Aggressive Immigration Enforcement: We All Lose

The changes to our nation’s immigration policies are already having a profound effect on the lives of immigrants and their families.

By Crystal Moncada, and Melissa Cartine, Staff Attorneys, New York Legal Assistance Group

Since the Presidential election in November, undocumented immigrants in New York City have been alarmed by the amplified immigration enforcement tactics now being employed by the federal government. While reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and detainments may be exaggerated, there is no question that enforcement has intensified due to the focus of the new Administration on deporting undocumented immigrants.

NYLAG’s attorneys are on the ground in dozens of community-based organizations, hospitals, libraries, and other local agencies, where we have seen firsthand the chilling effect this has had on immigrants’ willingness to seek and secure their rights under the law, whether applying for necessary health insurance and medical benefits, failing to appear in immigration court, or avoiding the justice system despite the fact that they have been the victim of a crime.

NYLAG works with NYC Health + Hospitals, thanks to funding from the New York City Council, to provide legal assistance to immigrants with chronic and serious healthcare needs, helping them obtain immigration status and acquire health insurance they need. We have seen a dramatic increase in calls from healthcare professionals concerned about their patients and from patients themselves who have shown deep reluctance to sign up for Medicaid or other potentially life-saving healthcare programs for which they are qualified for fear that this will be used against them in a deportation case. Even immigrants who have insurance have expressed concerns about receiving care to address chronic and serious conditions such as cancer. The ramifications could be a public health crisis in the making as chronically and critically ill immigrants wait to seek medical treatment for serious health conditions until later stages, when they are more difficult to treat – and more costly for taxpayers.

NYLAG conducts Know Your Rights legal clinics for immigrants held across the City (over 50 since the election), including Key to the City events, large-scale monthly clinics for immigrants also sponsored by the City Council. While immigrants have continued to turn out in large numbers we have seen a change in the atmosphere, and in the kinds of questions being asked by the immigrants we meet. While appointments used to focus exclusively on the types of relief for which people may be eligible, there is now a much stronger emphasis on safety planning for U.S. citizen children in cases where a parent is at risk of being deported. Immigrant parents have real fears that their families will be separated by new enforcement tactics. These feelings of desperation are also driving immigrants to seek the assistance of people not qualified to assist in immigration matters, who only want to take their money and provide no real services. “Notarios” and other fraudulent providers can cause substantial harm to those who trust them, often leading their clients into deportation if a real attorney does not step in on time.

We have also seen a substantial increase in the number of NYLAG clients whose cases are pending in immigration court, but are afraid to go to ICE for required check-ins. We recently met a father and his 12-year-old daughter at a clinic at Council Member Carlos Menchaca’s office in Sunset Park who had fled violence in their home country of Honduras. They were apprehended at the border, released after they successfully passed a credible fear interview, and are now under supervision by the court. NYLAG assessed the family and determined that they have a strong asylum claim, but the father decided to skip several check-in appointments out of fear of being detained.

We have seen several domestic violence survivors who no longer wish to pursue orders of protection in criminal court because their abusive partners have threatened to expose their undocumented status if they attempt to access the justice system. Others who are eligible for immigration relief based on their status as victims of violent crimes, including domestic violence, do not want to move ahead with their applications because they will be making themselves known to the government. The implications could be far reaching: intimate partner violence is already a highly underreported crime, and we will see the number of reports decrease drastically if survivors are even less inclined to report; immigrant survivors of domestic violence will continue to be at risk, will not obtain lawful status and the ability to access benefits, obtain valid work authorization and lift their families out of poverty – while our communities will be less safe as criminals remain at Iarge instead of being brought to justice.

The changes to our nation’s immigration policies are already having a profound effect on the lives of immigrants and their families, even in a city that has pledged to protect our immigrant neighbors and friends. The fear and trauma that immigrant families are experiencing, no matter what their legal options, will have repercussions - not just for them, but for all of us as our government’s actions betray the values of justice, compassion, and respect that we hold dear.

NYLAG is distributing Know Your Rights resources for immigrants in English, Spanish and Chinese, with more languages to follow. Download the materials on our website.