With immigration overhaul on the horizon, one immigrant looks for change now - from jail

May 3, 2013

The U.S. appears to be on the verge of the biggest immigration changes in a generation. Legislation being debated in Congress would allow many immigrants who are now here illegally an eventual path to citizenship.

But while Washington grinds out the details, the government is detaining and deporting record numbers of people. Some are people who would likely benefit from immigration overhaul, including one young woman who recently found herself in a West Michigan jail.

“ ... I knew this had to be done.”

Claudia Muñoz got herself arrested on purpose. She drove up to the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, even though she had no intention of crossing it, and was arrested at a border checkpoint.

When Muñoz and I spoke about two weeks ago, she was in the Calhoun County jail in Battle Creek.

“Part of me was scared, but at the same time, I knew this had to be done,” Muñoz said.

Munoz is a 27-year-old undocumented immigrant, originally from Mexico. She’s part of a group called the National Immigrant Youth Alliance.

That group has been investigating immigration enforcement and detention practices across the country, including in places like the Calhoun County jail, one of three major facilities in Michigan that hold people on immigration charges.

One of the group’s big objectives is to find out whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is following its own guidelines, and focusing its scarce resources on so-called “high-priority targets."

In theory at least, “high-priority” targets would be people unlike Claudia Muñoz, who’s been in this country more than 10 years, went to high school and college here, and has a completely clean record.

“If immigration reform passes, I will benefit,” she says.

Reform advocates: Time for action is now

While Congress deliberates, people are still getting swept up by the system. Huge numbers of them are being deported: nearly 410,000 last year, a new record.

Some immigrant advocates rallied in Detroit on Wednesday to call for quicker reform measures and for the Obama administration to stop deporting people while a plan is worked out. They’re also pressing President Obama to take some cues from the last wave of immigration reform, under President Ronald Reagan, who offered “amnesty” to some 3 million people who had been living in the U.S. illegally.

There’s no sign those wishes will come true any time soon.

Raquel Garcia Andersen works with people and families in immigration trouble in Detroit, as part of the group Michigan United.

“We see lots and lots of cases … they just move so fast that we don’t even have time to help them, to get them a lawyer,” she says. “They’re in, and they’re gone.”

Garcia Andersen and other activists also accuse the Detroit ICE office of crossing the line in its zeal to deport people. That extends to enforcement tactics, such as controversial ICE raids around sensitive places like schools. But it’s mostly about who they decide to go after in the first place, and whether enforcement amounts to precision strikes or a dragnet.

For the most part, ICE officials insist they’re following proper procedures. And both sides have a point.

The “Morton Memo” and prosecutorial discretion

While the Obama administration has deported record numbers of people - about 2 million overall - it also insists that enforcement is finely geared toward the most dangerous and egregious violators.

They’ve offered temporary legal protections to some immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children, those who would be eligible for the DREAM Act.

In June 2011, ICE director John Morton issued what’s become known as the “Morton Memo.” Morton advised ICE personnel to exercise “prosecutorial discretion" and focus on the most serious immigration violations.

But there are serious questions about whether ICE agents in the field are taking that to heart.

Claudia Muñoz went to jail, in part, to prove ICE’s Detroit office isn’t following those guidelines. She says she’s a classic low-priority case who, under the Morton MEMO guidelines, shouldn’t warrant serious enforcement efforts.

ICE has been tight-lipped about specifics on prosecutorial discretion, and few data are available. Statistics from 2012, though, show the Detroit ICE office closing 161 cases that way.  That's better than many other field offices, but still a very small percentage of total cases.

“Through smart and effective immigration enforcement, ICE is committed to ensuring that its limited resources are focused on the removal of those who pose a threat to public safety, such as criminal aliens and national security threats, as well as repeat immigration-law violators, recent border entrants, and fugitives from immigration court,” a Detroit ICE spokesman said in a statement.

A “numbers-driven process”

The Morton Memo just contains guidelines. It doesn’t guarantee anything. With politics and enforcement targets both driving immigration policy right now, there’s clearly tension in the system.

“Immigration is really a numbers-driven process now. And the immigration bureaucracy is like every bureaucracy in the world,” says David Koelsch, who heads the immigration law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.  “They try to generate numbers to perpetuate their own existence.”

Koelsch says another frustrating part of the system is that enforcement can seem very inconsistent. He’s seen ICE officers be flexible and “understanding of people’s life circumstances” in some cases.

“But other ICE agents are not,” Koelsch says. “They’re very hard-nosed, and they want to put as many people on planes as possible."

“And it sort of adds insult to injury that now we’re on the cusp of immigration reform, and they’re deporting people who will otherwise benefit from immigration reform.”

People like Claudia Muñoz. She was released on bond after spending 19 days in the Calhoun County jail.

Muñoz says she spent those days alongside many other people whose only crime was violating immigration laws, confirming her group’s suspicions about ICE enforcement practices in Michigan.

As for her case, Muñoz says ICE attorneys haven’t shown any inclination to grant her prosecutorial discretion. She could get deported, but she’s convinced that whatever happens, it will be worth it.

“This is my country now … my friends, my community, everybody’s here,” Muñoz says. “So I believe that it’s my responsibility to do this kind of action, especially after living in the shadows for so long.”

As Muñoz waits to learn her fate over the next few months, millions of other undocumented people, in Michigan and nationwide, are waiting too.