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Welcome in Washtenaw, if not in the United States

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Maria Ibarra-Frayre is an immigrant-rights advocate and undocumented immigrant protected by the Obama-era executive order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. | Jim McBee, The Ann

Local undocumented immigrants share their anguish in the time of Trump

By Beth Solberg

Although nowadays Washtenaw County is known more as a hub of higher learning and rapidly rising property values than as a hotbed of activism, immigration is one issue that has brought locals out of their homes to take a stand.

For Washtenaw County, 2017 is turning out to be a year of deportation orders and counter-protests by local residents, as evidenced by a string of such events in the first two-thirds of the year. At least four times so far in 2017, Washtenaw County residents have turned out in numbers to protest the imminent deportation of established community members. At nine months into the new administration, community resistance to increased deportations has gained traction and taken shape.       

Some public demonstrations seem to have helped immigrants’ cause. In the case of Yousef Ajin, a Jordanian immigrant and Ann Arbor resident, judge David Paruch ruled in late February that he could stay and continue working toward permanent residency. In the case of Jose Valle Rodriguez, an immigrant from El Salvador, judge David Lawson ordered two stays on his deportation order, at least stalling his removal. One hundred days after being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Valle Rodriguez has returned to his family in Ypsilanti, thanks to a community fundraiser to pay his bail and one month’s rent. On Valle Rodriguez’ two immigration court dates in the McNamara Federal Building in Detroit, supporters filled the courtroom and hallways to capacity.   

Other collective efforts to prevent or delay deportations, such as that of Lourdes Bautista Salazar and her three children on Aug. 1, and that of Jose Luis Sanchez Ronquillo, have had little impact. ICE deported all five individuals, all longtime residents of the county. Mayra Montoya-Jiménez, an undocumented Costa Rican resident of Ypsilanti, also had a deportation date set for late August, but appears to remain in ICE custody for unknown reasons.

At least in Washtenaw County, the flurry of deportation orders has led to a community-wide mobilization to support immigrants.

At the heart of Washtenaw County’s defense of immigrant community members is a feeling that they form a core part of the community and deserve to stay. Washtenaw County seems to understand the reality of modern immigration to the United States, that there is no “line” in which to wait to enter the country legally. Pro-immigrant rights efforts are taking place here in governmental and civic contexts and include countywide legal protections as well as direct action teams that seek to intervene on behalf of immigrants during ICE raids.

I interviewed an undocumented Washtenaw County community member to get a better idea of what undocumented residents here experience and why they decide to move to a new country without legal status. What follows is the story of Yoli, whose real name and some identifying details have been changed to protect her.

 

The fear

The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Yoli’s heart sank as the hours passed in the restaurant where she was working. She knew tips would be scarce.

“Customers had ordered $6 in food by the afternoon. People were just not coming. We were nervous. … We didn’t know what was happening.”

Yoli told me that she works from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, going from a morning job cleaning houses to an afternoon job in a restaurant, where she waits tables and closes. She has three kids – all American citizens – and a husband, also undocumented. Talking to her, I was struck by her personal warmth, her quick wit and the ease with which she could laugh, even when discussing serious topics.   

Mostly, Yoli spoke of what it’s like to live in an environment – now her home of 15 years, after leaving her native El Salvador – that since Trump’s election had become harsher, more dangerous and more distrustful than before. Even with a successful cleaning business and American citizen children in local public schools, she reported constant anxiety about her safety, her children’s future and her family’s financial security, on top of a pervasive sense of being racially profiled and disrespected.

She described being looked at askance by tellers at her bank, of limiting her travel to the three communities in Washtenaw County where she works, of driving exactly the speed limit at all times for fear of being pulled over. She has not visited her family in California or El Salvador for years because the only form of photo identification she has is her El Salvadoran driver’s license. There is too much at stake: her children’s lives, her business, her safety. A routine traffic stop could lead to an indefinite stay in prison, as in the case of Mayra Montoya-Jimenez, an undocumented Ypsilanti resident who spent six weeks in detention in a Battle Creek jail after suffering a car crash in Canton (but not before being taken to ICE’s Detroit office and interrogated). ICE has arrangements with many state and local prisons to use their facilities to hold undocumented individuals. Montoya-Jimenez opted to voluntarily deport herself rather than remain in indefinite detainment in Battle Creek and consider her legal options. Yoli, if pulled over, would likely face indefinite detainment, abruptly depriving her children of their mom’s income.  

So, while her cleaning business is successful and her family is not in poverty, the homes she cleans and the restaurant where she works form the hard outer limits of her world, a world she works nonstop to remain in.

I asked Yoli what she thought of the American dream. A look of recognition crossed her face. She said, “I don’t see it. I don’t see the American dream. There are lots of poor American citizens who work as hard as me and they are still poor.”

Yoli, like the low-income American citizens she pointed out, lives at the poorly-understood crossroads of contradictory political policies, social norms and national narratives that affect individuals’ lives. On the one hand, our national mythology says that America became the world’s leader because it welcomed immigrants. On the other, for many American citizens, immigrants are criminals. One common response from that group is that immigrants need to “get in line” and wait their turn for a chance to live here legally. Rather than being based in knowledge of immigration law, this phrase is shorthand for, “We don’t want immigrants here.”   

Yoli is one of about 11 million undocumented people in the U.S., according to figures from the Pew Research Center, who left citizenship and identity behind in their home countries to live here without legal status. They come illegally because most fail to qualify for the three paths to legal residence in the U.S.: work visas (mostly reserved for professionals), sponsorship by family members who are American citizens or permanent residents, and political asylum. Immigration law stipulates that residents of any given foreign country may receive no more than 7 percent of total U.S. work or family-sponsorship visas, meaning that only a tiny fraction of applicants from countries with high levels of immigration, like El Salvador, obtain such visas.    

 

Maria Ibarra-Frayre speaks with reporters after a May 17 meeting of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. | Jim McBee, The Ann

A local issue

In the weeks since I talked to Yoli, events surrounding immigration in Washtenaw County have unfolded erratically. On May 17, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners announced its commitment not to inquire about immigrants’ legal status (among other pro-immigrant measures), while only one week later, unexpected ICE raids in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti indicated that the federal government’s agenda could be just the opposite.  

The same volatility seen in the May 24 ICE raids threatened to, but finally did not, derail the grassroots campaign to get the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to adopt a set of resolutions advancing immigrant welfare in the area. Maria Ibarra-Frayre, an immigrant-rights advocate and undocumented immigrant protected by the Obama-era executive order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – and a core member of the coalition behind the campaign – had many doubts about whether the resolutions would receive support from enough of the commissioners to pass.

Ibarra-Frayre, 26, works for the nonprofit Synod Community Services, where she runs the Washtenaw County I.D. program in conjunction with the Vital Records Division of Washtenaw County. The I.D. program allows Washtenaw County residents to get a legally valid form of photo identification with which they can open a bank account, apply for a library card, cash checks, sign leases and various other mundane but essential tasks that residents without I.D. have trouble carrying out. Ibarra-Frayre and Melanie Harner, a cofounder of the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, both attended the two meetings of the Board of Commissioners in which the commissioners voted on the immigrant rights resolutions. Both also spoke in support of them when the commissioners opened the floor for public comment.   

Specifically, after the May 3 meeting of the local Board of Commissioners, events in Lansing weighed on Ibarra-Frayre. On April 3, Lansing’s City Council voted to declare Michigan’s capital a “sanctuary city,” a symbolic designation. Still, the April 3 vote became a lightning rod for public disapproval in the capital area, and on April 12, the same City Council voted to revoke the designation. To Ibarra-Frayre, Lansing’s episode represented the dangerous ambiguity of the sanctuary city title.

“The drawback to the sanctuary city designation is that, unfortunately in many Rust Belt communities, it doesn’t take much for people to come out against immigrants.”

The stakes for the resolutions to be voted on by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners were higher than in Lansing, because in addition to mere declarations of support for immigrants, they included a proposal to allocate $135,000 in public funds to social services and legal aid for immigrants in Washtenaw County, as well as a resolution banning police from asking individuals about their citizenship status, except under certain circumstances.

Objections to the package of resolutions varied. In the May 5 Ways and Means meeting of the Board of Commissioners – a preliminary meeting required before a final vote could be held – Commissioners Ruth Ann Jamnick and Alicia Ping made it clear that they would not support the allocation of public revenue to undocumented immigrants on principle. Commissioner Ricky Jefferson explained during his closing comments to the audience that, while he supported the resolutions in theory, he had qualms about dedicating revenue to one struggling demographic in the county while bypassing others.

Ibarra-Frayre, WICIR and the rest of the coalition behind the resolutions realized they would have to focus on persuading the undecided commissioners. Coalition members met personally with several of the commissioners to argue their case for the resolutions, with positive results: In their May 17 meeting, the commissioners voted to approve the entire set of resolutions allocating over $100,000 to free legal counseling and social services for immigrants.

A week later, on May 24, Washtenaw County was caught off guard by an ICE raid at the popular brunch restaurant Sava’s, in downtown Ann Arbor. After eating breakfast, four uniformed ICE agents got up and entered the kitchen, looking for undocumented kitchen staff. Lindsey Briney, wife of Jesús Ortiz Hernández, one of the men the agents arrested, said that when the agents saw a Latino Sava’s employee leave the kitchen, the agents shouted at him to get down. Although the first Latino employee avoided arrest after showing the agents proof of his legal status, the agents went on to arrest three undocumented employees. According to Briney, the ICE agents loaded them into a van and drove them to ICE’s nearest field office, in Detroit.

ICE released Ortiz Hernández in Detroit around 7 p.m. the same day. In the multiple phone calls that his wife made to the ICE field office after his arrest, she told them that Ortiz Hernández was married and that she and his family were worried about him. Briney, fiercely protective, said that she believes that her husband’s calm, easygoing personality may have led ICE to release him relatively quickly. Even so, Ortiz Hernández has to wear an electronic leg tether at all times and periodically check in with ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program. Every four hours, he has to recharge the tether. If he forgets to recharge it, he gets phone calls from ICE asking about his whereabouts.

 

‘It’s hard work’

In the weeks before the Sava’s sting, Briney followed news about other residents who faced deportation after living and working in Ann Arbor for many years.

“Jesús is a very nice man, a quiet man, who has had no issues in this country. (What happened at Sava’s) was really our worst nightmare when Donald Trump was elected. I cried the whole night (after the election results came in), thinking about what could happen to us. Now, to read about my husband in MLive articles because he was arrested by ICE is awful and surreal,” she said.

Briney, who has worked in local restaurants for years alongside immigrants from various countries, said that the problem is people’s tendency to view immigration in black and white terms.

“What hurts the most is the idea that Trump is selling, that immigrants are dangerous and criminal. My husband is one of the gentlest people I know. According to some people, if someone is here illegally, they are probably not paying taxes, they’re leeching off welfare. … The truth is, Jesús has never had health insurance in the 10 years he’s lived in the U.S., never received benefits from the state, because how could he?”

She added, “Everyone who is here illegally would have come here legally if they could have. I know from working in the restaurant industry in this area that undocumented employees are not paid in cash. Restaurants issue them checks just like they do for citizens, which means that the federal and state government subtract taxes for Social Security from their paycheck. But undocumented employees don’t file for tax refunds they would qualify for otherwise, because they do not have valid Social Security numbers.” Whereas an American citizen restaurant worker likely would be able to claim a refund of all his or her annual payroll taxes, undocumented restaurant workers generally do not claim refunds because they do not have valid Social Security numbers.

The federal government has certainly taken note of this “mysterious” revenue stream – and it is sending mixed messages. The Social Security Administration’s Earnings Suspense File retains payroll taxes that do not match any valid Social Security number, including those of undocumented workers. What’s more, the IRS even allows undocumented individuals to voluntarily file taxes using Individual Tax Identification Numbers. According to The Atlantic magazine, in 2010 over 3 million undocumented people filed income taxes with an ITIN, paying $870 million. Annual payroll taxes from undocumented people using an ITIN amount to around $9 billion. Undocumented immigrants choose to pay taxes this way hoping that it will improve their chances of getting permanent residency in the future. Meanwhile, this revenue helps fund Medicare for retired American citizens. Between the Earnings Suspense File, Individual Tax Identification Numbers and ICE raids, it is hard to figure out the federal government’s position on illegal immigration.    

Briney added, “A lot of times immigrants are the only people who are willing to do restaurant work. I’ve seen restaurants hire Americans who end up refusing to do food prep, refusing to wash dishes. Immigrants work those jobs.”   

As with Yoli, I asked Briney what she thought about the American dream.

“The American dream is immigration, it’s hard work, it’s paying taxes, it’s business. I’m a third-generation Lebanese-American and I know that when my grandparents got off the boat, they went through Ellis Island and became citizens. It was that simple. Things are so much different now. We take very few immigrants from countries like Mexico that millions of people are constantly fleeing, because of the violence.”

Briney told me that she and her husband had started his application for American citizenship a few months before the raid at Sava’s, and their lawyer is optimistic about his chances at gaining American citizenship, in spite of his detention.

One final comment from Briney reminded me of the idea that Ibarra-Frayre had banked on when she met with the Washtenaw County commissioner who had felt that the resolutions were unfairly benefitting immigrants over other demographics in the county.

Briney asserted, “The wealthiest 1 percent of our country is doing whatever they can do to keep everyone else poor, and then they are blaming it on immigrants and the working poor.” The idea being, hardworking immigrants have more in common with working Americans than the richest Americans have with working Americans.

 

 

“The drawback to the sanctuary city designation is that, unfortunately in many Rust Belt communities, it doesn’t take much for people to come out against immigrants,” said Maria Ibarra-Frayre. | Jim McBee, The Ann

A range of tactics

Washtenaw County residents have gone to bat for undocumented immigrants in a variety of ways, using direct action against ICE, social networking, fundraising and public demonstrations to support undocumented residents and their families.

Jose Valle Rodriguez, the 31-year-old father from El Salvador who was detained by ICE the same day as the Sava’s raid, returned to his family in Ypsilanti in late July after a successful fundraiser to pay his bond. The fundraiser even raised enough to cover one month of his family’s rent, which the Valle Rodriguez family had been struggling to pay because of Jose’s months-long detainment.

I asked Jessica Prozinski, a founding member of the activist group Stop Trump Ann Arbor and the organizer of Valle Rodriguez’s fundraiser, what led people to donate. She said that donors without a personal connection to Valle Rodriguez felt that donating would make a tangible, positive difference for him and his family.

Prozinski, along with Keysha Wall, also launched the local Immigration Rapid Response Team, a group of about 450 people who receive text alerts when someone calls their hotline to report an ICE sighting, whether it be a raid, deportation or other activity. Members of the team can quickly show up to wherever ICE may be to videotape, protest and call attention to the scene.

Prozinski likened showing up to witness and impede ICE raids to the practice of abolitionists physically defending runaway slaves in the North who faced recapture. She sees rising hostility toward undocumented immigrants as today’s most urgent moral issue – one that requires the general public to show solidarity with the victims.

Maria Ibarra-Frayre, on the other hand, has found a way to be an activist within the county’s governmental framework. The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners approved the ID program in November 2014. From its official start in June 2015 to April 2017, the program had issued 1,277 IDs, more than the projected 500 IDs per year. According to Synod Community Services, individuals from immigrant communities make up 80 percent of ID recipients, meaning the ID is reaching the demographic it was meant to serve (although others may benefit from the ID as well). A number of local businesses also offer Washtenaw ID-holders discounts as a way to promote the program.  

In other local government news, on Aug. 12 the Ann Arbor City Council voted unanimously to pass a resolution asking Gov. Rick Snyder to pardon an Iraqi-born Ann Arbor resident, Kamiran Taymour, who faces deportation for a 2010 marijuana-related crime. Taymour came to the U.S. in 1993 as a refugee from Iraq, and since arriving here has converted to Christianity, married, had children and owns a car-repair shop in Ypsilanti. If he were deported to Iraq, given his religion and because his sister worked as a translator for the U.S. military, he would be in danger of retaliatory violence. Snyder has not announced whether he will act on Ann Arbor’s resolution to pardon Taymour.

Finally, the recently formed Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary could be the boldest local effort to resist deportations, because it leverages the community’s goodwill toward immigrants with the moral authority and higher profile of local congregations. The sanctuary consists of a network of local churches, synagogues and temples that offer physical refuge in their facilities to people at risk of deportation. ICE policy is to refrain from removing undocumented persons in certain spaces, including in places of worship. The first congregation to declare itself an official sanctuary host was Ann Arbor’s Church of the Good Shepherd, but others, including the Temple Beth Emeth, the First Congregational United Church of Christ, the First United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ, have offered to provide reinforcement and support to Church of the Good Shepherd, should it be utilized as a sanctuary.

The concept of congregational sanctuary is not new – faith communities have intervened on behalf of oppressed people for millennia – but for many, this could be the first time they will have seen churches and other religious groups take dramatic and direct action on behalf of endangered others.

As Barack Obama wrote in a note he published on Facebook after it was announced that President Trump would end DACA, which allows certain undocumented people to stay in the country legally, “people of goodwill can have legitimate disagreements about how to fix our immigration system so that everybody plays by the rules.” On the other hand, Washtenaw County is witnessing a rapid coalescence of bureaucratic and direct actions to prevent deportations, seen by some community members as cruel violations of human rights.

 

The squeeze

The pressure felt by many undocumented immigrants starts before they leave their home countries and usually continues even after decades of living in the United States.

Yoli, the undocumented woman who owns a cleaning business and waits tables, confirmed this. She described a family member in El Salvador who had been kidnapped by a gang and held for a high ransom, which the family ultimately paid but which left them financially precarious.

Extortion of this type is a common tactic of the cartels that effectively govern El Salvador. Yoli’s impression of the United States was of a safe, stable place where she and her children would have the opportunity to get ahead, to thrive, if only they had the chance. She knew that she and her husband had the resilience to succeed in a new country if they could just get a foot in the door.

Since she arrived, the pressure has not let up, but this time, it comes from other directions. Racism is a continual thorn in her side. She described cleaning clients who, upon meeting her, refused to hire her because they assumed that she could not understand their instructions in English. (In fact, she has taken advantage of English classes and tutoring and speaks the language well.) Diners at the restaurant where she works have made similar remarks, questioning whether she could understand their orders. She also told of how once, when she and her husband took their kids on a vacation to Disney World, a stranger seated near them in a restaurant complained loudly, repeatedly, of “stupid Mexicans” who “couldn’t speak English.” Eventually Yoli realized that the stranger had been referring to her family. Her children were little then, and she confronted the man, who refused to apologize. This hostility can come pop up anywhere, at any time, from anyone.

Of course there is also the threat of ICE actions. Just in Washtenaw County, 2017 has shown that ICE is carrying out deportations regardless of whether the undocumented person has dependents. Even congregational sanctuary, while exciting, may not stop ICE from removing undocumented people. Indefinite detention by ICE in a local prison, without medical attention and alongside citizen inmates who may have committed serious crimes, is another possible consequence of an arrest, as in the case of Mayra Montoya-Jimenez.

In her old life, in El Salvador, Yoli was a nurse. She reminisced about how when she would visit patients at their bedside, she would joke with them, “There is no such thing as stress.” She laughs at the memory now. Although her life may seem harder now, she summons the same playfulness every day, a habit that makes her very likeable.

What is clear from my conversations with Yoli, Ibarra-Frayre, and Briney is that immigrants, documented and undocumented, wear many hats. They also arrive and remain under a range of circumstances, because unlike in the past, there is no line for them to wait in, nor an Ellis Island to pass through. They are coworkers, spouses, parents, job creators, consumers, producers. In Washtenaw County, they are first and foremost valued community members. These deep social connections may turn out to be key in shifting the national discourse around immigration from “getting in line” toward “making a place” and setting an example for other communities to follow.


Editor’s note: We edited to clarify that Synod Community Services is an independent nonprofit that is not housed in the Washtenaw County Office of Vital Records.

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