Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Anti-Immigrant Agenda Advances: Don’t Be Distracted by Trump’s Rants

Prayer vigil in Morristown, TN, elementary school after raid. Photo: CNN
Update 4/26/18: At an April 25 congressional hearing, Jeff Sessions announced that he had changed his mind and wouldn't suspend the Legal Orientation Program, at least for now.

In a major raid on April 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained 97 employees at a family-owned meat-processing plant in Bean Station, Tennessee. The detentions devastated the rural area’s immigrant community. Local sources reported that some 600 children failed to attend school the next day, and churches were providing shelter for dozens of minors left without caregivers. More than 1,000 people gathered at a local elementary school on April 8 to show support for the detainees’ families. This was reportedly the largest workplace raid since the administration of George W. Bush, which carried out a number of massive raids, culminating in the May 2008 detention of 389 workers at a meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa

The dramatic raid in Tennessee was hardly more than a blip in most national media. Immigration coverage that week had been overwhelmed by a burst of incoherent and fact-free rants from Donald Trump about borders and what he called “ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release.” But the raid is an important example of the extent to which the Trump administration has already been able to implement a hard-line anti-immigrant agenda without the need for Congressional approval—and without attracting a lot of attention from the media or the groups that focus on lobbying and electoral politics.

Making Bad Courts Worse

One area where the administration has concentrated its efforts is the immigration court system.

Despite the name, these courts aren’t part of the U.S. judiciary system; they’re administrative courts operated by the Department of Justice. In other words, an immigration judge is employed by the same executive branch which comes to the court seeking an immigrant’s deportation. This essential unfairness has been detailed neatly by TV satirist John Oliver. But now Attorney General Jeff Sessions is working to make the system even worse.

The immigration courts suffer from a massive backlog of more than 650,000 cases, one aggravated by the administration’s decision to step up detentions and deportations. Congress has provided funds to hire 100 additional immigration judges to help with the backlog, but this isn’t enough for Sessions. In a memo sent out at the end of March, the attorney general set a quota for immigration judges: starting in October each judge is expected to clear 700 cases a year. What this will produce is “an assembly line, not a judicial system,” according to a Los Angeles Times editorial, with “the very real risk of subverting due process rights as individual judges place their job security ahead of justice.”

Jeff Sessions. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Since the cases brought before immigration courts are civil, not criminal, the government isn’t required to provide the immigrant defendants with lawyers. Since 2003 the Justice Department has sponsored a program (the Legal Orientation Program, LOP) which gives  some relief by offering legal advice to about 50,000 immigrants each years. A 2012 Justice Department study found that the LOP actually saves the government money and helps reduce the courts’ backlog, but as of April 10 the department had suspended the program, ostensibly in order to audit its cost-effectiveness. “This is a blatant attempt by the administration to strip detained immigrants of even the pretense of due-process rights,” Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, told the Washington Post.

Sessions is also working to reduce the independence of the immigration court system’s appellate unit, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The attorney general has the authority to rule on cases and even to overturn BIA decisions, but Sessions’ predecessors used the powers sparingly. In contrast, the current AG has taken over three cases this year alone and has already decided one in a way that threatens the due process rights of asylum seekers. Stephen Legomsky, a former lead counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, calls the attorney general substituting his decisions for those of the BIA “analogous to a prosecutor in a criminal case deciding the case.”

Republican “Family Values”

The executive branch also has a great deal of leeway in how it handles the detention and deportation of immigrants it targets. There have been many abuses of this power in the past, but the present administration seems on track to set a record.

On April 10 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action suit in federal court in Boston challenging what it charged was a pattern of the government detaining immigrants as they were applying to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)  to gain legal status as spouses of U.S. citizens. The suit cites seven cases in January alone of immigrants arrested while they were visiting USCIS offices in Massachusetts or Rhode Island while engaged in the application process.

The government can be equally harsh in the way it treats immigrants once they are detained. Before last December, immigration authorities released most pregnant immigrants while their cases were pending. The Trump administration ended the policy in December, and 506 pregnant women were placed in detention during the first three months of this year. Meanwhile, advocates say the Border Patrol has instituted a policy of separating the families of asylum seekers, leaving even very small children in isolation from their parents.

The Department of Homeland Security denies that there is a policy “that encourages the separation of parents from their children as a punitive or deterrence measure,” but advocates say there are “hundreds of cases.” This is from an administration led by a political party claiming that “family is the bedrock of our nation.”

“Thank You for Your Service”

But Trump’s immigration apparatus follows policies still more incompatible with his party’s supposed values. Sometimes it’s hard to see any motive for the government’s actions other than an eagerness to meet arrest quotas—or maybe just nastiness on the part of empowered bureaucrats.

The president claims to want “merit-based” immigration, but his immigration agents seem to have no problem targeting well-educated professionals who are already living here. In early April ICE seized a New Jersey physics teacher named Ahmed Abdelbasit and threw him into detention. If deported, Abdelbasit would face a death sentence in his native Egypt resulting from political activism. Earlier in the year ICE agents detained Syed Jamal, a chemistry teacher in Kansas, and an Illinois doctor, Lukasz Niec. Both are longtime residents with U.S. citizen children.

Deported veteran Miguel Perez
Republicans routinely call for “supporting our troops,” but this apparently doesn’t include Miguel Perez, a Mexican-born green card recipient, who served two tours in Afghanistan. Diagnosed with PTSD after his return, Perez fell into drug abuse, was convicted for an attempted cocaine sale, and served half of a 15-year sentence. The Obama administration began deportation proceedings against Perez in 2016, but the Trump administration finished the job—despite pleas from supporters, including Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). The veteran was deported to Mexico on March 24 with little more than the clothes on his back.

And what about the president’s claim to be protecting U.S. citizens from the MS-13 gang? In 2015 a Salvadoran youth on Long Island decided to quit the gang and help the authorities arrest other members. We might expect the U.S. government to shield the teenager, possibly putting him in the witness protection program in order to encourage future cooperation from others. Instead, immigration authorities placed him in detention and are now attempting to deport him to El Salvador, where he feels sure he’ll be murdered as an informant.

Such practices have of course met a great deal of criticism. Last year White House chief of staff John Kelly, then the DHS head, had an answer for critics in Congress: “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws,” he said. “Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”

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