The Plight of the Undocumented: Local Trainings Teach Rights and Protections

By Tory Bussey

They came here seeking a better life, a chance to rise from crushing poverty, to work hard and feed their families. Or they came to seek refuge from the intense violence roiling their home countries.

Now the fear of imminent deportation permeates their lives. They are afraid to work, to seek medical help, to enroll in college or apply for scholarships, or to interact with police, even when they are victims.

This is the reality for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States today.

To address these issues, Chicago ACLU staff attorney Bharathi Pillai conducted two “Know Your Rights” presentations  in Evanston and Skokie last month.

“The border is not the best place to assert rights,” Ms. Pillai advised those in attendance. “Customs can take your electronic devices. They have the right to know your passwords to access your phone, computer and keep them for a while,” she said, sometimes not giving them back until days later.

Ms. Pillai cautioned, “Try not to travel with sensitive information on your devices. Use the cloud to store this information and delete it from your devices. Log out of your email and delete your social media apps.”

In addition to the “Know Your Rights” presentations, a program to educate direct-service providers of Evanston’s immigrant and undocumented community took place at the Levy Center on May 23. The panel of experts advised social workers, teachers, school administrators, and medical personnel on how best to protect the immigrant populations they serve. The program, co-sponsored by the Evanston Public Library, Dear Evanston, and the Evanston4All Solidarity Response Team, included as speakers Jorge Mujica of ARISE Chicago, Dr. Virginia Quinonez of the Center for Latino Mental Health, Luis Huerta-Silva of the Illinois Coalition of Immigration and Refugee Rights, and Rachel Sollinger, a local community activist.  Miguel Luis, the Latino Engagement Director at Evanston Public Library, moderated the event.

The speakers at the forum emphasized that, in this environment, preparation is key.

Mr. Mujica led the panel. “We are in exactly the same place today as we were two to four years ago, but the discourse has changed,” he said. “The difference between then and now is that then there was hope that something could change for the good. But now there is a discourse of hate,” he said.

As opposed to older regulations, the executive order signed by President Trump on Jan. 25 expands immigration enforcement priorities far beyond those who have committed serious crimes.

Mr. Huerta-Silva said these executive orders in a sense codify the hate and officially perpetuate what he calls “the criminalization of immigrants.”

“The executive order on ‘public safety’ gives too much power to ICE [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] to use their own discretion in deciding.  Deportations have increased, and the fear is legitimate,” Mr. Huerta-Silva said.

Dr. Quinones has also witnessed the fear. “For marginalized groups over the past two years there is a sense of dread in certain communities,” particularly true in communities of immigrants, people of color, and LGBT people.

Ms. Sollinger said, “Scholarship applications by Dreamers have decreased by 40% from last year.”  She also said, “The undocumented are afraid to get services.”

And the fear in the larger immigrant community is intense. Said Mr. Mujica, “There was a rumor going around that ICE was coming to the Pilsen neighborhood to detain 20,000 people. People believed the rumor. I told them, ‘Come on now, do the math.’” He pointed out that the resources just were not there to detain that many people.  “They said, ‘But there’s a customs patrol car on 26th Street.’  I told them, ‘That’s because the agents are eating at the Milagro Taqueria.’”

Most critical of all is to know the rights that may protect individuals from deportation in the first place, and the “Know Your Rights” presentations emphasized practical tips on how to assert legal rights when confronted by law enforcement or ICE officers.

Coming in to the country, at the border, is where immigrants have the least protection under the law.

In contrast, however, an undocumented immigrant stopped on the street or in a car can assert some of the same Constitutional due process protections as citizens. Trainers explain each scenario in detail to prepare people for every situation. Non-English speakers need to practice saying their rights in English so they know when to say, “I am asserting my right to remain silent,” “I have the right to an attorney,” or “I do not consent to be searched.”

Understanding the elements of a valid warrant can also be critical. If ICE agents come to the home, they must have a valid warrant signed by a judge, and it must contain accurate information.

Sometimes a path to legal status can be overlooked. Ms. Pillai said many undocumented immigrants have never gone to a legal screening to see if there are any grounds to apply for legal residency. “A lot of people are eligible but don’t know it,” she said.

In Evanston, advocates are increasingly busy helping mixed status families apply for passports and obtain guardianships of their children in the event of deportation. Evanston4All Solidarity Response Team is ready to help people detained by law enforcement or ICE agents.   Various organizations and private individuals are providing “Know Your Rights” presentations in private homes and other locations.

A sanctuary city since 2008, Evanston strengthened its sanctuary City ordinance in December. But Mr. Huerta-Silva says “there are holes” in Evanston’s “sanctuary policies.”  People who have been charged with a crime or are out on bond are vulnerable, as well as those already convicted. “You can be added to a list,” he said. “And being on that list makes the City able to share your information more easily.”

Likewise District 202 and 65 stand in solidarity with their undocumented students.  In January, both Boards of Education passed resolutions declaring Evanston public schools a safe haven for their undocumented students and families threatened by immigration enforcement or discrimination. Under the resolution, schools will not readily comply with ICE agents’ requests for information or give access to ETHS and District 65 schools without adequate notice to the Superintendents and review by the districts’ attorneys.

To the medical and mental health providers present, Ms. Sollinger stressed the need to safeguard information about patients’ immigration status in medical records, recommending that they “don’t document immigration status in any way that is HIPAA-available.”

Mr. Mujica emphasized the importance of not giving in to the fear.  “Fear paralyzes, good information organizes. … When you look at the numbers, we are in exactly the same place we were during the Obama administration. In fact, deportations peaked in 2012.”

“Congress needs to appropriate money to pay for the wall and that hasn’t happened yet,” said Mr. Mujica. “The 5,000 new border agents mandated by the order will take 5-7 years to hire,” and “two out of three applicants for ICE agents flunk the test.”

The fear of defunding sanctuary cities is similarly hyped out of proportion. There is only a small amount of money at stake for training and community policing grants. “It would fund the Chicago Police Department for, like, two days,” Mr. Mujica said.

At the same time, it is true that “ICE can arrest and detain anyone suspected of not having proper documentation.”

At the Skokie “Know Your Rights” training, Ms. Pillai asked the ten people present to state their names and say a few words about why they were attending.  There were no undocumented immigrants present at the meeting.

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