On Feb. 21, Homeland Security chief John Kelly published the "Memoranda on Border Security and Interior Enforcement Executive Orders," an attempt at translating the inciting rhetoric of Donald Trump from campaign bluster into guidelines for federal immigration policy.
Breathtaking in scope, the new directives have given pause to immigrants rights advocates in L.A. Intended as a road map for implementing a pair of executive orders Trump issued last month, the new guidelines call for hiring 10,000 additional enforcement agents, increasing the holding capacity at detention centers and reactivating a program that deputizes local law enforcement to help make immigration arrests.
“I think this really is the beginning of a mass deportation machine," says Apolonio "Polo" Morales, political director for the Coalition for Humane Immigration Reform in L.A. "If the (subsequent) court challenges don't stand, any one of the 8 to 11 million folks in this country would be subject to deportation.”
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson in L.A. declined an interview request for this story.
The new guidelines remove any distinction between ordinary working people with no criminal record and the most hardened criminal offenders, says Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants rights for the ACLU of California and senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.
"These are regulatory schemes to quickly remove a large number of people," Pasquarella says.
Gone is the Obama-era distinction of "felons not families," known as the Priority Enforcement Program. By the new definition, anybody with whom ICE comes into contact is an enforcement priority.
The guidelines also provide for an increase in reliance on "expedited removal," or deporting people before they see a judge. They also expand the use of "mandatory detention," in which ICE keeps migrants in custody during the many months while they seek relief in court. The effect is often to weaken the resolve of migrants to plead their case and for them to agree to be deported rather than remain in detention.
Under Obama, expedited removal was a process applied to unauthorized migrants apprehended within 100 miles of the border, who had been in the States only for a matter of days. The new guidelines under Trump, however, expand the radius to cover the entire country and the time limit from 14 days to two years.
ACLU's Pasquarella says a number of items in the memos will become the subject of litigation, including mandatory detention, expedited removal and the enlistment of local and state law enforcement agencies as immigration enforcers.
The memos also introduce new and ominous additions to immigration enforcement, like the creation of VOICE, the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office. Several studies, over many years, have concluded that the level of crime committed by immigrants has always been far less than the rate committed by U.S. citizens. Nor do undocumented immigrants commit a disproportionate share of crime.
"The whole premise of the creation of that office is just entirely repulsive," Pasquarella says. "It is premised on the idea that immigrants are committing crimes and that there is no avenue for people who are victims of crimes to pursue justice, which is just completely false."
Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, called the VOICE program a deliberate attempt to play into a misleading and racist narrative.
“I consider it to be one of the most repugnant things I've ever seen in years and years of advocating for immigrant rights, and particularly against the use of police and sheriffs to enforce federal immigration law," Newman says.
The new guidelines also challenge a longstanding practice not to engage in enforcement actions in sensitive places like schools, hospitals and churches or other places of worship to make arrests. That policy, according to memo, is supposedly rescinded.
The Homeland Security guidelines also place special emphasis on deporting people who have "abused any program related to receipt of public benefits." Pasquarella wonders how the agency is going to define someone who has abused a public benefit. "Is it anyone who has applied for food stamps?" she says. "The devil is in the details."
The new guidelines from the Trump administration have dramatic ramifications for California, which is home to more than 3 million "unauthorized immigrants," more than twice as many as reside in any other state, according to data from The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC. More than 1 million unauthorized migrants reside in L.A. County, and more than one-third of those have one U.S.-citizen child younger than 18.
"Once that gate is opened for folks to be deported and fast-tracked for deportation, there's no stopping that," Morales says.
CHIRLA is lobbying Congress to consider the "tremendous" economic effect of the new policy on California. "There will be split families, folks would lose their jobs, families would lose their biggest earners," Morales says. "There are workers to consider, school children, immigrant purchasing power. All of this is affected. We need some leadership on that, and we need to figure this out."
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The Obama administration removed more than 2.5 million people from the United States through immigration orders from 2009 to 2015. But after a record-high of 434,000 deportations in 2013, Obama heeded to pressure from immigrants rights advocates and implemented the "felons not families" system of priorities, causing a sizable reduction at the end of Obama's time in office.
Since Trump was elected, local advocates have urged caution and discouraged panic. Now it is the Trump administration urging people not to panic and downplaying fears of a mass deportation.
Pasquarella says though there are still details to be clarified, and litigation to test the new policy in court, the red flags are out.
"We have to be vigilant and examine the details here," she says, "and recognize that what is being suggested is really creating a system for immigration enforcement that is completely unhinged from any of the prior practices that has governed it in recent history."