Last week, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson was in Dearborn, Michigan as part of an initiative to discuss the importance of reporting suspected terrorist activity in Muslim-predominant communities across the country. Secretary Johnson was to use his time in the state to promote self-policing mechanisms put forth by the fledgling Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) DHS task force. And while such initiatives are fundamentally problematic in and of themselves – one Muslim leader in the area says the task force inherently “treat[s] American Muslims as a suspect community” – Secretary Johnson should also receive a considerable amount of criticism for the things he didn’t say.
During his speech at the University of Michigan Dearborn campus, which was only open to student leaders of interfaith groups, Secretary Johnson barely touched upon the issue of deportations. Immigrant communities have been gripped with fear and anxiety since the beginning of intensified ICE raids in December 2015. Seemingly without apparent cause, DHS announced that it would ratchet up efforts to remove Central American immigrant families, the majority of whom are fleeing gang violence in their home countries.
The announcement set off a wave of backlash, from Senate Democrats, who penned a letter condemning the raids, to presidential candidates, to immigrant community leaders and advocates. Secretary Johnson, in response, issued a surprisingly unapologetic statement: “This should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”
In the sparse comments he made on the topic in Dearborn last week, Johnson remarked, “I do have an obligation to enforce the law…Our priorities are convicted criminals.” However, the specific demographic being targeted, Central American families, are primarily women and children with denied asylum claims. These are not “convicted criminals,” but people who fled extreme violence and police corruption and brutality in their home countries.
The targeting of Central American families by ICE also directly conflicts with the spirit of the DHS Priority Enforcement Program which provides guidelines for how ICE agents make decisions when it comes to detention and deportation. As we have highlighted on our blog in the past, it should actually come as no surprise when ICE agents arbitrarily decide to deport low-priority immigrants; one of our clients was a victim of such targeting just last year, and ICE has made a habit of it.
Certainly, undocumented individuals with criminal histories should constitute a higher removal priority than families and those who, if they had proper representation, could make legitimate asylum claims or try for other forms of relief. However, the targeted, systematic detention and removal of families and children fleeing unfettered violence and persecution runs contrary to how Obama has previously represented his position on the advocacy and care for Central American refugees.
The problem is, the change in DHS and ICE policy has immediate and potentially devastating human consequences. In Flint, MI, the current water crisis is so acute that President Obama declared a federal state of emergency, and the Michigan National Guard was activated in order to distribute bottled water so residents could have another source of drinking water besides the lead-laced poison flowing from their pipes. There are as many as one thousand undocumented immigrants in Flint, many of whom are too afraid to go to water distribution centers, or even to answer their doors for water deliveries. Their fear is that seeking help could expose their undocumented status, leading to deportation. And perhaps they should be scared. Up until January 22, many distribution centers required photo identification before clean water could be allocated, something a large number of undocumented migrants do not have.
In the wake of the intensified raids, families have been specifically instructed by advocacy groups not to answer the door when strangers approach their homes. When members of the National Guard and official-looking individuals come knocking with water or information in Flint, in this new culture of stress and uncertainty, it makes sense that the reaction of the resident is to withdraw out of fear. But how will they get clean water if they can’t open the door when help knocks?
Instead of putting undocumented “convicted criminals” on notice, DHS has succeeded in terrorizing immigrant families around the country. And while this fear is palpable enough to move families to deny clean water, it is not compelling enough to send them home when the conditions they flee are so appalling. Families run from threats of kidnapping, rape, murder, and extortion, abandoning their home villages and towns, where gangs commit horrific acts of violence with impunity. They send their children north, alone, on perilous, continent-long journeys to reach the U.S. to gain at least a semblance of stability away from the sway of gangs and guns. As one immigration activist leader bluntly put it, “If you deport the refugee community, they are going to be killed.” So if DHS means to deter the arrival of these refugees by systematically prioritizing their deportation above those of convicted criminals and other higher priority individuals, they will fail. Parents will find safe homes for their children, even if that means living in constant fear of removal and closing the door on clean water.