Reporting by Craig Thompson and Annie Shreffler
Ernesto Rosales freely admits that he and his wife, Maria Reyna, are undocumented immigrants. After living in Queens with their children for eight years, it’s hard for them to believe Maria could ever be deported.
They crossed in to the US from Mexico near Tijuana when Maria was four months pregnant. She narrowly avoided a miscarriage in the mountains east of Tijuana. They paid a coyote $4,000 to fly them from Arizona to New York and now live in Woodside, Queens.
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Ernesto and Maria say they never expected the care and concern they have been shown by New Yorkers. Their first child, Alejandro, was born At Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan and diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Maria had to visit him at the hospital for the first month. Then, when he was three, Alejandro was diagnosed with leukemia, and treated at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital. Once Alejandro could travel, the Make-A-Wish Foundation flew the family to Orlando to see Mickey Mouse. Maria keeps the dozens of stuffed animals her son received on top of a cabinet and has two albums full of pictures showing his time in the hospital and their Florida trip.
Alejandro finally began school this year, at the age of 8, and receives occupational therapy and special education at PS 9 on Grand Avenue in Queens. Alejandro’s little sister, Evelyn, is four and will start school next year.
Earlier this year, Maria and her sister-in-law took a train to see relatives in Chicago, but were stopped near Buffalo by immigration officials. The women were arrested and put up in a hotel rather than in a holding cell, as she was traveling with Alejandro. She will appear before a judge on May 16th. Her lawyer has told her, regardless of the needs of her son, her chances of staying in the US are very slim.
“They (the immigration authorities) don’t care about the rest of the family,” said Ernesto. “They don’t care who the kids stay with. They only care about her.”
Maria’s situation is not surprising. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division under the Department of Homeland Security tasked with enforcing US immigration laws,. have ramped up their activity lately, stopping trains and buses at borders and even reaching into the borough of Queens. Raids in New York City used to be unusual. Now they are fostering a climate of fear and forcing community groups to engage in aggressive educational counter-tactics to ensure that immigrants know their rights before ICE knocks on their door.
Maria’s Legal Case
Despite being her son’s primary care giver, Maria she has very little legal footing to prevent her imminent deportation.
“Children are never a good enough reason,” said Theodore Rothman, 37, an immigration attorney practicing in New York City. “The child can stay and be a ward of the state.”
Rothman also said that if parents were allowed to stay because their children were born in the US, it would create havoc on the legal system.
“It would be a policy nightmare,” he said. “It would overwhelm and create a huge backlash against the system. You can’t just reward illegal immigrants for (having US-born children), because it undercuts the people who are doing it the right way. It goes to the contrary of the rules of the country.”
In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility (IIRIR) Act was passed. The act toughened regulations regarding undocumented workers in the US, expanding the criminal grounds for deportation and giving immigrants far less legal recourse. It also changed the definition by which an immigrant could claim a ‘removal waiver.’ This waiver’s delicate wording, could hav been Maria’s defense due to her child with exceptional needs, before it was changed. Previous to 1996, an immigrant had to show “extreme hardship” to stay in the U.S., but after 1996, a person had to show “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.”
“The law doesn’t provide any benefit for her just because of her child,” said Alan Wernick, professor at Baruch College and director of the CUNY Citizenship and Immigration Project. “Either the child goes to Mexico, or stays with other relatives. It’s a very tragic outcome.”
Ernesto is aware that the law will not benefit them.
“We just work for a better life, that’s why we came,” he said, speaking for Maria, who is just learning English. “We don’t do criminal things. We work hard and don’t make any problems, but the law doesn’t understand.”
Amtrak and Greyhound: “Raids on Wheels”
Maria was detained by ICE agents after they boarded her train in upstate New York and asked passengers for identification, a practice that is becoming more frequent but that remains contentious.
“Sadly, we think there are families being fed into the deportation system through the trains and buses,” said Maria Muentes, the co-founder of Families for Freedom, a defense network for immigrants facing deportation that calls the ICE boardings ‘raids on wheels.’
Families for Freedom has recently begun an awareness campaign geared towards immigrants to let them know that when customs officials board a bus or train, they are not required to answer any of their questions without an attorney present.
“They claim that they are simply stepping up border inspections but essentially they are bringing the border to you,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, Director of New York New Sanctuary Movement, in a press release. “It’s easy pickings for them to target unsuspecting people on these buses and trains but a nightmare for New York City families who will face deportation as a result of having taken that train or bus ride.”
Trouble in Queens: Training for the Knock on the Door
The raids on the buses and trains are but one small part of the enforcement efforts by ICE in New York. In Queens, house raids are becoming more and more common. ICE agents knock on apartment doors, seeking out tenants or others who cannot prove they belong there.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in fear, and an increase in stories going around the community in the last six months about house raids,” said Valeria Trevis, the executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) based in Jackson Heights. “But it’s hard to get the stories first hand, because ICE doesn’t publicize where the raids have been. But we have had members who’ve said, ICE came to my door, they were looking for somebody.”
NICE has included in their English instruction a program called “ICE Raids Emergency Readiness Plans.” This Orwellian-sounding program preps people on what to expect when someone from ICE knocks on their door. It is imperative that immigrants do not let the ICE agents into their apartments, the program explains, because once inside, the agent has the legal power to remove anyone at will from the apartment.
“We train them to be afraid to open the door,” Trevis said. “We’re teaching people to ask ICE for a warrant, to slip the warrant under the door, and if the warrant is not for people living in the house, they don’t have to open the door.”
These preventative classes are indicative on the climate of fear that persists within the mindset of the membership that Trevis serves.
“Doing this work, you sometimes forget about the shock factor,” she said. “In a lot of ways it’s amazing that we have to teach community members about these training techniques. But the community gets intimidated, and lets ICE inside the door.”
Aside from house raids and ICE knocking on people’s doors, there have also been incidents of workplace raids. Recently, two businesses on Roosevelt Avenue were raided for selling social security numbers. There was also the case of the Fresh Direct workers in December of 2007, a story that sent a chill through the immigrant community.
Fresh Direct workers were attempting to unionize. To counteract this, the company threatened the workers with a raid on their work authorization records. The company was able to use a provision in the Patriot Act that gave them immunity from any legal repercussion if they submitted to an ICE audit. According to the New York Times, the company lost 100 workers, who quit for fear of their work status being revealed, and subsequently failed in their union drive.
“People in the community know about the Fresh Direct case,” said Trevis, “so that also makes them fearful about both workplace and house raids. After the Fresh Direct situation, some people were actually afraid to go out on the street or to go on the trains.”
The Many-Tentacles of ICE
While it is impossible to give one entity responsibilty for the increased level of fear among immigrants in Queens and elsewhere, the ICE is, judging by its published statistics, winning the deportation battle.
In 2006 alone, ICE set new records for alien removals, up to 187,513 in that year alone. ICE does focus on tracking down those who have criminal records or who have ignored previous deportation decisions, or been accused of document fraud. ICE officials did not return calls seeking comment.
“We’re kind of seeing an overall more aggressive enforcement all around the five boroughs,” said Maria Muentes. “In every aspect of civil life, we’re seeing more house raids and workplace raids.”
ICE has also increased its number of employees. The agency’s Web site, showsthe number of fugitive operation teams tripled in the year 2005 and records were set in 2006 for total number of worksite enforcements.
While these statistics reflect nationwide trends, in New York City many immigrants were relieved when Mayor Michael Bloomberg enacted Executive Order 41 in 2003, prohibiting civic agencies from inquiring into and disclosing the immigration status of individuals. New York earned the moniker of being a ‘sanctuary city’ because of this. However, a loophole in this order allowing for agency workers to ask about immigration status if there is a suspicion of illegal activity has enabled ICE to pursue immigrant cases at prison facilities.
“These kinds of enforcement mentality and activities,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, “has really done away with the significance of who is legal and who is not. It has been rendered insignificant. If you are an immigrant, unless you are a citizen, even if you have a green card, once they identify you as a criminal, forget it. They are piggybacking immigrant cases onto these petty criminal cases.”
In addition, ICE has implemented in the New York City region the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), a pilot, voluntary program that allows detained immigrants to wear ankle bracelets and move around the city.
“ISAP is meant to be an alternative to detention, so for folks who are in detention it’s an alternative,” said Janis Rosheuvel of Families for Freedom. “But you can only be outside for 12 hours and you have to check in with an immigration official three times a week. It really works against their freedom of movement.”
Community Groups, Networked and Active
Many groups in Queens are active with educational programs and campaigns. The groups help with green card, work visa, and naturalization paperwork, but are more aggressively educating immigrants about their legal rights New Immigrant Community Empowerment is perhaps most in touch with people in the Queens community.
“The membership are low-wage workers in precarious industries such as child care, construction and the restaurant industry,” said Valeria Trevis. “We are doing a lot of preventative work.”
Cathy Ellen Rosenholtz is the pastor at St. Jacobus Evangelical Lutheran Church, located at the nexus of Elmhurst, Woodside, and Jackson Heights. The small congregation is made up of people from ten countries.
“We’re in the midst of a community of diverse immigrants,” she said. “I talk to families and walk the streets, and people just want a good job and good schools for their kids and are willing to work hard for it. It’s clear they want to be active contributors to the community. And the Bible says that we’re called upon to welcome strangers. It’s essential to who we are.”
Rosenholtz helped facilitate a meeting of the Fresh Direct workers and organizers in the church gymnasium. She also helped fund an undocumented woman’s flight back to Peru to take care of her ailing mom after her Queens-based factory was raided by ICE workers and her undocumented status was uncovered. They have also held well-attended immigrant workshops in tandem with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Families for Freedom.
“We see at a local level the human consequences of political decisions,” she said. “I just hope that people at the local level can be heard.”
In Woodside, Depression Kept At Bay
Maria and Ernesto’s unfortunate story stands in for many families facing the harsh side of immigration enforcement.
“She needs to stay here,” Ernesto said. “It’s not a life with her in Mexico.”
Their apartment is a bedroom and small sunroom separated by a locked door from the bathroom and kitchen they share Ernesto’s brothers’ families. . Despite the small quarters, the family seems comfortable and wants the opportunity to make a life for themselves here.
“If you’re a criminal and you go outside and make problems,” he said, “this country doesn’t need you. Because this country has to be an example for other countries.”
But he struck a philosophical tone about Maria’s possible deportation, noting, as he said, “life, it continues.
“You don’t have to be depressed,” he said. “I work hard and I’ll send her money, and see what’s going to happen. The life is very long. It’s hard, it’s not easy. I’m not concentrating on my job because of this, I’m just thinking, what’s going to happen? But you don’t have to get depressed.”