One year ago on June 12, my smartphone was buzzing. I learned that the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative arm, Homeland Security Investigations, had entered several Asian restaurants in the State College area and arrested numerous restaurant workers. Though I had worked for more than 15 years in the field of immigration with experience responding to situations that might involve immigration arrests and detention, I was surprised to witness this in State College.
The collateral damage of immigration raids is real and can include long-term detention, deportation, family separation and long-term psychological impacts on children. For those who face deportation (removal), the ability to navigate the immigration bureaucracy and gather the evidence required to meet the burden for relief — like asylum or cancellation of removal — can be impossible without legal assistance. In the immigration system, there is no right to court-appointed counsel or even a courtroom. Notably, more than three-quarters of the noncitizens removed by Department of Homeland Security bypass a courtroom and instead go through a “speed deportation” apparatus where no court proceeding is necessary.
For the past year, Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights has responded to the aftermath of the immigration raid by educating the community about immigration, holding a public forum in downtown State College to discuss the raid and mechanics of immigration law and policy, engaging public officials about how to play a leadership role in immigration, and providing legal support to individuals. The work has been rewarding and exhausting and has provided enormous learning opportunities for students at Penn State Law.
The immigration agency (formally housed at the Department of Homeland Security) has the resources to deport about 400,000, or less than 4 percent of the total undocumented population. Therefore, choices have to be made about who should be removed from the United States and who should remain. On Nov. 20, President Barack Obama published a memorandum outlining the agency’s highest removal priorities and with a slogan of “felons, not families” aimed to protect families and young people from deportation through a tool called “prosecutorial discretion.”
Prosecutorial discretion refers to the choice the government makes about whether or not to enforce the laws against a person or people. This discretion can be exercised at every stage of the immigration process, including interrogation, arrest, detention, after a deportation hearing has started, and even after a removal order has been issued. The theory of prosecutorial discretion is economic and humanitarian, as thousands of people living without papers have close family relationships, compelling medical needs, and/or strong ties to the United States.
While prosecutorial discretion has operated in the immigration system for many years, the tool became more visible and political when Obama announced a prosecutorial discretion policy known as “deferred action” in November, enabling critics to label these programs as “amnesty” and misuse the term “legality” as a way to derail these programs. As of this writing, DHS continues to target and deport thousands of immigrants who fit within its priorities, and then some. Meanwhile, the 2014 deferred action programs aimed at young people and undocumented parents with American or legal resident children remain on hold because of litigation brought by Texas and 25 other states.
Designing an immigration policy that keeps families together, enforces the law against true priorities, and restores legality is no easy task and ultimately will require Congress to consider broader legislative change.
Though immigration is a federal matter, states and localities can play a meaningful role by cultivating trust with noncitizens, facilitating access to quality information, and supporting federal immigration programs like deferred action. The mayor of State College and the borough took one step forward in April when it signed an amicus brief in support of President Obama’s executive actions, and during this time also testified publicly to its support for improving immigrant access to legal and other services. Even with a temporary solution like deferred action, noncitizens are able to live without fear of deportation, remain with their families and contribute to our local economy. To mark the one-year anniversary of the State College raid, I hope we can continue to build a community that is informed, inclusive and compassionate toward immigrants and their families.