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DHS Announces Arrests, Deportations As Groups Scramble to Warn Immigrants

Image: Immigration protest at White House

Members of Latino and immigration assistance organization 'We Are CASA' protest with immigrants and their supporters on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 30 December 2015. SHAWN THEW / EPA

The first news that the immigrant community in her area might be upended, said Adelina Nicholls, was as she was going through her morning routine of combing through news online on Dec. 24.

The article in the Washington Post said immigration officials would start taking into custody Central American women and children who had crossed the border in the past year from Central America and had been given deportation orders from a judge.

Nicholls said she and other members of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights went into responder mode, using contacts in the community, social media, a hotline in place since 2007 and interviews with local Latino newspapers to get the word out. The group also quickly created a video using an iPhone, to inform immigrants of their rights should they be visited by authorities.

In Spanish, it brings the reality of the deportations to the screen, telling its viewers that immigration officers may come in out out of uniform, with or without a badge; to make sure they have food and other essentials to stay in their home to wait out the officers and have a plan for someone to care for their children.

The scramble has been going on across the country.

In a news release issued Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said 121 people were taken into custody in operations in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas on Saturday and are being detained and deported.

"This should come as no surprise," Johnson said. "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."

"I know there are many who loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh, while there will be others who say these actions don't go far enough," stated Johnson in the memo. "I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause," he said. "But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities. At all times, we endeavor to do this consistent with American values, and basic principles of decency, fairness, and humanity."

Nicholls said the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights has been dealing with five cases in Georgia involving mostly Central Americans and women with children.

"Our community, they are concerned that this is an aggressive move from (Department of Homeland Security) against undocumented immigrants," Nicholls said. "The sense is like, if they arrest my neighbor or raid the house of my neighbor, I feel they are doing the same to me, raiding my house.

The families are among the tens of thousands who arrived in the summer of 2014 at the U.S. border, fleeing violence and poor economic conditions in Central America. While the government initially released these families - mothers and children mostly - it then began detaining them.

But as the numbers spiked, the department began detaining the families, only to be forced by a court to release many of them. The administration is appealing that court's order. The administration has argued that detentions and deportations serve as a deterrent to increases in illegal border crossings and are consistent with the administration's policy to make people who recently crossed the border illegally a priority for deportation.

Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) has been using a private Facebook page to keep in touch with and help about 300 of the Central American families that were detained and released over the past year.

When the news broke of the pending raids, they alerted the families through the page of the news and their legal rights, said Jeanne Atkinson, CLINIC's executive director.

Johnson said DHS has focused on adults and children arrested after May 1, 2014 who crossed the border with Mexico illegally, who have final orders of removal from an immigration court, have exhausted all legal remedies and have no outstanding asylum claim ore other humanitarian relief.

But Atkinson said the majority of the individuals have not had legal representation, so CLINIC has been filing motions over the past year to reopen some cases where final removal orders have been issued. That work becomes more important now, she said.

"Many people have been ordered removed without having a full opportunity to claim protection," Atkinson said.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of DHS, 88 percent of the mothers and children that are or were held in three family detention centers have been found to have credible fear that meets the threshold for qualifying for asylum, Atkinson said.

Meanwhile United We Dream volunteers are helping take calls to its hotline (1-844-363-1423) where immigrants can call for help.

The hotline has been up for a year, manned by volunteers including immigrants here with deportation deferrals under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and those here illegally.

Carolina Canizales, UWD's deportation defense coordinator, said the group began ramping up its deportation defense efforts soon after DHS's Johnson issued his Nov. 20, 2014 memo detailing the administration's deportation priorities.

"The Obama administration is implementing this memorandum and it's all part of it. It says they will deport anyone who came after Jan. 1 2014," Canizales said.

"We are outraged with not just Obama but the entire administration for prioritizing for deportation mothers and children who are fleeing violence," she said.

Kica Matos, spokeswoman for Fair Immigration Reform Movement, said her group and others plan to fight the deportations, while pushing the administration to adopt other policies to provide deportation relief for the families.

She said one of those policies could be extending Temporary Protected Status to immigrants and improving and expanding a refugee application program for children that has been set up in Central America, which has been slow to process requests to enter the U.S. as refugees. The program has received 6,000 applications, Johnson said. Border officials stopped more than 10,000 families from Oct. 1 to Nov. 30, 2015.

Johnson said some children have arrived in the U.S. from the program and he expects the pace to pick up. He also said there are plans to announce changes to the application processing and screening of applicants, as well as to expand the program in the region.

But Matos said meanwhile, the administration is targeting the most vulnerable. "They are targeting children and women," Matos said. "What about terrorists? What about criminals?"

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