Thursday, May 26, 2011

BROKEN LIGHT, BROKEN DREAM: Illegal immigrants in Aurora (Aurora Sentinel)

BROKEN LIGHT, BROKEN DREAM: Illegal immigrants in Aurora
SARA CASTELLANOS The Aurora Sentinel
Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 9:53 pm

A gallon of milk, a burnt out car light, and Aurora will likely have one less illegal immigrant.

Everyday life led to the worst that can happen for Gerardo Noriega, who was living illegally in Aurora when the never-ending fear of being deported became a reality.

Noriega, 20, was driving from his Aurora home to a grocery store in April 2010 when an Arapahoe County Sheriff pulled him over for a broken license plate light. The Mexican-born graduate of Smoky Hill High School was arrested for driving without a license and detained in Aurora’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail for three days.

“You drive with the risk of knowing this could happen to you,” Noriega said. “But at the same time, I was going for milk.”

There are thousands of people like Noriega across the country. People who aren’t drug dealers, murders or sex offenders are deported every day. Immigrant rights groups say it’s inhumane because of the fear it breeds among productive, non-criminal immigrants. But critics of mass immigration say the government’s responsibility should be to deport immigrants who are in the country illegally without making a distinction between those who have committed grave acts and those who have not.

Noriega is a member of Rights for All People, an Aurora-based immigrant rights group that launched a campaign in late April to put a human face on deportations. The group’s goal is to separate the blurred lines between the two types of illegal immigrants: those who have been convicted of heinous crimes and the immigrant community leaders who have tried to fit in and make a living.

Since he graduated from high school two years ago, Noriega has been living in the shadows.

“It’s not really living, it’s more of just surviving,” Noriega said. “It’s about trying to stay positive and continue trying to go on, look ahead, look forward to something better.”

His ambition is to become an auto mechanic but neither colleges nor employers will accept him without a state-issued ID. He became particularly disheartened when he had to turn down a plum job with auto giant BMW last year. And now, the notion that he could be sent back to Mexico — a country that he broke ties with at 10 years old — has taken an emotional toll on his parents, who are permanent U.S. citizens.

“Personally, I feel very anguished, sad and desperate,” said his mother, Aracely Noriega, through a translator. “We understand they want to deport criminal people, but they are taking the most innocent people.”

But the term “innocent” is subjective, especially when referring to illegal immigrants.

All illegal immigrants are breaking Colorado’s laws in one way or another, said Stan Weekes, state director for the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, a group dedicated to educating the public and state lawmakers about the economic and social impacts of illegal immigration.

“Just because they are not indicted and charged criminally doesn’t mean they aren’t actually criminals,” Weekes said. “Much of the way they get by in this world has to do with a counterfeit ID, which is a crime, or if they’re driving on the road without a license, that is a crime.”

Driving without a license, ergo without car insurance, is also a public safety problem, Weekes said. If an illegal alien causes a hit-and-run accident, it’s up to the victim to front the insurance and medical costs. It’s also important, Weekes said, to remember that if immigrants enter the country illegally or overstay their work or study visas, they are breaking the law and are at risk of being deported whether they have committed criminal acts or not.

“Once they are here and living in the state, every day they get up they are committing fraud in one way or another,” he said. “To think that somehow they are identifying themselves as non-criminal is really a stretch of the imagination on their part.”
But Mexican immigrant Jeanette Vizguerra, 39, refuses to take on the guise of a criminal. She spent 34 days at Arapahoe County jail and an ICE detention center after she was stopped by police for an expired license plate and arrested for driving without a license.

Vizguerra, a volunteer with Rights for All People, is due in court in July after a deportation hearing on May 16 was postponed. She says it’s unfair for people to label immigrants like her as criminals just because she left her home country 14 years ago in search of a better life.

“People are not seeing us as human beings with feelings, with families, with dreams,” she said in Spanish through a translator. “We’re just numbers.”

With three small children, including a newborn baby, and a husband with testicular cancer, she can barely pay her bills. But she says things could be worse. She could be back in Mexico, in the midst of drug violence, human trafficking, a substandard economy and subpar doctors. Since her three children were born in the U.S., they are citizens, but for Vizguerra, going through the legal quagmire of obtaining citizenship is futile. It can take up to 28 years for an immigrant to become a citizen of the United States under current immigration laws, according to the National Foundation for American Policy.

Vizguerra says it would be difficult for her family to fend for themselves if she were to be deported. But why, then, did she choose to have children in the face of that threat? Why take that risk?

“People need to understand that just because a person migrates doesn’t mean they don’t have any future plans in life,” she said. “Some people have plans for families that are a bit bigger, but just because you’re an immigrant doesn’t mean you stop all of your life plans.”

In order to win their cases, at their next deportation hearings Vizguerra and Noriega’s lawyers will try to prove that they’ve been productive people with good moral character who don’t deserve deportation.

But people who haven’t been convicted of crimes are deported every day, and national statistics show that more non-criminals are being deported than criminals, although the gap is getting smaller.

At the behest of President Barack Obama, the total number of illegal immigrants who have been deported has increased by 35 percent since 2007, according to statistics from ICE. But in his most recent immigration speech on May 10 in El Paso, Texas, President Obama said those deportations are not being made “haphazardly.”

“We’re focusing our limited resources and people on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes — not just families, not just folks who are just looking to scrape together an income,” Obama said.

While it’s true that the deportation of criminal illegal aliens has risen in recent years, it’s also true that more people like Noriega and Vizguerra, without criminal records, are being deported more often.

National ICE deportation statistics show that last year, about 1,300 more non-criminal illegal immigrants were deported than criminal immigrants. The gap is larger in years past. In 2009, more than 253,500 non-criminal aliens were deported compared with about 136,300 criminals. In 2008, about 254,800 non-criminals were deported, compared with 114,400 criminals, and in 2007, about 189,000 non-criminals were deported, compared with 102,000 criminals.

“The lion’s share of people who are being picked up haven’t been convicted of anything,” said Hans Meyer, legal and policy director for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. “The statistics about that are pretty abysmal. It has been wildly destructive.”

Last year, according to ICE statistics, 67 percent of about 6,600 immigrants who were deported from Colorado and Wyoming had criminal records. But in 2009, 40 percent of deported immigrants had criminal records. In 2008, 59 percent were criminals, and in 2007, 39 percent were criminals.

It’s unclear whether the number of criminal deportations will one day outpace the number of non-criminal deportations. But it is evident that federal lawmakers from Colorado want a change in immigration law.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, says he is committed to passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that secures the U.S. border, punishes employers who break the law and requires undocumented immigrants to “become legal, learn English, pay a fine and go to the back of the line.”

“We ought to focus our efforts at enforcement on immigrants who have committed serious crimes, something the Administration has said it is committed to doing,” Bennet said in an e-mail.

He has also urged his fellow lawmakers to grant deferred action to students who are at risk of deportation but meet the rigorous requirements for eligibility under the DREAM Act. The acronym stands for “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors” and allows illegal immigrant students who get good grades and are of good moral character to obtain permanent residency status.

But the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform are still being debated by both parties in Congress. In Aurora, immigrants will be more at risk of being deported when the Secure Communities program is implemented throughout the city within the next two weeks. The program, run by ICE, prioritizes the removal of illegal immigrants convicted of crimes such as homicide, rape, kidnapping and threats to national security, according to ICE.

Under the system, which Arapahoe County is already using, every person who is booked into jail will have their fingerprints forwarded to informational databases run by ICE, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, to determine whether someone is in the country illegally.

City and county law enforcement officials like the program.

“What’s good about it is that everybody that comes into the jail is being booked into the jail for a criminal act and we’re just really forwarding this information to ICE so there’s no sense of profiling in any regard,” said Dave Walcher, under sheriff of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.

In the past few months, the program has been fraught with technological problems. But when the program is accurate, it will be better than the method law enforcement officers are currently using under Senate Bill 90, which was passed in 2006, said Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson in March. Under Senate Bill 90, law enforcement officers in the state are required to notify ICE if they have any “reasonable suspicion” that the person is an illegal alien.

But critics of the “Secure Communities” program and Senate Bill 90 say those tools foster an environment of fear among illegal immigrants and children of immigrants who are in the country not by their own volition.

“We refuse to sit by and watch our politicians and elected officials talk about border security and Secure Communities when the real cost of what is happening is that families are being ripped apart,” said Julie Gonzales, director of organizing at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition at a rally before Vizguerra’s deportation hearing May 16. “It is absolutely barbaric and inhumane.”

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