President Trump’s assertion that four US Congresswomen should go back to their countries raised alarms across the United States. All four women are United States citizens and three were born in the United States. The President’s statement also brought back appalling memories of a case we handled concerning a US citizen that the government mistakenly tried to deport.
Story of Daniel
My client, whom we’ll call Daniel, was born in California in 1985 to Filipino parents. He worked at a clothing factory in California. Like far too many Americans who have dark skin, he was arrested by ICE agents when he could not prove his US citizenship during a workplace raid.
When our staff attorney visited Daniel at a San Francisco detention center, the agent in charge would not release Daniel until we could provide proof of his citizenship. A passport, birth certificate or certificate of naturalization or citizenship would be accepted as proof. Neither Daniel nor his parents knew the location of his birth certificate, his only proof of citizenship.
Several days later, we were able to persuade an immigration judge that Daniel was a US citizen. Daniel’s ordeal is all too similar to other attempted deportations of US citizens.
Immigration Law and Mistaken Detentions
There are roughly 150 mistaken citizenship detentions in the United States every year. Many people who are detained find it difficult to prove their citizenship under our complex immigration laws. The New Yorker reports that James Busse was a 35-year-old stockbroker who was born in Barbados but came to the United States as an infant with his mother. She became a naturalized citizen when James was nine years old. James’s father was Canadian but died when James was a child.
If you were born in the United States, you are a US citizen. The law also says that people who have been permanent residents for five years can apply for citizenship. The required time to naturalize is three years if your spouse is a US citizen. If you were born outside the United States, you are a US citizen if both parents are citizens and at least one has lived in the United States.
You are also a citizen if your parent became a naturalized citizen when you were a minor. James Busse was an American citizen under this law. He had a green card as a child but never obtained a US passport. Nearly a year after his mistaken arrest by ICE, a judge dismissed Busse’s deportation case.
Frightening Times for Many Americans
One would think that the citizenship of four US Congresswomen would not be questioned. President Trump fanned anti-immigrant flames when he told these four US citizens to go back to their countries. American citizens of various ethnic backgrounds now worry about ICE raids. NBC News reports that US citizens are renewing and carrying their passports because they fear arrest.
Immigration law is complex. Mistaken detention is a frightening experience for an American who has no knowledge of the law. The current anti-immigrant climate is not the first in this country’s history. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, 450,000 Mexican Americans were deported to Mexico in a sweeping, often racist campaign. Roughly half of the deportees were US citizens. During the anti-communist scare of the 1950s, the US government sent more US citizens to Mexico. Once again in 2019, many Americans must be extra careful to avoid deportation by their own government.
Many Sunday sermons are addressing the suffering of immigrants at the United States border. The Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-27) is a good place to start. The story tells of a traveler who is left for dead after being robbed. A priest and a Levite see the injured man but pass him by. Only a Samaritan — usually an enemy of the Jews — stops to help. Jesus points out that the Samaritan looks beyond differences and sees a neighbor in need.
As Christians, we are called to help our neighbors who suffer in immigration detention centers. The Bible tells us, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Conditions at Detention Centers
Bekah McNeel writes in Christianity Today, “The world, aching under the power and weight of sin, is grieving and we have always been called to weep with those who weep.” Observers have indeed lamented the inhumane conditions at border detention facilities. Shocking images of extreme overcrowding and unsanitary conditions have circulated throughout news channels and social media.
At one facility in Texas, a doctor reported cold temperatures and poor sanitation, lack of food and water, and inadequate medical care. Other reports stated that cells were so crowded at an El Paso processing center that migrants were unable to sit or lie down. Designed to hold 125 people, the facility held up to 900 migrants.
Children of Immigrants
The conditions at children’s detention centers has particularly shocked the public conscience. Observers at a facility in Clint, Texas stated that children were sleeping on concrete and wearing filthy clothes and lacked soap and toothbrushes. According to a May, 2019 NBC News report, seven children had died in border detention centers this year. No children had died the previous 10 years.
Myths About Undocumented Immigrants
Our faith compels us to dispute rumors and myths about undocumented immigrants draining the economy and causing violent crime. The Marshall Project studied crime rates associated with the 10.6 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Researchers found that undocumented immigrants either had no effect on violent crime rates or were associated with a slight decrease in rates.
Statistics also show that undocumented immigrants pay taxes and are less likely to take public benefits than native born Americans. Most social safety net programs require the recipient to be a lawful resident for five years.
Church Needs to Repent
Christians have called on the church to do more to end the suffering of immigrants. Max Lucado states that the church must lament and “repent for our complicity in their suffering.” He asks God to forgive us when we do not “see their humanity and trust in your bountiful economy.”
Chance to Act On Our Faith
As Christians, we cannot turn away when we hear about cruelty at the border. The American public as well as government officials have seen the conditions at immigration detention centers. NBC News reports that an internal report at the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged overcrowding, excessive heat, illness outbreaks and lack of showers at detention centers.
Our actions align with our beliefs when we work to ease suffering at the border. We can shorten the waiting lists for migrants to apply for asylum. We can reunite separated families. We can end prosecution of those who bring food and water to migrants at the border. When we care for our neighbors at the border, we live out the parable of the Good Samaritan.
A major operation by ICE is set again for this weekend (7/13/2019). The government is continuing the crackdown. But even before this announcement, we have already seen frequent immigration raids. Almost every day, there are reports of large-scale enforcement actions by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The main targets are usually the workplaces. Hundreds of undocumented aliens are being detained and processed for removal. ICE has announced that this time, it will be targeting homes. Many families are being torn apart. However not all removals are legal. Government agents do make mistakes. Now is the time to be vigilant and to insure that your rights remain intact.
Illegal immigration must be addressed. The government should enforce the laws. However, when immigration agents round up undocumented workers, the risk of someone being illegally detained remains. During a raid there is panic. Many will not have immediate access to an attorney. Sometimes, even though one has a right to see the immigration judge, the authorities may forget or may be too busy to process the court papers. Thus, one may spend many days, sometimes months, in jail while waiting for legal counsel. The Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory detention of aliens, including permanent residents, while removal proceedings are pending is constitutional
During the frenzy of mass removals or deportations, legal rights can be ignored. For example, lawful permanent residents are not subject to summary or expedited removal. This means that the government cannot just dump you on plane and ship you out. A long time resident is entitled to his or her day in court. The relief of “cancellation of removal” is available for those who have been staying for at least seven years. But if one fails to prove that he is a permanent resident, he may be removed from the U.S. We’ve talked to lawful immigrants who were almost placed in the same group of undocumented workers about to be placed on plane on the way out. We hear reports from cities like Atlanta Georgia and New Jersey that U.S. citizens with Mexican ancestry were being removed. It appears that these were due to government errors. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in New York seeking a court order blocking the operation. In the lawsuit, the lawyers claim that many of the migrants failed to appear for their scheduled appearances in immigration court because border agency officials failed to inform them of their court dates. These errors are costly.
Once in removal proceedings, many who don’t have attorneys and have limited English language skills are pitted against trained trial attorneys. Sometimes there are pro-bono attorneys to help the immigrants. But for those without government-appointed counsel, it is impossible to exercise legal rights
It is in our nation's interest to not only secure our borders, but also to provide for a realistic and practical immigration system that is in tune with our country's economic needs. We need a comprehensive immigration reform, including improved border security measures and a system to bring undocumented immigrants 'out of the economic shadows.' We don’t necessarily need to round up people like cattle and throw them out of the country. It is possible to create regulations to help immigrants instead of penalizing them. Let’s challenge our leaders to seek more civility and more just enforcement of immigration laws.
Lazaro Law Group, Managing Attorney