June 21, 2010

Migrant Backers See No Relief

For Leslie Cocche, the morning of March 12 began like any other school day.


She stood at the Fort Lauderdale Tri-Rail station listening to music through her ear buds while awaiting the train to Miami, where she attends Miami Dade College.


Suddenly, a U.S. Border Patrol agent began questioning her, eventually discovering that the 18-year-old Peruvian was in the country illegally. Cocche was arrested, handcuffed and handed over for deportation proceedings.


Cocche's detention, along with many other recent arrests of undocumented immigrants in South Florida and across the country, have raised questions about whether the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is misleading the public about enforcement.


In contrast to the controversial Arizona state law that would allow police officers to request immigration papers from individuals only after they stop them for suspicions activities, federal immigration agents are allowed to demand documents from any foreign national at any time.


After President Barack Obama took office, Homeland Security said that immigration authorities would focus on removing convicted foreign criminals -- a shift that initially encouraged those who saw it as a prelude to legalization of the nation's estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants.


But now Homeland Security is under fire by disillusioned activists who believe the Obama administration is only paying lip service to a different strategy, and that in reality it is detaining criminal and noncriminal immigrants the same way the administration of George W. Bush did.


``The situation has not changed,'' said David Leopold, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who will take office July 1. ``It's a failure in the field to follow the administration's stated enforcement priorities.''


Officials of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Homeland Security agency in charge of deportations, say the critics are wrong. They acknowledge that deportations of noncriminal immigration-law violators are continuing, but say the agency now views them as ``low-priority.''


ICE released figures last week saying they indicate a downward trend in removals of noncriminal foreign nationals in the past year and a half.


Figures from Oct. 1 to June 7 show that the number of criminal and noncriminal removals are almost even, at more than 113,000 each.


The number of noncriminal removals still exceeds that of criminal deportations, but only by 257 people.


That is a change from the last two fiscal years, when annual noncriminal removals outpaced criminal removals by more than 100,000 people.


ICE officials said figures for criminal deportations reflect removals of "foreign nationals convicted of crimes'' in the United States, but they did not specifically explain what kinds of crimes they were convicted of.


Nicole Navas, an ICE spokeswoman in Miami, said that though her agency's priority is to remove convicted "criminal aliens," it is still detaining and deporting noncriminal foreign nationals who violate immigration laws. "ICE is charged with and mandated by Congress to enforce the nation's immigration laws," said Navas. "As a law enforcement agency, ICE never said we were going to cease arresting noncriminal aliens. Noncriminals are simply the lowest priority. ICE still detains and removes noncriminals, but ICE's priority as an agency is to remove criminal aliens with convictions."


She added: "ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes efforts first on those convicted criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities, not sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately. Across the country, we exercise lawful discretion in order to focus our efforts on violent and dangerous criminals in order to make our streets safer."


Immigrant-rights activists said they were skeptical about ICE's figures and the agency's statement that they represent a downward trend.


``Unfortunately, ICE has a history of playing fast and loose with statistics,'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. ``The ICE definition of criminal includes people found guilty of minor violations, like an expired driver's license and illegal entry into the United States. ICE even has classified people who weren't convicted as criminals.''


ICE officials said figures for criminal deportations reflect removals of foreign nationals convicted of crimes in the United States, but they did specify what kinds of crimes they were convicted of.


Critics expected a dramatic -- not a gradual -- reduction in the number of detentions and deportations of noncriminal immigrants under the Obama administration.


``The Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center is seeing more people than ever without criminal histories being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,'' Little said. ``Unfortunately, the kinder, gentler immigration policies that were promised by this administration are woefully lacking.''


Some immigration attorneys contend enforcement under the Obama administration has become even more aggressive.


``The situation is worse today,'' said Coral Gables immigration attorney Eduardo Soto, who has practiced immigration law for almost 20 years. ``There seems to be pressure on immigration officials to remove as many aliens as possible, no matter whether they have criminal records or not.''


Tania Galloni, an immigration attorney in Little's organization, is representing Cocche and her family.


After Cocche was arrested, Galloni wrote a letter to ICE noting that proceedings against her client contradicted the administration's public statements that criminals were now the priority.


``This is not only harmful to an exceptional young woman,'' Galloni wrote, ```but would also fly directly in the face of the administration's public statements that its immigration enforcement priority is to target dangerous criminal aliens.''


The Cocche case is particularly galling to immigrant rights advocates because she is a criminal-justice student at Miami Dade College, and is in the country not by choice but because her parents brought her here when she was a child.


Legislation repeatedly introduced in Congress as the DREAM Act would grant young undocumented students green cards.


When Cocche arrived at the Fort Lauderdale Tri-Rail station, as on past occasions, she saw two Border Patrol agents on the boarding platform, and paid them little attention.


This time, an agent asked Cocche for her immigration documents, which she could not produce.


``She was found to be illegally in the United States, arrested and placed in removal proceedings,'' said Victor C. Colón, the U.S. Border Patrol's assistant chief patrol agent for the Miami Sector.


Cocche was detained at the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach for 11 days. Subsequently, her sister and parents were placed in deportation proceedings as well. Cocche was eventually released with the promise that she and her family would report later to immigration court in Miami. ``If they lose their case they could all be deported, all because Border Patrol singled Leslie out that one . . . morning,'' Galloni said. ``And deporting Leslie and her sister Kellyn would not be in our interest since they are star students who would have a very bright future here.''


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