On January 6, 2010, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and state police stopped four white vans en route from Providence to Foxboro, Massachusetts. In these vans, 60 undocumented immigrants were on their way to work.
The workers, primarily indigenous Maya K’iche from Guatemala, were hired by a temp agency to shovel snow at the Gillette stadium. East Providence Attorney Deborah Gonzalez described the workers as being in a “sketchy situation”; most had heard about the job opportunity by word of mouth, she said, and few knew who was paying them. “You’d show up and get in the van, and put your name on the list, so they know how many hours you worked,” said 29-year-old immigrant David Catu in an interview with The Providence Journal.
Stadium management has since terminated their contract with the temp agency involved. Neither ICE nor the stadium managers have disclosed the name of this agency.
“I don’t know how ICE found [out]… but ICE knew that there was a van that would pick up these people and drive them to the Gillette Stadium to do their work,” Gonzalez said about the arrest. After pulling over the vans, ICE brought all of the workers to a local police office. There, ICE detained several workers because of criminal records or previous deportation rulings. Agents distributed letters to the rest with instructions to report to ICE offices in order to investigate their legal statuses. Afterwards, ICE agents drove the workers to the stadium to complete the shoveling job.
Attorney Alex Isbell, of Boston, is coordinating the legal response to the arrests. Isbell is a member of Justicia Global, an organization funded by the Guatemalan government to support the legal needs of its citizens abroad. Currently, he is working to find lawyers who will provide counsel pro bono for the 40 immigrants seeking legal advice. “The whole experience has been like a legal emergency room,” Isbell said.
The Guatemalan Consulate, located in Providence, financed the initial screenings of the clients. The Consulate hired Attorney Deborah Gonzalez and her husband, Attorney Roberto Gonzalez of Gonzalez Law Offices, Inc. to help Isbell with the interviews.
Born in the US to Brazilian parents, Deborah Gonzalez grew up in poverty in São Paolo, Brazil and then moved back to the States for high school. After graduating, Gonzalez began her legal career as a cleaning woman in a law office. Over the course of the next ten years, Gonzalez took night classes and put herself through college and law school. She commented on her decision to go into immigration law: “We are all immigrants. I think the only people who have ever been here are the Native Americans, and people think they are the immigrants.”
Over the course of several days, the attorneys interviewed the Guatemalan workers. “These people are afraid. Most of them do not have a criminal history,” Ms. Gonzalez said about the interviews. Some of the workers are juveniles, as young as 14. One is pregnant. And many of the workers arrested speak only K’iche, making the interviews difficult: “We almost had to guess what was being said,” Gonzalez explained.
Get out of town
For many undocumented immigrants, a notice to report to ICE is a lose-lose situation. The failure to appear at an ICE appointment constitutes a criminal offence: the evasion of a law enforcement organization. This violation of statute law can be used as grounds for deportation. If an individual attends the appointment, but pleads the Fifth, he or she risks detention.
Although the majority of those detained in the January raid have clean records, all were in the US for only a short period of time, ranging from a few months to two or three years. Ms. Gonzalez, who is no longer involved with the case, is not hopeful about their prospects for avoiding deportation. However, both Gonzalez and Isbell agree that the police’s decision to stop the vans was of questionable legality. If evidence of reasonable suspicion is not produced, lawyers may pursue the argument that racial profiling led to the arrest.
The raid was the largest affecting Providence residents since July 2008, when ICE raided six State Courthouses, taking 31 undocumented workers into custody. This coordinated sweep of custodial workers followed Governor Carcieri’s March 2008 executive order that cracked down on illegal immigration. The executive order called for the state police to be trained to assist ICE in arrests and also empowered ICE to investigate the legal statuses of prisoners. In addition, Carcieri required all executive branch offices and businesses hired by the State to confirm documentation of employees using E-verify, a federal program that electronically checks documentation. It was this section of the executive order that led to the courthouse arrests.
In September 2008, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a restraining order to prevent the use of E-verify, which has received much criticism for its inaccuracies. While Judge Mark A. Pfeiffer denied the request, he issued a statement ordering that the program stopped being used, based on its violation of the Administrative Procedures Act.
Legislation requiring the use of E-verify by private employers has passed in the Rhode Island House of Representatives for the past three years. This bill has yet to be passed in the State Senate. If it does pass, the bill will have major consequences for Providence’s undocumented workers.
The Potus Position
The Foxboro raid came as a surprise to many who had hoped the Obama administration would scale back on immigration enforcement. Nonetheless, Anibal Lucas, director of Organization Maya K’iche—one of many community groups supporting the individuals affected by the raid—says he “still has faith” in Obama’s capacity to move the country toward immigration reform.
Alexandra Filindra, a post-doctoral research associate at the Taubman Center for Public Policy, is less hopeful about prospects for reform: “People have been surprised that the Obama administration has not only continued President Bush’s immigration policies of enforcement but also have been encouraging such efforts.”
Last month, Illinois Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House of Representatives. This bill sparked hope in those seeking immigration reform in Rhode Island. Steven Brown, Executive Director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, commented in an interview with The Providence Journal that the bill “would go a long way to addressing a lot of specific problems and issues that we’ve had to deal with in Rhode Island.”
However, Obama did not mention comprehensive immigration reform in last week’s State of the Union. “Clearly the policy of the Obama administration is to focus on border enforcement and police enforcement,” Filindra added.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there were 20,000-40,000 undocumented immigrants in Rhode Island in 2008. Numerically speaking, the deportation of the 60 workers in Foxboro makes an insignificant dent on Rhode Island’s undocumented population. Enforcement, however, is always more about the message than the numbers. Whether this message is effective in decreasing the number of undocumented persons in Rhode Island is debatable. In the meantime, sixty individuals are likely to be deported.
RACHEL LEVENSON B’10 is borderless.