How we treat these families in deportation will define who is included in immigration reform

Today I got news from Juan Carlos Vera’s brother, Jose, that his immigration court has been set for Tuesday February 26th, here in the Chicago offices. Vera has a tough case, and without support from the community, inquiries from legislators, and lots of public attention, it is likely that he will be deported, and separated from his wife, and soon-to-be two children.

What is so ‘tough’ about Juan Carlos’ case is his history of encounters with law enforcement. He has two Class A misdemeanors, from when he was 19 and 20 years old, involving a theft and obstruction of justice. He also has a number of driving traffic violations having to do with not being able to have a driver’s license. Both of the misdemeanors are at least 7 years old, he completed his sentence satisfactorily, and  none involve violence, weapons, or drug related offenses. Yet, for purposes of immigration enforcement, he is categorized as a “criminal alien” and therefore “priority” for removal from the United States.

In the eyes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) his situation is not helped by the current charges he is facing. As you may have read about the story, a few weeks ago Juan Carlos showed up for what he thought was his first day of work. As soon as he arrived, he encountered local police, and found out that the human resources person was accusing him of using fake documents to work. She called the police because she thought it was her ‘civic duty’ to report him. When he refused to talk until his attorney was present, the police officer told him that he would be charging him with four felonies, and decided to call ICE himself, and drive him to the processing facility. In the end, he is being charged with one Class 4 felony possession of fraudulent identification, a charge which he is fighting in court.

And although we can, and have, made the argument that we must remember that he is a husband and father, a brother, an important part of this community, he is by far not the perfect, stereotypical, poster child for an anti-deportation campaign. And the truth is, we will continue to frame his story in this way, because besides being true, it is the only way we can keep people here, with their families: By arguing for each person’s humanity and worth with all we have, followed by waiting for ICE prosecutors and directors to tell us when we succeed and when we fail.

Our committee of people fighting deportations in Illinois, small but growing slowly, is in the process of talking to community organizations, legislators, and potential allies to ask for support for Juan Carlos. We have received great response from some, which you can find by seeing who has re-posted this petition on the various social media*. But others are holding back, wondering still whether this is a case worth fighting for, whether it will help or harm the immigration reform fight, and whether instead of highlighting his case we shouldn’t hide it away, next to the hundreds of thousands that never see the light of a Facebook wall petition.

But there is no doubt in my mind that how we treat him and his family, will define who is included in any immigration reform or policy change affecting undocumented immigrants. 

From what I hear, we are in a very intense moment when legislators at all levels — perhaps most relevant our Senatorial Gang of 8, the immigration reform congressmen, and deportation record-breaker President Barack Obama — are exchanging ideas and negotiating content on a potential immigration bill. Within this conversation, there is the important definition of who is included and who is left out. A recent Colorlines Magazine infographic, points to some of the people who might get excluded from the legislation, including:

  • Half of all undocumented families who might not be able to afford the penalty, estimated at $10,000 based on the senate blueprint;
  • The 400,000 undocumented immigrants who will be deported in 2013 before there is a chance for them to even know if they qualify for a potential reform, based on current removal rates;
  • The over 1,000,000 people who would not be able to prove continuous employment for the last five years, half of whom are women (many are domestic workers or day laborers);

In addition to these, will be people like Juan Carlos Vera who have a criminal record. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2010, 25% of “convicted criminal removals” were convicted of drug-related offenses, including distribution, sale, and possession; 19% of immigration offenses, which include entry and reentry, false claim to citizenship, and human trafficking; and “18% of criminal traffic violations such as DUI, reckless driving or vehicular assault. Together, these three offense categories made up the majority of all criminal deportations (62%).”

And so back to the point about this being a time of negotiation, when legislators will decide what and who they decide to fight for, and who they decide is okay to trade away. They will be making hard choices, a position in which I cannot imagine myself in. But if you find yourself feeling empathy for how hard our Senators and Congressmen work, and how much they have been on our side, you can take a moment to thank them, and then remember those experiencing the direct consequences of their actions. For me, it looks something like this:

  • If they decide that someone who came back more than once, is not worth fighting for, I think about Abuelita Genoveva. 
  • If they decide that someone with a DUI misdemeanor is not worth fighting for, I will be thinking about Juan Carlos Vera, and my now dear friend Rigo.
  • If they decide that someone who cannot prove continuous employment for the last 5 years, I will be thinking of my friend from Tucson, Arizona, day laborer and organizer Eleazar Castellanos.

Right now, it is an important moment for anyone who calls themselves a human rights advocate, a defender of justice, an immigration reform organizer, to define who they will be fighting for, what kind of immigration reform will we aks from our legislators, and how hard we will push to include all 11 million undocumented immigrants and families who need this support.

The first step to defining a fight for inclusion of all 11 million plus undocumented immigrants, is supporting cases like those of Juan Carlos Vera, and advocating for a stop to all deportations.

Undocumented youth-led organizations, especially at DreamActivist and the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, have been taking on these cases for along time, some times even succeeding. It is time for the rest of the immigrant rights community to step-up, and commit to not let one more family broken up, one more immigrant detained or deported. To fight for every family, every person, every life.

Tania A. Unzueta

P.S. Shout out to those who like me, might be a little skeptical about CIR. Even if this magical bill does not happen, those who are included in proposals will most likely be the next group of people elegible for smaller, shorter benefits (i.e. deferred action, of course not without a fight). Either way, the point is about inclusion.

* Those who have supported the campaign have included the National Day Laborer’s Organizing Network, who is hosting our petitions, the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, Organized Communities Against Deportations (an IYJL and Undocumented Illinois project), and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Update: On February 26th Juan Carlos Vera was allowed to bond out of detention. When this update was made, his family was expecting to pick him up from detention the next morning. You can read about what happened in court here. Vera still faces deportation, and the campaign continues. 

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