Sometime this spring, President Obama, by far the record-setter among U.S. presidents for deportations of undocumented immigrants, is expected to hit the 2 million mark.
His track record not only has appalled immigration activists, it has galvanized them. While activists continue to lobby Congress for immigration reform that is stalled in the House of Representatives, they are also trying to pressure the Obama administration to redefine what it means to be high priority for removal from this country.
They want repeat offenders whose crimes amount to re-entering the U.S. after a deportation to stop being classified as a high priority for expulsion, lumped together with thieves, killers, rapists and those deemed terrorist threats.
Chicagoan Tania Unzueta, a strategist for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in Washington, D.C., is a leader for this movement. She only began finding her voice about the plight of undocumented immigrants four years ago. She, too, was undocumented. Her parents overstayed tourist visas when Unzueta was 10.
In March 2010, Unzueta and friends carried signs that said “undocumented & unafraid” in a downtown march, but really they were terrified. Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote that Unzueta’s voice cracked and her hands trembled in an interview.
“We were saying undocumented and unafraid before we became unafraid,” Unzueta, 30, said last week.
Unzueta’s status has been temporarily resolved because of Obama’s 2012 deferred action order. Her voice and her presence in deportation cases continue to grow stronger.
She is one of several activists fighting the deportation of Albany Park resident Anibal Fuentes Aguilar, a day laborer.
Aguilar, 27, has said he opened his apartment door on Dec. 13 to officers wearing vests labeled POLICE. They told him they were searching for a criminal and showed him a photo of a suspect he did not recognize, he said.
The officers, however, were not from the Chicago police department as Aguilar had thought. They were with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and were conducting a targeted enforcement operation, ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said.
With guns drawn, they gathered Aguilar, his wife, brother and then 5-month-old son in the dining room and asked for identification. Aguilar said he showed them his Guatemalan passport and after making calls, the officers arrested him as a high priority for removal because of a 2009 deportation. By law he committed a felony when he reentered the U.S. illegally, punishable by a 20-year prison sentence.
“The president and Department of Homeland Security have the ability to change what they consider priority and non-priority,” Unzueta said of Aguilar’s priority status for removal.
Along with representatives of religious, immigrant and other day laborer groups, Unzueta is requesting that ICE and DHS officials in Washington, D.C., review and overturn Aguilar’s deportation order, set for early March. “We have won cases like this at a national level,” she said.
Activists are also using Aguilar’s case to illustrate heavy-handed tactics by ICE. That ICE officers misidentify themselves as police makes it more likely for immigrants to develop distrust of actual police officers who depend on cooperation from residents.
The ICE operation that snagged Aguilar confirmed what immigrants and activists had long complained about: quiet raids of neighborhoods and apartment buildings, as if workplace raids weren’t enough.
ICE will say it acts within its rights. Those like Aguilar, who basically have none, rely on activists such as Unzueta and that strong determined voice.