Why Recent Changes To America’s Immigration Policies Have Sparked Fear And Outrage

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Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos’ story has been oft-repeated over the last two weeks as a leading example of why some are terrified of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Rayos — a mother of two who lived in the U.S for 21 years after immigrating illegally from Mexico — had been visiting immigration officials annually since she was arrested in 2008 for using a fake social security number to gain employment. Beyond those check-ins, Rayos had spent three months in prison and three more months in an immigration detention center. In 2013, a court ruled that Rayos would be deported, but officials hadn’t yet enforced the ruling since she wasn’t a violent criminal.

On February 8, however, something changed. ICE agents apprehended Rayos during her meeting with officials and, within the course of 24 hours, sent her back to Mexico.

Another example can be found in the case of Daniel Ramirez Medina, who illegally entered the U.S. from Mexico with his family when he was 7. Medina avoided deportation and got a work permit under the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals act (DACA), which helps those brought into the country illegally. On February 10, however, Medina was caught up in a sweep. Officials accused him of gang affiliations, according to the Chicago Tribune, which detailed troubling allegations made by Medina’s attorney with regard to tampering by officials. As of February 20, Medina, a young father, is still in custody.

Both Rayos and Medina’s cases act as a reminder of how quickly the American dream can unravel for people who live in the seemingly shrinking gray area of a complex and immense system.

Here’s a look at the system and the changes in approach that are having a big effect on enforcement and people’s attitudes.

Prosecutorial Discretion

Deportation may seem like an open-and-shut process, but in reality, it can be rather complex.

Yes, if someone violates the rules of their visa or green card, they could be subjected to deportation, but some options have generally been available. People can be granted asylum if they feel they face danger in their home country, or if they get married to a U.S. citizen, they can apply for credentials to remain in the country. Prosecutorial discretion, which is a big part of the decision process, allows officials to, essentially, look the other way for a vast array of reasons. The DACA serves such a function.

Within President Obama’s deportation policy, prosecutorial discretion acted as a keystone. From 2009 to 2015, more than 2.5 million people were deported under the authority of the Obama administration. But they didn’t round up everyone, choosing to instead focus on criminals.

In 2014, when Obama signed an executive action on immigration, he said he was looking at a distinct group: “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.”

According to ABC News, 91 percent of the people deported in 2015 were previously convicted of a crime.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has made no secret of his desire to cast a bigger net.

Rounding Up More Than Criminals

Fred Tsao, the Senior Policy Counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, tells Uproxx that a broader interpretation could be happening, as we have seen with Rayos. Despite people having deep roots in the U.S., they could still be susceptible to deportation.

“With the recently issued executive order now we have an idea [and] it’s kind of what we were afraid of,” Tsao said. “That it’s not only people with previous criminal convictions but also people with minor criminal convictions, pending criminal charges or even people who may have been involved in some activity but were never actually charged with the offense — [they] are all getting swept up in the deportation dragnet. We saw, in the case of [Rayos], even people who have been here for many years, who have deep family roots here, could end up getting deported under these new policies. So, if that’s the case, everybody who’s out of status could be a target.”

This already seems to be the case. According to USA Today, of 678 people who were arrested across 12 states in recent ICE raids, 74 percent had been convicted of a crime. Although it is not known what type of criminals were arrested, it may go against Trump’s promise to, at least initially, focus on “bad hombres” who had committed felonies.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is falling in line with Trump’s directives, as DHS Secretary John F. Kelly announced in a set of released guidance memos that it will enforce stricter policies to get the job done with more expediency.

Kelly seems to be urging agencies to utilize “unused parts” of existing laws while deputizing some in local law enforcement to assist with immigration actions and authorizing the use of additional resources in an effort to meet deportation objectives. Moves that could have a negative trickle down effect.

The Consequences Of Panic

A palpable fear is starting to bubble up for immigrants, and this fear may manifest in people not attending their immigration check-ins, which Tsao said could create more issues.

“It’s really unfortunate as word gets out that [arrests] are happening,” Tsao stated. “There will be people who decide it would be unwise to check in, which in itself could have consequences. Then again, if they do go, there could be consequences. So it’s pretty easy to foresee there would be that level of fear for people who were able to get some kind of reprieve from enforcement activity and ended up getting detained.”

Beyond the impact that panic and fear can have on the check-in process, it’s possible that people may also refrain from reporting crimes, going to work, and seeking health services when they get sick. This is, in essence, why sanctuary cities exist, but their status is under attack, and the overall climate could make them seem irrelevant as suspicion rises and trust deteriorates.

Many of the recent ICE raids have occurred in major cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Antonio, and New York. Both Chicago and New York City have adopted sanctuary status (which means, among other things, that their police officers don’t specifically enforce immigration laws), and Los Angeles is in, essentially, the same space without identifying as such. This means little when it comes to ICE raids, which are federal actions. But it still can have a chilling effect on relations between immigrants and local officials.

Gabe Gonzalez, a community organizer in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune the rhetoric Trump spewed on the campaign trail is now a reality:

“What is different is the level of fear, because everyone saw (Trump) for eight months talk about the wall, talk about deporting everybody, talk about getting rid of Muslims … it’s created an atmosphere of terror. There is an atmosphere in this country that has been created by this rhetoric that scares the hell out of people.”

Can America Fight Back And Overcome Trump’s Policies?

The rapid and, at times, messy implementation of Donald Trump’s immigration strategy has shaken people’s confidence in the established order. It’s also dashed hopes that Trump would have a softer approach than he advocated during his campaign. However, fear is rising as the president seems eager to deal with this delicate and complex situation sans nuance and patience while putting human concerns on the back burner. Trump’s still stressing his “America First” worldview, but Americans are slowly unifying in outrage.

Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California, told Uproxx that the groundswell of support the country has seen in the forms of protests and lawmakers is a good sign of things to come.

“There is a palpable sense of fear and anxiety,” Hondagneu-Sotelo told us. “At the same time, we have witnessed a groundswell of support for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students on college campuses, and for Muslim refugees and immigrants, as we saw at the airport protests a few weeks ago. Alongside a minority of politicians calling for immigrant expulsion, we see growing support of the immigrant rights movement and commitment to immigrant integration.”

Unsurprisingly, intense media coverage has accompanied these protests and other vocal reactions (and rejections, including court proceedings) to the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

How will Donald Trump react to these setbacks to his approach? He could potentially sense some political consequences, although he hasn’t bowed to public pressure before now, so it’s not likely that he’ll do so unless his team sees no path to full implementation. For now, undocumented immigrants and their families — along with advocates and supportive members of Congress — can only watch and wait as ICE raids continue.