In Los Angeles, Trump edicts spread confusion

Who is welcome in today’s America?

 

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California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. In this new column, a monthly Letter from California, we’ll chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West.

When President Donald Trump’s first executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries came down on Jan. 27, lawyers scrambled to make sense of the dictum. International terminals across airports in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver became ground zero for volunteer lawyers eager to help the newly-arrived, and even those in mid-air.

We had been expecting some sort of action from the president on immigration, but we were all surprised to see it in the form of a travel ban,says Kristen Jackson, a senior attorney at Los Angeles-based non-profit Public Counsel, who was among the first to lend assistance at the airport. Clearly, it was as confusing for us as it was for those meant to enforce it.

To this day, Jackson says, the confusion is felt far beyond Los Angeles, the West’s most populous and culturally diverse city. The countrys most influential law firms and constitutional experts are continually trying to make sense of Trump’s edicts — including his revised but blocked travel ban and his burgeoning immigration policies. It is no longer clear, literally, who is welcome in todays America.

Over the past couple of months, there have been reports of Customs and Border Protection agents asking domestic air travelers for their IDs. Green-card holders are being sent back to their countries of origin, without access to lawyers. And some tourist visa holders are questioned at length upon arrival to the U.S. Caught in this dragnet have been an unknown number of legal residents and travelers, including a Fulbright scholar, a well-known Australian author, and an Argentinian curator.

Two months on, a sense of chaos lingers. With every new order, media interview, or tweet, the White House is complicating an already confusing immigration framework, making just about anyone vulnerable to deportation — or entry denial. None of this should surprise us. During his campaign, Trump made his intentions clear: “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I build them very inexpensively,he claimed. He also promised mass deportations and a total and complete shutdownof Muslim immigration.

The revised Muslim ban was not to be. Judge Derrick K. Watson, of the Federal District Court in Honolulu, blocked it mere hours before it was supposed to take effect, writing that “a reasonable, objective observer would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion.”

But when it comes to mass deportations, the law is not on the side of immigrants lacking papers. With an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants across the country — around four million in the Western states — the prospect of deporting every one seemed unlikely a year ago. No longer. In a Feb. 20 immigration memo, Trump ordered Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly to execute the law against all removable aliens.

The order effectively made all unauthorized immigrants vulnerable to deportation, regardless of whether they had a clean record or are raising U.S. born children. Places once considered sanctuaries — schools, hospitals and churches — are now becoming the focus of law enforcement raids, too.

To understand what kind of chaos these orders are having, consider the case of Rómulo Avelica-González, who was stopped by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, a block away from his daughters school, in Los Angeles. The 48-year-old father of four American children has lived in the country for more than 25 years, but Avelica-González had a DUI charge and a previous order of deportation. He was arrested while his wife and 12-year-old daughter were left in the car.

Such cases are growing increasingly common. “(Immigration enforcement agents) are putting the criminallabel on all the undocumented,says Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizer Network, an advocacy organization based in Los Angeles. The group has enlisted California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to ask ICE for a stay in Avelica-González’s case, but his once-minor charges now make him a prime target for expedited removal,thereby denying him due process. He currently remains in detention at a private facility in Adelanto, California.

Avelica-González’s case also brings up another confusing question: What will the role of local police departments be? The ICE agents who arrested the 48-year-old and ordered him to enter an unmarked vehicle were wearing navy blue jackets with the word police printed on the back. According to law, local officers cannot do the job of federal agents. In the most recent memo, Trump makes clear his wish to enlist local police as immigration enforcers. 

A U.S. ICE officer gears up.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

However, the relationship between local and federal law enforcement in immigration matters has been a complicated one in recent years, especially in California. In Los Angeles, local officials are asking ICE to stop the practice of identifying themselves as police as they go about arresting immigrants. For 40 years, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles City Attorneys office have worked to gain the trust, respect and cooperation of all our citys residents,Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a public letter. “As a result, when ICE agents targeting immigrants identify themselves only as policeofficers, they undermine decades of this work, eroding public safety in our city. 

Numerous interview requests to police officers throughout Los Angeles County went unanswered. Off the record, one LAPD patrol officer told me that immigrants are becoming increasingly fearful of interacting with cops. LAPD has been public about its longstanding policy: Police officers arent allowed to approach suspects to inquire about their immigration status, and local police cant be coerced to do the work of federal agencies, such as ICE.

But in Los Angeles, and elsewhere, there is widespread confusion, as well as resistance to the new policies, even as arrests continue. The White House has not specified the role of local law enforcement agencies, saying only that they will be encouraged to perform the functions of an immigration officerto the maximum extent permitted by law.” Just what is permitted? And will the courts enter the fray? We’ll soon find out.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California. 

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