Undocumented Immigrants' Advocates Grapple With Trump Presidency

For many undocumented immigrants, the election symbolized a possible revolution in policy, with their fates hanging in the balance

Jason De León spoke to a Mexican man before the election who asked if he thought a mass deportation was likely. Like most pundits and political analysts, De León, assistant professor at the University of Michigan and founder of the Undocumented Migration Project, couldn’t fathom a Donald Trump presidency. He told the man it was “an impossibility.”

Now, he’s eating his words. 

Since the election results rolled in, undocumented U.S. immigrants and their sympathizers have had to accept the reality of President-elect Trump. For many of them, the election symbolized a possible revolution in policy, with their fates hanging in the balance.

Building a wall along the Mexican-American border was a focal point for Trump’s campaign, and the president-elect has promised to get tough on undocumented immigration to the interior when he takes the Oval Office in January.

Despite deporting 2.4 million undocumented immigrants between 2009 and 2014, President Barack Obama has been criticized by the GOP, and Trump especially, as being too easy on those who came to America "improperly," or without legal status. 

An estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants now live in the United States. On CBS' "60 Minutes," Trump said he plans to deport or incarcerate two to three million undocumented immigrants who have criminal records or are gang members or drug dealers. 

The claim that there are up to three million undocumented immigrants who are dangerous criminals is an exaggeration, according to FackCheck.org. A 2013 federal report said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimated there were "1.9 million removable criminal aliens" in the U.S. But "criminal aliens" also includes green card holders or those on temporary visas who have committed a crime. The number of undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor is closer to 690,000, according to a July 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute. 

“I don’t know how possible, whether he’s going to be able to do all of it. But certainly he can make an effort,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Improper entry into the United States is considered a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to six months imprisonment. Reentry is a felony, which means that anyone who tries to cross the border again after being deported has a criminal record. Many of those who attempt reentry want to reunite with their family despite American laws that restrict deportees from applying for visas for up to 20 years after their removal from the country. 

Of the remaining undocumented immigrants without felonies, Trump said he would make a determination "after the border is secured and everything gets normalized."

He called those individuals "terrific people."

Andy J. Semotiuk, a U.S. and Canadian immigration lawyer who works out of Los Angeles and Toronto, said it may take politicians a while to get to immigration because “thankfully, we all know how slow government works.”

He hypothesized that the Trump administration will have to first focus its efforts on repealing the Affordable Care Act, reforming tax policies for businesses, and resolving existing wars in the Middle East.

A mass deportation that rid the country of all undocumented immigrants would require a lot of resources. "Deporting 11 million people is a mission impossible,” Semotiuk said. “It’s just a fact, whether you like it or not.”

Another factor that slows mass deportation: America has due process, which means anyone who’s been accused of illegal activity gets a trial.

“You can’t just pick someone up and send them back to Mexico,” Semotiuk said. “You have to give them a chance to explain themselves, or defend themselves.” 

Trump would have to increase the number of judges, prosecutors, clerks, coordinators, and other officials in the court system to meet demand. That would be expensive and time-consuming. Semotiuk said that even if the accused immigrant cooperated completely with his or her trial and didn’t make any arguments to remain in the U.S., a court would at the most be able to process 10 cases a day. For two million cases, that’s 200,000, or about 548 years, of court days. Trying 11 million cases would require over a million court days. 

“If a dictator was in charge of a country, even then it would be hard for someone to marshal all the resources,” Semotiuk said.

According to The Associated Press, the U.S. judicial branch now has a "backlog of more than half-a-million cases already pending in immigration court." The holding cells where undocumented immigrants stay until their hearings are also overfilled and overflowing, and immigrants have brought a lawsuit against the Border Patrol in Arizona because of the cells' crowded, unclean, and cold conditions. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security told the AP that there were 41,000 immigrants in detention centers across the U.S. 

On CNN's "State of the Union," House Speaker Paul Ryan came out against erecting a deportation task force. He said that plans in Congress were to concentrate on securing the border, a virtual continuation of Obama’s policy.

Still, Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, is “confident that there will be a reduction in the size of the illegal population,” partly because “the career immigration personnel (will be) allowed to do their job,” and partly because undocumented immigrants, fearing arrest, will leave on their own. “Most people don’t want to be subject to enforcement,” she said. Mehlman called this exodus “induced voluntary compliance.”

But Vaughan emphasized that deportations won’t be cartoonish, with officials knocking on doors and rounding up undocumented immigrants in box cars.

Trump has also promised to get rid of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals system, Obama’s solution to protect immigrants who came over improperly as children. Mehlman called DACA an “inducement for illegal immigration” that “carves out a lone exception” to policy toward misdemeanors. 

To repeal it, Trump wouldn’t need congressional support, just a stroke of his pen. Obama used an executive order to put DACA into practice in 2012, and it is not law. “He can definitely rescind that,” said Cesar Vargas, an undocumented immigrant in New York who fought for four years to become an attorney despite his legal status. Without DACA, undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children would not have exceptional means to petition to stay here.

Vargas tried to put a positive spin on Trump’s immigration reform, noting that the president-elect has claimed that he doesn’t want to deport people who have lived here for years. DACA was always meant to be temporary, Vargas said, and he’s hoping that Trump’s plans may actually help the immigrant community by creating a more direct path toward citizenship. 

“It’s unpredictable,” he said. “So I think that while there is concern, there is an opportunity there.”

Meanwhile, Vargas is holding free consultations to inform undocumented people of resources at their disposal. For example, he spoke with a couple whose children are in the military -- if you’re a member of the service and your family is undocumented, you can request that they receive a special immigration status. He also said that for those in a healthy relationship with an American citizen, a green card marriage is a viable option. 

Resource centers for undocumented immigrants are experiencing an influx of concerned people who fear deportation. The AP reports that phones are ringing off the hook at Chicago's National Immigrant Justice Center and the New York Legal Assistance Group as immigrants try to find ways to protect themselves before the President-elect takes office. 

According to the AP, 740,000 young people who benefit from DACA have the "most urgent inquiries" about the effects of Trump's presidency. 

"We're operating with a lot of unknowns, and a certain amount of fear comes with that," Vanessa Esparza-López, a managing attorney at the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, told the AP.

Semotiuk remembered undocumented immigrants he had met over the years through his work. At first, he “had no sympathy,” but then he listened to why they were here. 

“It’s worthwhile to get to know some of them… and once you get to know them, how they got to the United States, it’s one sad story,” he said.

Between 2007 and 2014, 164,000 Mexicans have been victims of homicide, Frontline reported. Many undocumented U.S. immigrants who come from Mexico are fleeing cartel violence in search of a better, safer life.

While undocumented immigrants come from around the world, during his campaign Trump zoomed in on the 59 percent who are originally from Mexico, calling them “rapists” and “killers” and posing them as threats to national security. In fact, the overwhelming majority of migrants coming through the border with Mexico have been people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the Obama administration said earlier this year. 

De León said that in Michigan, there seems to be “a conflation between Latinos and undocumented people.”

“As a documented, overeducated male, I’m still a Latino,” he said. “I have never in my life feared for my safety -- the safety of my kids and my friends -- and I have in the last couple of days. I’ve never in my life felt afraid to speak Spanish in public until yesterday.”

Mayors of cities across the United States, from Los Angeles, to New York, to Burlington, Vermont, have declared their jurisdictions "sanctuaries" for immigrant communities. What the term "sanctuary" means varies by city. In some cases that means refusing to let ICE know when an undocumented immigrant is about to be released from custody.

Offering such shelter comes with possible retaliations, as Trump has threatened to pull federal funding from areas that don't follow his immigration policy.

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