THE BUZZ: Sustained Duress

By on June 28, 2017

ICE visits, contradicting messages, have local immigrant populace living in uncertainty.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Last week confusion and fear rippled through Jackson Hole’s immigrant populace when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers swept Teton County. They reportedly visited the kitchen of at least one local restaurant, apprehending some of its staff.

According to Sherriff Jim Whalen, they took custody of four people over two days. They also already had two individuals with them who they’d arrested in Cody.

The arrests have occured at a time when immigrants are receiving mixed local and national messages.

On one hand, ICE’s national director, Thomas Homan, recently told Congress that all undocumented immigrants “should be uncomfortable. You should look over you shoulder, and you need to be worried.”

ICE indeed has more latitude under Trump than it did under Obama: “When I say all people are on the table, that’s what the executive orders say,” Homan told CNN. “We will now enforce the laws on the books which we haven’t been allowed to do.”

Meanwhile, local authorities continue to assure immigrants that they have nothing to fear as long as they are law-abiding. Whalen says that he has not seen local ICE officials change their policies, despite Homan’s proclamations. “I have full faith that they’re working the way they did in the past,” Whalen said.

He said he trusts that ICE continues to act on the terms of its agreement—that is, Teton County jail will temporarily hold detainees for ICE as long as federal immigration officers come to Jackson with warrants to target specific individuals with significant criminal backgrounds.

“If they were taking people into custody just for being undocumented,” Whalen said, “I would put that out in the community. I trust that they’re doing it the right way.”

If ICE was to change its practices, Whalen believes he would be alerted. ICE “does not want to sever relationships with local law enforcement. We’ve got a good relationship,” he said. While Whalen does not expect to sever ties with ICE, he says there are conditions under which he would stop detaining its arrestees. “If ICE started taking people into custody based on immigration status, I would not house [immigrants]. Our community wouldn’t support that, and I work for the community.”

However, much of Teton County Sherriff Department’s relationship with ICE relies on this in good faith. Local officers do not ensure that ICE officials do, in fact, have warrants, and they do not check detainees’ past criminal histories.

Questionable methods

While Whalen trusts ICE’s methods, others are not so sure. Dalia Pedro, an immigrant rights activist in Casper, helped a family in March that was subject to ICE’s alleged intimidation and illegal tactics.

Pedro says ICE came to Casper to target the undocumented mother of a young family. ICE officers tracked her family over the course of a day, following her husband’s car when he drove his kids to school—though they are legal residents—and later arrived at the family home without a warrant, demanding to be let in. Their target had no criminal history save minor traffic offenses.

Because ICE operates regionally, it is likely that those officers in Casper are the same as those who come to Jackson.

That’s part of the problem, Pedro said. Regional ICE officers may have agreements with local authorities, but there is little holding individual officers accountable. This explains why local officials are quick to promise that high level criminals will be primary targets, while data demonstrates that in Wyoming, the vast majority of those who’ve been detained by ICE in the last 13 years have only been charged with misdemeanors, and some had no criminal history.

“We hope institutions as a whole are doing the right thing,” Pedro said, “but that’s not always how it works … you never know who you’re working with. Local officers aren’t supposed to ask about documentation status, for example, but that does happen. We hear about that happening.”

Similar to recent events in Jackson Hole, Pedro knows of four people who were arrested in Natrona County last week: “The arrests continue but we get no information about why they were arrested,” she said.

“ICE should continue to find people with high level crimes,” Pedro added. “But I have a problem when ICE goes rogue, and uses questionable tactics and intimidates people.”

The secrecy surrounding ICE’s operations does not help. It is difficult to obtain information about why people were arrested, or the circumstances surrounding their arrest. Without local enforcement keeping track, it is even more difficult.

While Pedro understands ICE’s mission, she believes that the fear tactics and lack of transparency lead to avoidable problems: “Communities of color already have a tense relationship with police. When you have local law enforcement working directly with ICE, that’s where you start having problems. People are afraid to report crimes, even when they’re told everything will be ok.”

Individuals may be afraid officers will ask about their citizenship status, or they might be afraid of having anything added to their criminal history, even if they’ve done nothing wrong.

In response to fear of ICE, some local sheriff and police departments across the country have ceased all cooperation and communication. This is not something Pedro expects to happen in Wyoming. So her priorities have more to do with transparency: “We want them to be following the rules. Do they have a warrant? Are they using intimidation tactics? Are they taking more people than their original target?”

Without more concrete information, it is easy for fear to take hold. As Jackson resident Marlen Nava said, “When people know ICE is in town, they are over cautious. A lot of people won’t drive at all.” Nava knows what it’s like to be a target. Her family immigrated to the States in 1998 when she was six years old. It took them a while to become documented.

She remembered one instance going to work with her mom. “We used to go with her because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. We would sit in one room while she would clean other rooms. One time, we were waiting in a room and she came in and told us we couldn’t come out until it was all clear.”

Her family stayed safe, but recently, she’s been affected by deportations. She knows many of the people who have recently been arrested by ICE—many of them JHHS graduates, one of them in the process of being approved for DACA: “When you aren’t documented, you’re so aware of your condition, you never know.”

Paying an impossible price

Homan lambasted liberal politicians for propagating “sob stories” about families being split up. The narrative about families being divided is not a fair one, he said: “If they take it upon themselves to have a child in this country and becomes a U.S. citizen by birth, he put his family in that position, not ICE, not Border Patrol. And to vilify the men and women of ICE as separating families is unfair.” 

From Nava’s perspective, though, the recent arrestees are a lot like her—they came to the country as young children, and some have babies of their own.

Now, they’re in a near impossible situation. The families of deportees can try to remain in the States, they can move as a family back to the country of origin, or the deportee can attempt to return to the States. All choices are financially catastrophic.

For example, Nava says that crossing the border alone can often cost up to $15,000, and people with prior deportation charges can be deported again at any time. Staying in Mexico is no easier.

According to the Organization of Economic  Cooperation and Development, more than half of the country’s citizens live in poverty. In addition, Mexican laborers work an average of 2,327 hours a year and make on average $12,850. This number ranks at the bottom of OECD’s list. Estonia was second to last at $21,020. Americans, meanwhile, earned $57,139 during the same period.

For now, Jackson’s immigrants live in limbo, hoping that their futures in Jackson are certain, while around them, those they know and in some cases, grew up with, are arrested. PJH

About Sarah Ross

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