Fear of Trump immigration order in NC spreads as potential human costs emerge

Fear of Trump immigration order in NC spreads as potential human costs emerge

Durham resident Felipe de Jesus Molina-Mendoza is among those considered a priority for removal. (Image by Nelle Dunlap)

President Donald Trump has paid a lot of lip service to rounding up the “bad hombres” but it turns out he wants to deport a much larger group of immigrants than he led America to believe.

Trump signed an executive order in January to enhance “public safety in the interior of the United States.” The order did away a previous deportation priority list promulgated former President Barack Obama’s administration and is expected to have dire consequences for a majority of unauthorized immigrants, not just individuals with criminal convictions.

“It essentially renders meaningless this idea that there’s any prioritization,” said Avideh Moussavian, a policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “That’s how every law enforcement agency is supposed to function, you know, you don’t give the same weight to a jaywalker as you would to someone committing a much more serious or dangerous offense.”

The order specifically lists the following priorities (with no hierarchy) to target immigrants for deportation: “aliens who have been convicted of any criminal offense; have been charged with any criminal offense, where such charge has not been resolved; have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense; have engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency; have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits; are subject to a final order of removal, but who have not complied with their legal obligation to depart the United States; or in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.”

What does that all mean? No one really knows yet, but experts, advocates and attorneys agree the vague language in the order certainly makes it much easier to deport “anyone and everyone essentially,” Moussavian said.

To put that into perspective, The L.A. Times analyzed Trump’s new deportation priorities and estimated that up to eight million of the 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. could now be considered priorities for deportation. The newspaper’s calculations were based on interviews conducted with experts who studied the executive order and two internal documents “that signal immigration officials are taking an expansive view of Trump’s directive.”

“The deviation from sort of the criminal process to this lack of clarification, lack of specificity – that would lead to just about anyone [being targeted],” said Raul Pinto, NC Justice Center staff attorney with the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. “The impact that it’s having on residents in North Carolina is fear. It is spreading fear among the undocumented community, but in addition to that, it’s also impacting folks who are here documented who are very afraid that these priorities and that these new edicts are going to affect them as well.”

The NC Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch. Pinto said it’s too early to tell how the executive orders are being implemented by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) but attorneys hope to get further clarification.

“That would help ease some of these fears,” he said. “But it seems that from the ambiguous writings of these executive orders that they are almost purposefully targeting as broad a community as possible, and that has led to fear and panic.”

‘More cases like mine’

Durham resident Felipe de Jesus Molina-Mendoza is currently one of those considered a priority for removal. The now 25-year-old first came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 8 but returned to his native country to continue academic studies after graduating from Riverside High School without enough funds for college.

He tried to return to the U.S. in 2013 after facing discrimination, prejudice and persecution for his sexual orientation in Mexico. Without a lot of knowledge about his options, he crossed the border illegally in Texas and was caught by authorities, at which time he signed a voluntary deportation form.

Molina-Mendoza said the officer told him he had to either sign the document to be returned to Mexico right away or go to jail for three to four years in the U.S. only to likely be deported anyway.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “So I signed it.”

After learning about political asylum, he returned to the U.S. in 2014 and applied for that option. He was denied asylum and told last year that he would again be deported.

The Durham Technical Community College student’s appeal is pending but he is set to be deported Tuesday. He and several organizations, including the NAACP and Alerta Migratoria, as well as U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), are fighting the order with the hope he will be granted a stay.

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said Thursday that he can’t speculate what will happen in Molina-Mendoza’s case, but confirmed he is a priority subject to a final removal order.

“Felipe De Jesus Molina-Mendoza, an unlawfully present Mexican national who was previously removed from the United States in October of 2013, is an ICE priority as he is subject to a final order of removal issued by a federal immigration judge in March 2016,” Cox wrote in an email. “ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”

When asked what threat Molina-Mendoza posed, Cox said “he falls under border security due to the facts of his case.”

Molina-Mendoza, who graduated high school with a 3.8 GPA and has no criminal record, said he was surprised to learn he was considered a threat in the U.S. He added that when he applied for asylum, he underwent a thorough vetting process and passed a “credible fear” interview before being allowed to stay – authorities knew about his previous deportation all along.

“I think it’s kind of misleading information that he’s giving,” he said. “I don’t pose any threat. If I had posed any threat, I would run away or disappear but I’ve showed up to all my check-ins. Even though right now they’re trying to deport me, I’m still going to show up.”

Molina-Mendoza said he tries to focus on the positive. He’s still hopeful for a miracle and thankful for the community that has rallied around him, noting their support has meant more to him than anything.

He said he continues to fight, not just for himself, but for anyone who could end up in his situation under the Trump administration.

“More cases like mine will pop up,” he said. “It’s important for people to know, to read about them, to understand what they can do, because that’s how change comes.”

He still hopes to pursue his dream of becoming a nurse and to find a permanent home where he can “just be a good person, a good citizen.”

“Sometimes there is not a path for you and sometimes you have to make one for yourself,” he said. “I still haven’t given up.”

Community support

Moussavian said community support is essential when it comes to helping out the immigrant community. Schools, law enforcement and hospitals can adopt or strengthen policies to protect immigrants.

“They can’t do anything that would change federal immigration law, but they can certainly do things to try to limit exposure of the communities that they serve and work with from being targeted or being vulnerable to ICE enforcement,” she said.

Law enforcement agencies in Durham, Chapel Hill, Carborro and Orange County already said at a forum recently that immigration is not a priority for their officers, and there are other cities across the state that take a similar stance.

Moussavian said community members who want to help can bear witness to wrong-doing and make their voices heard for their immigrant peers.

“I think what we’ve seen just in the example of what happened in airports around the country, just the physical congregation of people to bear witness to wrong-doing can translate into immediate action,” she said. “It’s not just in the courts where legal arguments are being made, it’s also public pressure, and that can happen at a very local level.”

Of course, she and other advocates and attorneys agree that it’s also essential for immigrants who may be at risk for deportation take time to get educated about what’s happening and work on getting their affairs in order just in case.

Lynn Calder, an immigration attorney and professor at UNC School of Law’s Immigration Law Clinic, said it’s important for immigrants to know their rights and to take advantage of training events.

She and Pinto both said it’s also critical that those who are at risk talk to a qualified, licensed attorney to make a plan in case they get detained and deported.

“If we help them get prepared, at least they can feel like they have a little control over their lives,” Calder said.

Plans usually include discussing powers of attorney, where children will be housed in the event of an arrest or deportation and how to dispose of property.

Attorneys can also advise immigrants of changes in the law that could make them eligible for more relief.

“The community needs to know that circumstances change,” Pinto said, adding that there is sometimes concern about cost or geographical access. “You’ve got to make the effort because it could be extremely beneficial if you find that for whatever reason, your case changed.”

Calder said attorneys are also advising clients and clients’ children to stay out of trouble.

“It’s especially hard – it’s one thing to advise a 35-year-old adult, right, who is a family person and has children and all of that, but it’s another thing to advise an 18-year-old or a 19-year-old who doesn’t always make the best decisions on who their friends are and who they’re hanging out with,” she said. “Young people will sometimes end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and it’s not that they are ill-intentioned or intending to commit a crime but they get picked up with a group.”

She added that there are already people across the nation affected by Trump’s change of deportation priorities.

“People who we’ve been telling, ‘if you’ve been here a long, long time and you haven’t had any kind of criminal record and you’ve got U.S. citizen children, you have a family, you probably don’t have to worry so much;’ we’re telling them they have to worry,” she said.

Still, there’s got to be a balance, Moussavian said. The uncertainty combined with Trump’s rhetoric surrounding immigration has led to a sort of campaign of attrition and driving people underground, she said.

“It’s a tricky thing because you want to strike the right balance between providing people with accurate information and also with the understanding that they may need to make difficult choices themselves, as well as not wanting to stoke fears unnecessarily,” she said. “We don’t want people to be afraid of engaging in their daily life in ways that should not present risks to them, but we also want people to have information about what are the potential risks.”

It’s important for people to get to know their communities and to understand that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t change with the presidential administrations.

“What you saw at the airports is a microcosm of what we will be seeing, in less concentrated ways, at the local level, so people should be vigilant about getting information, getting accurate information and knowing how to be advocates for their community members,” Moussavian said.

Department of Homeland Secretary Jen Johnson’s 2014 memo: Trump’s executive order (which nullifies the previous priorities) specifically names the following as priorities for deportation:
Priority 1: Threats to national security, border security and public safety Aliens who have been convicted of any criminal offense
Priority 2: Misdemeanants and new immigration violators Have been charged with any criminal offense, where such charge has not been resolved
Priority 3: Other immigration violations Have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense
 — Have engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency
 — Have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits
 — Are subject to a final order of removal, but who have not complied with their legal obligation to depart the United States
 — Or in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security