“We’re not just going to sit and wait. We’re going to make our local communities safe.”
By Alyssa Figueroa / AlterNet
Seven months ago, Santos Gutierrez and Victoriano Aguilar were driving to a store in Springfield, Mass, when they were pulled over by police.
“My husband and I have always liked to help other people and support when we are able,” Gutierrez said. “And so on the day that my husband was stopped, we were helping a neighbor who didn’t have a car go to the store and buy diapers.”
The police officer walked up to the car, but Aguilar, an undocumented immigrant, did not have a driver’s license. At the time, Gutierrez didn’t know that local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) worked together through a program called Secure Communities.
As a result, Aguilar was arrested and detained for five months at a county correctional center, where a judge overturned the traffic violations and ruled the stop was motivated by racial profiling. But after being released from the center, he was then turned over to ICE and has been jailed for the past two months awaiting deportation. ICE has rejected all of Gutierrez’s attempts to release Aguilar, who is her partner of 19 years and the father of their three children. He’s now in Louisiana in a slow-motion transit to Guatemala, the country they both left to come to the U.S. more than two decades ago.
The Massachusetts governor’s office arranged for Gutierrez and their 14-year-old daughter to see Aguilar for the first time in seven months — and possibly for the last time in this country.
“He is very sad,” Gutierrez said. “He’s lost hope, and he’s lost faith.”
While Gutierrez and her daughters are devastated, Gutierrez said she’s going to keep struggling for change, despite feeling disillusioned.
“I’m going to keep fighting because I don’t want to give up,” she said. “I don’t want my daughters to be here without their father. I don’t want my husband to have to risk his life another time crossing the border. I don’t want to take my daughters to Guatemala and have them miss out on all the opportunities they have.”
Gutierrez is now a member of Just Communities, an immigrant justice organization in Massachusetts that’s fighting to pass the Trust Act in the state. The Act, which has already passed in Connecticut, California and Colorado, specifies that local and state law enforcement won’t comply with immigration detainer requests, with certain exceptions. The main objective is to reduce deportations of those who are non-violent and have no serious criminal offenses—people like Aguilar.
While proponents of Secure Communities, piloted by President George W. Bush and expanded nationwide by Obama, claim the program only deports violent offenders, immigrant rights organizers like Gutierrez know this is not always the case.
“He isn’t a criminal,” she said. “He’s not a dangerous man. He’s a wonderful father.”
Aguilar is not alone. One thousand people have been deported in Massachusetts since the program went into full effect two years ago. More than 50 percent of those deported had no criminal record, Bliss Requa-Trautz, an organizer with Just Communities said. Another 17 percent, she said, had minor offenses, such as traffic violations. Nationally, one-fourth of those deported under Secure Communities had no criminal record. One-fifth had committed serious offenses, while the rest were lower-level offenses. In other words, the program is a dragnet trapping far more people than intended.
Passing the Trust Act in Massachusetts would stop these deportations of non-violent, undocumented immigrants, Requa-Trautz said. This is mainly because law enforcement, though still obligated to share fingerprint data with ICE, won’t be required to arrest and detain undocumented immigrants until ICE decides their fate. People like Aguilar would not be thrown into a prison system with no way out. The Trust Act has already proven to be successful in California. Deportations through the Secure Communities program there have plummeted by around 44 percent after the Trust Act was enacted in the beginning of the year.
Fighting for the Trust Act is just one way states and local governments are moving forward with immigration reform as the GOP-controlled House has blocked almost all of the Obama administration’s attempts at federal immigration reform—except for saying that arrests and deportations should continue. The Trust Act is a more ambitious attempt to circumvent ICE because it protects an entire state against Secure Communities. But in addition, more than 140 local jurisdictions have passed ordinances or executive orders stating that they are not going to follow the rules anymore and will not be complying with the Secure Communities program. Some of these jurisdictions include cities with large immigrant populations like Los Angeles, San Diego and Miami.
In other states, organizers are working on extending driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants so traffic stops don’t result in deportations. Eleven states have enacted laws to give all residents access to driver’s licenses.
DREAMers—the U.S.-raised children of undocumented parents—especially have taken up the fight to extend in-state tuition to undocumented youths or at least make students eligible for Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative. Aside from not cooperating with Secure Communities, states have come up with creative with ways to reform immigration policies. In New York, Democratic State Senator Gustavo Rivera recently sponsored the New York Is Home Act, a sweeping bill that would grant noncitizens, who have proof of identity and have lived and paid taxes in the state for three years, access to Medicaid, tuition aid, driver’s licenses and voting rights.
“With failure at the national level on comprehensive immigration reform, the question we have asked is what can states do?” Rivera told Reuters.
For Just Communities’ Requa-Trautz, fighting locally is an intentional strategy used to pressure those on the federal level, who are playing a “blame game of hot potato” in terms of who is actually going to fix the broken immigration system.
“We’ll get local gains while we can, and in the future, hopefully we get the president on the same page and willing to take action, since he is the person in this country who, with one pen stroke, can stop the two million deportations we’ve seen in his time in office,” Requa-Trautz said. “Hopefully we’ll motivate him to take action, we’re waiting for him to do the right thing with that. But in the meantime, we’re not just going to sit and wait. We’re going to make our local communities safe.”
Back in Massachusetts, Gutierrez said she feels betrayed by Obama and his inaction on comprehensive immigration reform. Though she herself as a legal resident couldn’t vote, her family members are citizens who enthusiastically voted for him.
“We were all really proud of Obama in the beginning of his term,” she said. “But it’s been a disappointment. I feel like he’s been a liar. And even though he himself is a family man, this is what’s happening to us. And I lost faith in him.”
This past Monday at a press conference, Obama commented on the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children attempting to enter the United States this year. An 11-year-old Guatemalan boy was found dead in South Texas a few weeks ago. Obama again blamed Republicans for stalling reform and said he would use executive action to get it done. But as Aura Bogado noted for Colorlines: “The only clear plan he laid out… was to increase enforcement at the border.”
Meanwhile, communities will carry on their fight for reform locally. Gutierrez continues to write letters, attend marches, lobby at the statehouse and speak publicly in support of the Trust Act at events. She said organizing has helped her regain some confidence and maintain self-respect, even as her family has been needlessly torn apart.
“The life of an immigrant, I don’t even know how to explain the kinds of discrimination and pain that we feel,” she said. “It’s such a difficult life to be here and be discriminated against and thought less of.… When I started organizing, I had so much shame and fear of talking in public. I know now how to go in and talk with legislators and advocate for myself and others. I’ve gotten rid of that shame and fear that I have because I learned that as an immigrant, we all have rights, and that’s why were fighting to win something better.”
By telling her story about her partner’s upcoming deportation, Gutierrez said she has been able to garner much support and compassion. Amidst her family’s despair, this helps her carry on her struggle and has turned her into a resolute fighter.
“Knowing now what I’ve experienced, I don’t want any other family to go through it,” she said. “I don’t want any other children crying. I don’t want any other mothers struggling to find a way to pay the bills. And that’s the reason I fight.… Before I experienced this personally, in the flesh, I didn’t understand what it was like and I wasn’t as active. But now that I know what my family has been through, it means a lot to me to not have families go through the same struggle.”
Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @alyssa_fig.