MIgrant workers, Part III: Under the radar
Although they live and work among us, the disappearance of many immigrants can go unnoticed by the public at large. But their families are paying attention.
Because of strict laws pertaining to how immigrants are detained by authorities, local attorneys say family members and friends can get stuck in an informational vacuum, sometimes unable to get details about their loved ones, even such basic information as whether they’re still in the country.
“Most of the time, I get calls from families whose members have been detained and they don’t (get) information,” said Roberto Resto, founder of Rochester Alliance for Immigrants’ Rights, a local advocacy group with members throughout the Rochester area. “Even if you’re going to post bail, most of the family is running around saying ‘Where are my children? Where are my family members?’”
Resto said that’s what happened this summer, when 13 men were detained during arrests at The Cheesecake Factory in Pittsford. After Monroe County sheriff’s deputies drove by and noticed the group at the construction site, they called U.S. Border Patrol, which took the men and handed the case over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an investigative branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
From there, Resto said, it was anyone’s guess where the men went. Because of privacy laws, it can be hit or miss as to whether immigration agencies release any information.
“It’s a real concern for families, because all of a sudden a loved one disappears and they don’t know where the person is, (if) they’re safe, (if) they had been apprehended by immigration or has something else happened to them,” said Wally Ruehle, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Rochester.
It may not be common, he said, but he’s seen such situations happen.
ICE spokesman Mike Gilhooly acknowledged in July that three of the men from Pittsford had been deported shortly after they were taken to a detention facility in Batavia, but said it would be nearly impossible to find out any information about the others.
Attempts to speak with Gilhooly and the Buffalo Detention and Removals Office for this article weren’t successful.
In the fiscal year of 2006, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, ICE reported removing 187,513 illegal aliens from the country, a record for the agency and a 10 percent increase over the previous year. Ruehle said it may be fair to assume that some of those people didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to loved ones.
For those who are detained, many immigrants get caught in a Catch-22. If they are illegally in the country, they don’t want to try to contact their friends or family for fear of tipping government agencies off to their whereabouts, Ruehle said.
When someone is detained, he or she is issued an alien registration number; the detainee is kept track of by that number, not a real name or any pseudonym. If relatives don't have the number, which is issued only after someone is detained, it would be difficult for them to reach that person.
“I see it all the time,” Ruehle said.
Lew Papenfuse, executive director of Farmworker Legal Services of New York Inc., a nonprofit group that provides free legal services to migrant agricultural workers, said his organization has been able to work out a protocol with ICE — so that if the corporation knows about a raid, the agency could provide a name and date of birth for someone that has gone missing. That way, family members could be updated on what happened to their loved one.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 4 million to 10 million illegal aliens crossed the U.S. border from Mexico in 2005. Recently, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer estimated that there are 500,000 to 1 million undocumented immigrants in the state, many of whom Resto believes are too scared to speak out for better treatment because they’re too scared of being caught by government agencies.
It wasn’t long ago that being placed into a detainment facility wasn’t as big a worry for immigrant workers. Ruehle said that, just two years ago, it was possible for arrested immigrants to be released on their own recognizance and leave the country on their own. With increased enforcement and spending, however, Ruehle said larger detainment facilities have allowed the government to hold more immigrants.
After they’re detained, most first-time offenders face a bond of about $5,000 in order to be released, which not many can afford. For re-offenders, the bond is more. If they can’t post bond, males will be taken to the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia. If that’s full, immigrants will be taken to local county jails. Ruehle said women who are detained are taken directly to a county jail since the detention facility in Batavia isn’t designed for female detainees.
“The things that I hear all the time are, ‘We don’t know where our family member is, we can't get a hold of them and they can’t make phone calls to us,’” Ruehle said. “For people that have medical issues, it’s a real problem, particularly if they’re incarcerated in a local jail as opposed to jail in Batavia. The system is certainly more efficient, but it’s inflicting a lot of suffering.”
Reason for change?
The reason for that suffering, according to Resto, is racial profiling.
“(Government agencies) are punishing these people. That's definitely what is behind all this,” he said. “What they’re doing is they’re scapegoating the immigrants. They blame them for the economy ... social programs and drain of money from the Iraq war.”
Papenfuse said he has seen a large increase in raids, particularly in agriculture and outside of harvest season, which was unusual in the past.
“I think that with the immigration debate being such a hot-button issue, (agencies) have had a mandate to really criminalize people and prosecute them,” he said.
Ruehle said if the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States were to all disappear, it would have a “catastrophic” effect on the economy. In the meantime, he said, most immigrant workers are just trying to stay under the radar to keep their families together.
“I talk to people all the time who are undocumented and who are working on jobs that no one else here legally in the U.S. will do,” Ruehle said. “They tell me that their weeks basically consist of going to and from work and once a week going grocery shopping. They dare not do anything else because they’re afraid that if they do, they’ll be apprehended by immigration and removed from the U.S.”
Bryan Roth can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 270, or at email@example.com.