Deportation Relief Means Safer Cities

By Kim Hunter

About a year ago, people in Michigan rallied in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. They welcomed a few of the thousands of youth fleeing violence in Central America. The kids that came here were housed by a human service agency located near Vassar, Michigan. Most of the youth came without adults or much in the way of help. Their journeys of thousands of miles including trips on “la bestia” were harrowing to say the least.

Some folks had be reminded or enlightened to the fact that these kids presented no threat and were in fact fleeing danger and doing so at very high personal risk. The families of these young people simply wanted them to have lives free of violence and to be reunited with family members here in the United States.

About a month ago, the faith community and family and friends of Jose Adolfo Zaldana walked 17 miles from their church in Royal Oak to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement office in Detroit to highlight his plight. He twice fled gang violence and extortion. He had been violently recruited into a gang and refused to commit gang-ordered acts of violence. He and his family actually tried to get him legal entry into the U.S. But the continued beatings, on top of the thousands they extorted from his family for their own “protection,” couldn’t wait for his application to be processed. He fled to family and friends in the U.S. As I was writing this, I got a call that Jose Adolfo will be deported.

These are just two of the many examples of immigrants braving incredible tribulation to escape violence, to essentially seek asylum and be reunited with family members. Most of these stories don’t get much play, like Laura S., the domestic violence survivor who became a victim after she was deported back to Mexico after a traffic stop. There were at least five Honduran kids found murdered last year after they were deported.

While these stories received media attention, the violence and death suffered by these people and countless others have not sparked Congressional action on immigration. There has, however been a movement to make life harder both for immigrants and local law enforcement, both of whom already have enough critical issues on their respective plates.

The Congressional moves began after the tragic murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco. The man accused in the killing is an undocumented immigrant, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who’s been deported twice.

The legislation being proposed would not have saved Ms. Steinle, but it does make for good political theater for the GOP base. Republican lawmakers proposed to cut off federal law enforcement funds to cities whose cops don’t turn in undocumented immigrants. There has been much finger pointing as to who was at fault for not keeping Lopez-Sanchez behind bars.

At issue is whether and how local cops in cities like San Francisco should work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The bottom line is this: if your local cops have to start doing the job of federal immigration agents, your community will, ironically, become less safe. Why? Because not only will cops have an additional burden added to their list of duties, but the immigrant community, including US citizens with undocumented relatives, will be fearful of interacting with cops and reporting crime. They will be afraid losing a mother, son, sister or father to deportation.

Faced with the choice of keeping one’s mouth shut and the family intact, or speaking out and inviting scrutiny that could risk separation and deportation to potential violence, most folks will choose their family and safety without a second thought. So it benefits everyone when immigrants can work with local police and report crime without the fear of losing a family member or being deported.

I have been working with groups like Michigan United for years and I can’t tell you how many times I have heard of someone’s mother, father or sibling being deported after a traffic stop. These are people who have led scrupulously clean lives. Sometimes they are even small business owners upon whom others rely for jobs.

There is no sugarcoating the devastation brought by Kate Steinle’s murder. Her family is suffering in ways I can’t imagine. Devastating the lives of 11 million undocumented immigrants won’t prevent criminal acts. It will increase them.

If Congress is serious about protecting communities, it needs to start by working to relieve immigrant families of the fear of deportation. It needs to start with immigration reform.