President Trump's Jan. 27 executive orders exploded like a bomb across the world, wreaking havoc, causing injury and placing thousands of people in danger. Sadly, this targeting of immigrants, refugees and Muslims, which inspires hateful words and actions, is not new.
I have worked with Alaska's immigrant, refugee and Muslim communities for more than 20 years as the first Alaska state refugee coordinator in 2003 and as the executive director and co-founder of the Alaska Institute for Justice, the only nonprofit in Alaska that provides free and low-cost immigration legal services. Advocating for justice and human rights in our community, I have been the recipient of hateful rhetoric, which has been painful and scary. Several years ago, I received a death threat just prior to speaking about comprehensive immigration reform at an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council, requiring the FBI and Anchorage Police Department to also be present to ensure everyone's safety. Now this hateful rhetoric has intensified inside and outside of Alaska.
The policies being crafted by President Trump are being built on top of a long legacy of federal government actions that have harmed immigrants, refugees and Muslims. In 2002, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) was implemented during President Bush's presidency to use immigration enforcement to target the Muslim community. NSEERS singled out immigrant men and boys over the age of 16 from 24 Muslim-majority countries plus North Korea. They were required to register with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices, the predecessor agency to the Department of Homeland Security. Immigration officials fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed 85,000 Muslim and Arab non-citizens from November 2002 to May 2003 under the program. In Southern California, between 500 and 700 men and boys from Middle Eastern countries were detained and disappeared for weeks by federal immigration officials when they complied with orders to appear at INS offices for the program.
No terrorism-related convictions resulted from this legalized ethnic profiling. Repeatedly condemned by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, this program was not officially suspended until just prior to President Obama's departure from the presidency.
While most of the attention has been focused on the executive order affecting Muslims and the ban on entry of refugees into the United States, the second executive order, Enhancing Public Safety In the Interior of the United States, is equally devastating and will also profoundly harm Alaskans. The order changes the priorities for deporting immigrants and seeks to add 15,000 immigration officers to the workforce of the Department of Homeland Security. These officers will be unleashed in the United States to arrest and detain immigrants. In Alaska, there are already immigration and customs enforcement officers who can immediately implement these new policies put forth by the executive order. Immigration raids have already started in other cities.
A deportation hearing is the legal mechanism to permanently remove immigrants from the United States. These court proceedings are not criminal hearings even though immigrants can be held in detention for months until they have an opportunity to present their case in front of an immigration judge. As a consequence, arrested immigrants have no right to an attorney – not even children. Children must defend themselves alone in front of immigration judges.
The separation from family members can be immediate in Alaska because there is no immigration detention facility in our state. Once arrested, immigrants are detained in local jail facilities, such as the Sixth Avenue jail in Anchorage, and then sent to the immigrant detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, where they can be detained for months waiting to have a hearing in front of an immigration judge.
Right now, on the U.S.-Mexico border hundreds of women and children, who have fled horrific violence in Central America, are jailed in "family detention facilities." In order to be released, mothers have had to describe details of sexual assault and terror to immigration officers while their children were required to be with them. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrested and detained 60,000 minor children, mostly from El Salvador and Honduras. Some of these children are in Alaska and are awaiting deportation hearings.
Trump's executive orders have once again instilled fear in the homes of our co-workers, friends and neighbors – the fear that working or driving children to school will alert immigration authorities and cause them to be deported from the United States and permanently separated from U.S. citizen children. Think about it: dropping your children off at school and not knowing if you will see your child that afternoon because of an inadvertent interaction with someone who will alert the immigration authorities of your presence.
The decision to come to the United States is varied. Some flee horrific violence in their country of origin. Some marry U.S. citizens but because of the byzantine maze of immigration laws are unable to get immigration documents to live and work in the United States. Many are here to support their families, where economic opportunities allow them to have shelter, food, an education and the ability to fulfill dreams of success.
Living in the shadows of our community, these families need to know we are their allies. Now is the time to raise our collective voice and affirm our solidarity with all members of our community who have been targeted by the unjust and unconstitutional actions by the federal government.
Robin Bronen is the founder and executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice, which provides free and low-cost legal services for immigrants. She has worked and advocated on behalf of refugees, immigrants and the Muslim community in Alaska for more than 20 years.
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