By Jacob Simas, New America Media
Immigrant rights advocates have sent a letter to President Barack Obama and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano asking them to immediately suspend all immigration enforcement activities through the end of the year in order to decrease fear within immigrant communities and encourage their participation in the 2010 Census.
Questionnaires for the 2010 Census are due to arrive in the mailbox of every U.S. household between now and April 1.
"We are genuinely concerned that the climate of fear will seriously impact the census form return rate of immigrant households -- and if people do not return the form, they will be reluctant to open the door to a follow-up visit from a census worker," said Catherine Tactaquin, director of National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR). "We really need the leadership of the administration right now to make a difference in the success of the census among our diverse immigrant populations."
The letter, which was signed by more than 200 organizations nationwide, calls for the suspension of more than a dozen specific enforcement activities operated through DHS, including immigration raids on homes and workplaces.
ICE spokesperson Lori Haley told NAM she was unaware of the immigrant advocates' letter. In a prepared statement, the agency said that ICE "fully supports an accurate count of the U.S. population," and would prioritize enforcing laws "on those dangerous criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities, not sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately."
The problem, according to Arnoldo Garcia, a program director at NNIRR in Oakland, is that ICE raids result in only 2 percent of the roughly 500,000 deportations of immigrants that occur each year in the United States. "It would not be enough for Napolitano or congress to just say, 'Okay, let's suspend raids.' That would be a gross injustice," he said.
Even if ICE were to de-emphasize immigration raids, said Garcia, the majority of people being picked up and deported are a result of less visible strategies, like those arising from 287(g) agreements.
Such agreements allow local police and county sheriff departments to be trained by ICE in identifying potential "criminal aliens." The result, said Garcia, is an increase in deportations and a growing mistrust of government and law-enforcement agencies within immigrant communities, including among legal permanent residents.
"Most people don't realize that law enforcement is also deporting legal residents on criminal charges," he said. "If you're not a U.S. citizen, even if you are a legal permanent resident, you can still be subjected to deportation."
Garcia says the organizations are simply asking the Obama administration and DHS to follow historical precedent. According to the letter, the federal government eased immigration enforcement activities during at least the last two decennial census campaigns.
The letter references a quote from Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, a Democrat from Texas, who told Fox News last year that when he was working for the Border Patrol during the lead-up to the 1990 census, he received orders to suspend some enforcement efforts.
There is other documentation that would suggest that the INS changed some of its operations during the 1990 census. For example, the INS commissioner sent a fax on Feb. 15, 1990 to all field offices, outlining guidelines for enforcement operations conducted while the census was being carried out, with the intention of deterring INS employees from "engaging in any conduct that is intended to inhibit or deter any person or group of persons from the fullest possible participation in the upcoming 1990 Census."
The document goes on to state:
In keeping with an agreement between the Service and the Bureau of the Census, news releases or public announcements made by the Service with regard to Service enforcement activities will be temporarily discontinued during the period starting February 11, 1990 and ending July 31, 1990.
It is unclear from the commissioner's fax whether the INS actually suspended activities, or simply stopped reporting them to the public.
Doris Meissner, who was head of INS during the 2000 Census, told the Orange County Register in January that she did in fact order suspension of "routine operations and enforcement activities" during the two weeks leading up to Census day, while allowing more serious enforcement involving criminal activities to continue unabated.
However, Meissner said that the likelihood of the Obama administration allowing even that to happen again is slim, considering how much the political landscape has changed since 2000.
"We definitely went further than what I'm hearing from this administration thus far," she told the Register. "I think politically they feel more vulnerable and they may even believe that by going any further they would send signals that would embolden serious criminals and possibly terrorists."
Census Bureau Promises Hands-Off Approach to Immigration
Regardless of what has occurred in the past, Census Bureau spokesperson Sonny Le says the bureau is taking a hands-off approach to the question of immigration enforcement in 2010. "We don't request or interfere with other departments," said Le. "Any decisions are going to have to come from Congress or the president."
Nevertheless, NNIRR is optimistic that the Obama administration will recognize that the long-term benefits of an enforcement suspension outweigh any short-term political backlash.
"Having an accurate count of the immigrant population is not only good for immigrants," said Garcia. "There has been a demographic revolution in this country over the last 10 years, and in those communities where there has been a big demographic change, if immigrants are undercounted, the whole community will be shooting itself in the foot."