By Sonali Kolhatkar
NWDC Resistance organizer and co-founder Maru Mora Villapando outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
The Republican Party likes to tout “family values.” Its website says, “The family is the bedrock of our nation. When American families flourish, so too does our country.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan told an undocumented mother at a town hall meeting earlier this year, “What we have to do is find a way to make sure that you can get right with the law, and we’ve got to do this in a good way, so that the rug doesn’t get pulled out from under you and you and your family get separated.” He added, “That’s the way we feel, and that is exactly what our new incoming president said he wants to do. ... We don’t want to see you separated from your family.”
But under Donald Trump’s presidency, the idea of family values has turned into even more of a joke than before, due to explicit policies that are tearing families apart over a piece of paper.
There are growing numbers of heart-rending stories of family separations, such as that of 13-year-old Fatima Avelica, who videotaped her father being taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on his way from dropping her off at school. Avelica’s sobs, heard over the recording, are a haunting soundtrack to the scars she will bear all her life from the memory of the moment her family was ripped apart.
Equally horrifying is the story of Desiree Mares, whose father, José, was picked up by ICE agents—in a manner that recalls Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, or secret police—and deported to Mexico within 24 hours. Eighteen-year-old Desiree is reeling from the loss of a man she considers her best friend and who, as a single parent, raised her for most of her life.
We should all be chilled to the bone at the accounts of plainsclothes ICE agents hunting and ambushing undocumented immigrants. In his account of Mares’ arrest, LA Weekly reporter Jason McGahan wrote, “The agents knew where he lived, they knew where he worked, they knew his daily routine and what route he took to work. ‘They were watching me,’ [Mares] says.”
ICE agents have even taken to tracking immigrants in courthouses and arresting them. So angry was one judge at their conduct that she wrote a letter to the departments of Justice and Homeland Security about ICE agents who “appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.” Both departments responded that such arrests will continue. As a result, in Los Angeles, “reporting of crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence are down by one-quarter in immigrant communities.”
While well-meaning Americans may imagine that only criminal immigrants are being targeted for arrest and deportation, in reality, deportations of immigrants with no criminal record have doubled in the first few months of Trump’s tenure, compared with the rate under President Obama. Around the country, but especially in immigrant-rich communities, families are experiencing deep fear of ICE agents wearing unmarked clothes, stalking them and disappearing them or their loved ones into detention centers or out of the country.
Detention centers that hold immigrants while they wait for their court dates are big business for private contractors like GEO Group and CoreCivic. Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Wash., which is run by GEO, is the largest immigrant detention center on the West Coast, with a capacity to hold up to 1,575 people. About 750 immigrants being held there were on hunger strike as of April 13, protesting the conditions of their detention.
Maru Mora Villalpando, co-founder and lead organizer of NWDC Resistance, told me in an interview that since Trump took office, “a lot of court dates [for detainees] have been postponed again and again, not for weeks but for months.” Some detainees are so fed up over being locked up that, according to Villalpando, they say, “ ‘I just want my court date, either to fight my case or just to get deported,’ but they’re not getting that.”
Trump did not begin the practice of detaining undocumented immigrants who are waiting for their court dates. President George W. Bush did, and President Obama continued it when, as a self-professed liberal Democrat, he could have put a stop to it. In fact, Obama oversaw the detention of mothers and children, so-called “family detention,” which has continued under Trump.
According to the International Detention Coalition, “Under international law, immigration detention is only ever meant to be used as a last resort and where it is necessary, reasonable, and proportionate to a legitimate government objective,” and in fact, “immigration detention is only to be used after non-custodial, community-based alternatives to detention … have been explored in each individual case.”
Had Obama ended the detention of undocumented immigrants entirely, it would have been much harder for Trump to revive the infrastructure of privately run centers like the NWDC. Now, Trump is able to point to his predecessor’s policy and simply expand it.
Even so-called Dreamers are not immune to Trump’s cruelty. Registrants of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program were among those undocumented people thought to be safest from immigration enforcement. After all, they had voluntarily enrolled in a program the government created, giving up their personal information in exchange for a small measure of security. Even Republicans have paid lip service to DACA registrants, with Trump saying at a press conference in February, “We’re gonna show great heart. DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you ... To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids.”
Yet 23-year-old Daniel Ramirez Medina became the first DACA registrant to be arrested in an ICE raid near Seattle earlier this year. ICE agents have maintained that Medina has ties to a gang, but lawyers for the young immigrant have denied it. Medina is now suing the government.
An unnamed 22-year-old DACA registrant was arrested in Los Angeles in February, and a 22-year-old Argentinian DACA registrant named Daniela Vargas was arrested in Mississippi and then released after pressure from lawyers and the public. Vargas is still fighting a deportation order that was placed on her, however.
On Tuesday, news broke that 23-year-old Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez, another DACA registrant, was the first to actually be deported to Mexico. Bojorquez is now suing the government for violating his protected status.
Trump and the Republicans have fanned the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment as a vote-getting tactic for years. Trump’s racist rhetoric was particularly blatant in his labeling of Mexicans as “drug dealers,” “criminals,” “rapists,” and “bad hombres.” Early in his campaign, Trump said in a 2015 CNN interview, “Illegal immigration, each year, costs us between $200 billion and $300 billion. … I don’t know if anybody gives you those numbers. Probably not.” He added, “Do you really believe they pay taxes?”
In fact, undocumented immigrants certainly pay taxes, something the new president has failed to prove to the nation that he does on a regular basis.
Estimates vary, but the latest numbers available show that undocumented immigrants paid “$13 billion in payroll taxes in 2010,” even though they could get away with not paying them. The IRS enables people who don’t have papers to file taxes even if they don’t have a Social Security number, and a good number of immigrants do so.
But this year, NPR reported, there has been a dip in the numbers of people filing with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs), which is what undocumented immigrants primarily use. It is hugely ironic that fewer immigrants filed taxes this year because of Trump’s crackdown on undocumented people and the fear of outing themselves to any government agency. A tax preparer in San Francisco told NPR, “Sending in a tax return with your current address and information is very unnerving to a population that wants to comply with the law and is actually leaving significant refunds on the table by not filing tax returns.”
In a report on Saturday’s “Tax March” in Los Angeles, DACA registrant Ivan Ceja spoke with my correspondent, Tami Hamada Woronoff. He was holding a sign that read, “I am undocumented and I pay taxes, Trump show me your tax returns.” Ceja told Woronoff, “I paid my taxes because I know people do need those benefits.” He added, “If I’m held accountable, I think he should as well.”
Immigrants, who in fact commit crimes at far lower rates than natural-born citizens, are feeling terrorized while the president lives large, spends taxpayer money like water to fuel his lavish lifestyle, refuses to release his tax returns or make the White House visitor logs public. To Trump, accountability apparently is a one-way street.