violating an order of protection. Born in Colombia, Ocampo is a U.S. citizen by virtue of his mother becoming a naturalized citizen a decade ago.
Ocampo’s nightmare began on May 4, when he was picked up by ICE at his home and hauled to the Sangamon County jail.
“I told them I was a citizen – I told those people so many times I’m a citizen,” Ocampo recalls. “They didn’t care to follow up on it.”
That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, according to a 2009 memo from Morton to the agency’s field offices and lawyers.
“If an individual already in custody claims to be a U.S. citizen, an officer must immediately examine the merits of the claim and notify and consult with his or her local office of chief counsel,” ICE’s top official wrote.
According to Morton’s memo, ICE officials must issue a report on citizenship claims to higher-ups within 24 hours of a claim being made by someone in custody, and officers in the field are supposed to receive a decision on what should be done within 24 hours of the report being filed. In short, ICE is supposed to get to the bottom of citizenship claims within 48 hours if someone has been jailed.
“If the individual’s claim is credible on its face, or if the investigation results in probative evidence that the detained individual is a U.S. citizen, the individual should be released from detention,” Morton wrote.
Instead of getting released, Ocampo spent four days in the Sangamon County jail before being driven in chains with other detainees to a jail in Ullin, which is 200 miles south of Springfield. After spending a night in the downstate jail just 10 miles from the Kentucky border, Ocampo says that he and four others were shackled, put in a van and driven to Chicago. They were not allowed a bathroom break during the eight-hour journey, he says.
“One thing I won’t ever forget, when we were passing through Effingham, I saw the big white cross Effingham has,” Ocampo wrote in a diary memorializing the saga. “It looked so gorgeous with the moon close to it and the stars. That sight brought hope and a little bit of peace to my heart, so I prayed again.”
After an all-night journey, Ocampo arrived in Chicago at 8 a.m. on May 10. He was freed at 4:15 p.m. that same day, having spent six days in jail or chained up in transport vans. He credits a lawyer hired by his family for getting him out of jail, and he figures he dodged a bullet.
“I was very close – they were really trying to deport me,” Ocampo says. “They really messed up.”
From beginning to end, Ocampo’s tale is one of bureaucratic bungling. Before he got picked up by ICE, Ocampo says that immigration authorities a few years ago in St. Louis renewed his green card, which denotes a non-citizen’s right to live and work in the United States. Ocampo says that immigration officials who authorized a new green card told him that he was a citizen by virtue of his mother’s naturalization when he was a minor. How, he asks, can a citizen get a green card?
Furthermore, Ocampo says that he had a bond while in custody and would have been quickly freed if he could have come up with $135,000. Assuming that the government was right and he was, in fact, a foreigner with a felony record, Ocampo says he should not have been given the chance to get out of jail by posting a bond.
Regardless of whether Ocampo had a green card or a bond, Stevens says that it should have been a simple matter to call up records on a computer and confirm that his mother became a naturalized citizen when he was younger than 18. She says that Ocampo was right to fear deportation.
“One of the things I’m very concerned about is the government ignoring the Morton memorandum (on verifying citizenship claims),” Stevens says. “The kinds of things Jhon was worried about are not hypothetical.”
Ocampo isn’t alone.
On July 3, James Makowski, who lives near Chicago, sued U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and the heads of ICE, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security for putting him in prison after he was wrongly identified as an illegal immigrant.
Makowski, 25, was born in India and adopted by an American family as an infant. He became a naturalized citizen more than two decades ago and holds a U.S. passport. The government got his fingerprints when he joined the Marines eight years ago. In 2010, Makowski was arrested on a heroin charge, and his fingerprints were automatically forwarded to ICE.
Makowski pleaded guilty to the drug charge and was supposed to go to a four-month boot camp program, then be released. During processing for boot camp, an ICE agent interviewed Makowski, who showed the agent his U.S. passport, according to court documents. Soon thereafter, Makowski was transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison. ICE had tagged him as an illegal immigrant ineligible for boot camp. Instead, he was facing seven years of hard time.
With the help of a lawyer hired by his family, Makowski got the error corrected and was transferred from prison to boot camp, but not before he spent two months locked up in Pontiac. Instead of being released in mid-May of last year, as originally scheduled, he was incarcerated until July 20, 2011, according to his lawsuit against the government.
Like Makowski, Ocampo has a lawyer. Asked if the government can expect a lawsuit, Paul Grotas, Ocampo’s attorney, had a simple answer.
In an email, Gail Montenegro, ICE spokeswoman, says that ICE released Ocampo “as soon as ICE received evidence of his derived U.S. citizenship status.
“ICE treats all claims of U.S. citizenship with the utmost seriousness,” Montenegro wrote.
Q: What is the rule of law?
A: Everyone must follow the law, no one is above the law, leaders must obey
the law, government must obey the law.
— From the citizenship test administered by the Department of Homeland Security
“I believe in the idea of amnesty”
While dishwashers get deported, waiters get busted for broken taillights and citizens get jailed because the government can’t keep records straight or follow policies, some folks remain free.
Consider Jose Antonio Vargas, whose photograph appeared on the June 25 cover of Time magazine.
Vargas, 31, is perhaps America’s most famous illegal immigrant. In a New York Times story published last year, Vargas, a journalist, admitted that he was sent here illegally from the Philippines by his parents when he was 12. After learning his immigration status in 1997, he used false documents to obtain employment, a driver’s license and a college education. In short, Vargas admits misusing documents to obtain work – the same offense that resulted in restaurant workers getting rounded up in Springfield last spring. Yet, Vargas remains in the United States.
In the Time story published last month, Vargas writes that he recently called ICE to ask if he will be deported and was told that the agency has no record of him and won’t comment on specific cases. But Vargas knows why he’s still here while dishwashers and chicken processors and landscapers and roofers and maids are plucked up.
“A Philippine-born, college-educated, outspoken mainstream journalist is not the face the government wants to put on its deportation program,” Vargas writes.
Then there is Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student convicted last spring of multiple felonies in connection with the suicide of his former roommate, who killed himself after Ravi used a webcam to capture and broadcast his unsuspecting roommate kissing another man.
Besides being convicted of bias intimidation, a hate crime, Ravi was found guilty of tampering with evidence and witnesses. He faced 10 years in prison but received a 30-day sentence. He also could have been deported, given he is a citizen of India with a green card. But after supporters urged mercy, federal authorities said that Ravi can stay in the United States.
How is that fair for illegal immigrants who butcher chickens and pick crops and don’t commit crimes while being told that everyone is equal under the law?
It’s a fair question, Stevens allows.
“It just shows their hypocrisy,” Stevens says. “It also shows that they want to keep this stuff hidden. If they deport someone who’s high-profile and who gets attention, people will start asking questions about our deportation process and the fairness.”
Some have suggested a kinder, gentler way.
“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put roots down and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”
Ronald Reagan uttered those words on the campaign trail, two years before signing 1986 legislation that offered legal status to anyone who had lived in the U.S. for at least four years without committing a felony or more than two misdemeanors. Nearly three million illegal immigrants came forward and became legal while gross domestic product zoomed and unemployment dropped during an economic boom that lasted two decades.
Today’s conservatives paint immigrants as job stealers and criminals while the Obama administration has deported more people than any administration since the 1950s. Fabian, the state worker who helps Springfield’s illegal immigrants, says that she’ll vote for Obama again, but she’s disappointed.
“He promised immigration reform,” Fabian says. “I want to believe that he’s not lying – he has to pick and choose what to do first. What we have is bad, and nothing is going to change.
“People are going to keep coming.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.