Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations across the country last week have ramped up fears in the local immigrant community.
“People are frightened,” Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate said in an interview this weekend.
Smyth said there had not been any enforcement actions on the North Fork as far as she was aware or “anywhere on Long Island” during a week in which ICE enforcement actions arrested more than 680 people in numerous states, including 41 in New York and the surrounding area, according to the federal agency.
Approximately 75 percent of those arrested were “criminal aliens” who had already been convicted of crimes, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said in a statement yesterday. Thirty-eight of the 41 people arrested by ICE in the N.Y. area had criminal convictions, according to an ICE press release.
The enforcement actions are targeting criminal aliens, illegal re-entrants, and immigration fugitives, the agency said.
“ICE conducts these kind of targeted enforcement operations regularly and has for many years,” Kelly said.
ICE released a “fact sheet” yesterday about targeted enforcement operations conducted “on a regular basis” out of the agency’s 24 field offices, citing statistics showing thousands of arrests made each year since 2011.
“The focus of these enforcement operations is consistent with the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE’s Fugitive Operations teams on a daily basis,” Kelly said
Smyth said she and other immigrant advocates, as well as the immigrant community itself, support the removal of people convicted of serious crimes.
“There are people who should be put out,” she said. “The immigrants will tell you, ‘I came here to be safe. If someone is bad, I want them gone too.’”
But undocumented residents — people who came into the United States illegally or who stayed here after their visas expired — are here in violation of federal immigration law and are subject to deportation, even if they have not committed any crime.
“What happens to them when ICE conducts an enforcement action and encounters them?” Smyth asked. “This is what has people frightened.”
ICE provides no clear-cut answer to that question.
“During targeted enforcement operations ICE officers frequently encounter additional suspects who may be in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws. Those persons will be evaluated on a case by case basis and, when appropriate, arrested by ICE,” the agency said in its “fact sheet.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said reports that ICE targeted non-violent immigrant families last week are “deeply disturbing.”
ICE denies conducting checkpoints and sweeps. “Reports of ICE checkpoints and sweeps are false, dangerous and irresponsible. These reports create panic and put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger. Any groups falsely reporting such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support,” ICE said.
Schumer demanded ICE provide details about the actions, including where they took place.
“I am troubled by the lack of transparency and potential due process violations surrounding ICE’s most recent enforcement actions,” Schumer said in a statement yesterday. “That is why I’m calling on ICE to release information about the location of the raids and details of the people who were arrested.”
Smyth said she has arranged for immigration lawyers to speak to immigrants gathered for Mass in Riverhead and Greenport, to advise people of their rights and ways to best protect themselves and their families. The Spanish-language masses have seen record numbers in attendance in recent weeks, she said.
People with children are being advised to make guardianship arrangements so if they are arrested by ICE there is a plan for their children’s care.
“That’s the biggest fear for most people — that they will be picked up and they will be separated from their children,” she said.
“Every parent needs a plan to make sure their children get to who they want to care for them,” Smyth said.
She said people who have been convicted of serious crimes represent a very small minority of the local immigrant community she’s been immersed in since establishing the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in 1996.
“But if one of them is living in a house or working where you work and ICE shows up with a warrant for him, they could take everyone,” she said.
“I observe the law,” Smyth said. “If someone committed a serious crime I am not going to protect them.”
Many people think that immigrants should just “get in line” and comply with the immigration laws, pointing to their own ancestors who immigrated legally, Smyth said.
“That’s a common refrain. You hear it all the time,” she said.
But the immigration system doesn’t work that way today — and effectively doesn’t work at all for people from Latin America, Smyth said.
The laws governing immigration in the U.S. are complex. They are based upon the following principles: the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity, according to the American Immigration Council.
To immigrate to the U.S. today, a foreign national needs to have a sponsor, with few exceptions. For family-based immigration — rather than employment-based — the sponsor must be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (a green card holder).
A U.S. citizen can file an immigrant visa petition for a spouse, a child, a parent, brother or sister. A legal permanent resident can file an immigrant visa petition for a spouse or an unmarried child.
The law establishes preferences for types of immigrants based on who applies (citizen versus green card holder) and the relationship of the immigrant to the applicant. It places a numerical limit on each preference category except for the spouses, unmarried minor children and parents of adult U.S. citizens.
In addition to those numerical limits, there are per-country ceilings on how many immigrants can come to the United States from any one country. These limits are set to prevent any immigrant group from dominating immigration patterns.
An immigrant visa petition is itself complex and requires a great deal of documentation. Once the application is complete and ready for review — a lengthy process — an interview can be scheduled. Often the wait for final action is years long. Eligibility for final action depends on the country of origin and the preference category. For example, immigration visa petitions for citizens of Mexico are currently eligible for final action if the petition was ruled complete on or before June 1, 1995 for citizen sponsoring an adult unmarried child or April 1, 2015 for a green card holder sponsoring a spouse or minor child. The petitions are acted on in chronological order of date of completion. Once a country’s annual ceiling is reached, no further actions are taken until the following year.
For people living in “desperate conditions” in many parts of Latin America, the restrictions are forbidding and the wait times — even if they have the requisite sponsor — are so long that some choose to risk an attempt to enter illegally.
“If I were a parent living in some of these countries like Honduras,” Smyth said, “I would do anything to get out of there.”
The current immigration system is broken and in need of reform, she said. It’s been that way for more than a decade but Congress has been unable or unwilling to act.
“Crossing the border was not the legal thing to do,” Smyth said. “But once here, they live good lives. We need to look at the big picture.”