Immigrants need to know their rights to protect themselves from ICE

There are many people reading this who wouldn't bat an eyelash if they saw an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) walking up the driveway to their house or stepping into their local greasy spoon.

Nothing to fear, right?

Others, like me, look like a potential foreigner themselves or have immigrant family members or loved ones, so we get tense at the very thought of coming into contact with an ICE agent.

It's not a crazy worry - if your skin is brown and you're in a place where immigrants are likely to be, there's always a chance of being mistaken for someone who "looks deportable," as experts at the American Immigration Council recently noted.

The advocacy organization recently analyzed ICE data from the tail end of the Obama administration and the first part of the Trump years. It found the stunning reality that the number of U.S. citizens who had encounters with ICE - meaning the native-born and naturalized citizens who were interviewed, screened and determined to be lawfully present or not - rose from 5,940 in 2016 to 27,540 in 2018.

That's simply shocking. Especially when you stop to consider that some U.S. citizens actually get detained, sometimes for long periods, and others even get deported to countries where they have no legal standing to reside.

Writing on the academic website The Conversation, law professors Cassandra Burke Robertson and Irina D. Manta describe several situations in which citizens got caught up in a slow-moving and ultra-complex system. Sometimes this was simply due to misspellings, accidental omissions or other silly mistakes.

"Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities reportedly detained for three days Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a veteran born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who served with the Marines in Afghanistan, in 2018, because the agency did not believe he was born here," wrote Robertson and Manta, who both study citizenship disputes. "ICE also detained for more than three weeks a man named Peter Brown, who was born in Philadelphia and lived in the Florida Keys in 2018 because the agency confused him with an undocumented Jamaican immigrant - who was also named Peter Brown."

Sometimes U.S.-born children end up in custody because they're with an undocumented parent when they're swept up. The Los Angeles Times found records from the Justice Department detailing how a 10-year-old boy from San Francisco was mistakenly held in immigration detention in Texas for two months.

That's a life-changing error.

This is all top-of-mind because word on the street is that the Trump administration is preparing for ICE deportation raids across the country Sunday.

True, ICE is targeting 2,000 immigrants whose deportations have already been ordered, but a defining characteristic of this administration's approach is to turn a blind eye to collateral damage.

Between January 2016 and September 2018, ICE encountered and arrested more women than men because they happened to be around when someone else was being targeted by ICE. And for both women and men, more than 85% of people deported by ICE had either no criminal convictions or no convictions for crimes classified as violent or serious.

Clearly, we're looking at a show of force designed to scare immigrants enough to either go back to their country of origin or not come here in the first place, instead of to keep our country safe from the so-called threat of immigrants who are living in the U.S. unlawfully.

Either way, it's important to know that immigrants, and anyone else who comes into contact with ICE, have legal rights - whether they are here legally or not.

If you're not presented with a warrant, the authorities may not arrest you unless they have evidence you've committed a crime or are not authorized to be present in the United States.

Everyone has the right to remain silent and to deny access into their home, unless you are presented with a search warrant signed by a judge - not to be confused with an administrative warrant issued by an immigration judge.

This is truly confusing and, to a certain degree, obscure. Anyone who feels they are in danger of being accidentally harassed by ICE even though they are a U.S. citizen should have an immigrant advocacy organization's hotline programmed into their phone.

Everyone else can be an ally. Maybe program some of those numbers into your own phone on the off chance that someone around you is mistakenly targeted because, yes, that's the kind of country we're living in these days.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

© 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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