When President Obama was elected to his first term, immigrant communities felt reform was just around the corner. Instead, his administration has deported nearly 200,000 individuals per year.
Many of these deportees have deep family roots and community ties. Over 85% lack any serious or violent criminal convictions. The combination of these factors has led to widespread dissent about our nation’s detention and deportation policies.
The more immigration law enforcement agencies have pushed to remove immigrants from their families, the more they have created a new wave of immigration reform activists – citizen activists who refuse to sit idly while the rights of their friends and neighbors are trampled upon by agents claiming to be acting under authority of law.
It was this type of government abuse which prompted Deborah Sherman De Santos to start questioning immigration officials. That was several years ago. She is still seeking answers today.
This is why we invited her to be our guest on Batara Immigration Live.
Here are some key points and take-aways from the hangout with Deborah Sherman De Santos and Carlos Batara, broadcasting from his Hemet Immigration law office in Riverside County.
What Experiences Prepared Deborah For Immigration Activism?
According to Deborah, there is no preparation for immigration activism.
She asserts nobody has training for such experiences. Maybe if she had lived in another country, where it is common for law enforcement agencies to bend rules anyway they want, she may have been prepared for the things she has experienced as an immigration advocate.
This is not because she has not been civically active. Her involvement in social and public affairs began with the civil rights struggles in the 1960s. She recalls going to Georgia shortly after the Mississippi student killings, over her parents’ fears for her safety. Traveling with Janice, a black friend from college, she still recalls the social ostracism they went through beginning at a Boston bus stop.
Still, Deborah says, there is no training for what she has encountered as part of her immigration reform efforts.
The Battle To Protect A Lithuanian Political Refugee
It was the day before Thanksgiving of 2008 when a close friend, Audrius Kazenas, was detained by ICE and placed in removal proceedings. Deborah had known for about a year he did not have legal immigration papers to live here.
His situation was glum. She knew that he feared ever going back to his home country of Lithuania. He feared being killed if he was deported. Deborah decided to help him.
Soon after his detention, calls began pouring in from people worried about what would happen to Audrius. Story after story emerged how Audrius had helped others in distress.
Deborah knew the stakes were high. She thought since she was an educated American citizen with deep roots in this country that stretch back nearly 400 years, it would not be too difficult to help him navigate through his immigration case.
Over time, she found out her assumptions about immigration enforcement were wrong. She had believed immigration procedures conformed to the rule of law Americans pride themselves on. She assumed immigration law was designed to protect citizens and the country.
She learned it did neither.
As she visited Audrius, sometimes waiting hours for her appointment, she talked to other families also waiting to see their loved ones. She discovered immigration detention was a sweatshop-like system that chewed up immigrants, citizens, and families to fill detention quotas and increase deportation statistics.
She became an immigration activist.
The 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing
On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, Deborah contacted Audrius. He was out and about helping a friend whose husband had recently died. He had not heard the news.
As the public later found out, the bombings were carried out by Chechen immigrants.
During his asylum case, he had shared confidential information about how Chechens were secretly training in East Europe. He provided the immigration court with details that some were even working in alliance with Osama Bin Laden supporters.
However, the DHS attorney, who wanted to deport Audrius, refused to listen to the warning signs.
The government lawyer went so far as to label them as merely guerrillas on a quest for liberty, not terrorists. He claimed they were not dangerous.
Deborah laments that if she had pushed harder, spoken louder, or been more stubborn, the Boston bombing might never have taken place.
The evidence had been given to the government. DHS refused to accept it simply because they wanted to undermine Audrius’ claim for relief from removal and death abroad.
Border Affairs In The Northeastern United States
Deborah has noticed that even where she lives, in the Northeast United States, there have been some changes regarding immigration. Even though the borders with Canada are not as closely monitored as the Southwestern ports of entry, there is tighter security and, unlike the past, checks now take place on a regular basis.
Based on what she has learned about militarization at Southwestern borders, she doubts citizens living in New Hampshire and other eastern states would put up with such actions.
She recalls how one person, who would often cross into Canada to buy his favorite pizza, started to experience problems coming into the U.S. on his way back from the restaurant. Rather than tolerate the treatment he received at the hands of border agents, he deliberately got himself arrested so he could call public attention to the problem.
In Deborah’s view, “We’re Yankees up here” and we won’t let immigration get away with such abusive behavior.
Deborah’s roots are mostly Scottish. Her mother was Scottish, and her father was half-English. His mother was Nellie Dunham, who is a direct descendant of Deacon John Dunham, who arrived in the U.S. on the second or third sailing of the Mayflower. They arrived in the 1600s. She describes her maternal roots as “Old New England.”
Her father was a Portuguese immigrant. His family arrived in the 1800s.
Immigration And Racial Relations
Since the U.S. has racial problems already, does Deborah think more immigrants will increase or decrease such matters?
Deborah is a member of a mixed status family. Her husband is African American. She admits that in some ways, it seems like the U.S. is going backwards on racial relations.
She thinks the problems of race now are no longer just black-white relations. They cover the colors of the social rainbow. Despite the negative currents, she feels if immigration reform happens, it will be good for the country.
Deborah believes, based on what she has seen at immigrant detention centers, American citizens of all colors have become horrified and disgusted with what is taking place. There are people who are taking advantage of immigrants and racial differences for their own narrow purposes. But she says the country has many good decent people.
These folks are helping push this country forward, regardless of the hostile opposition. Like the Civil Rights movement, with early growing pains, we are moving forward.
A Few Keys For Immigration Reform
The real key to immigration reform, says Deborah, is inter-personal relations. She remembers when some people had never seen a black person except someone like Nat King Cole on television.
She emphasizes that if Fox News and MSNBC agree on something, that’s a red flag that something is wrong with whatever they are supporting, especially on deportation and removal defense matters.
Somehow, she adds, politicians must be taught that politics is not just about partisanship. We must stop deporting veterans who have served their country. And above all, American citizens have a right to be with their families.
Deborah is primarily involved with two grassroots immigration organizations.
Shortly after her ordeals with Audrius began, Deborah decided to start American Women Victimized By ICE to provide a voice for the mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, partners and friends of immigrants who have been targeted by ICE.
The stated goals of the organization include nurturing such families, upon which the foundation of the United States was built and yet are being are being ripped apart by the actions of federal immigration law enforcement agencies.
She began Starving For Justice with Robin Vestal. This group is dedicated to human rights for all immigrants in the U.S. The members attempt to draw public attention to the lack of accountability and the abuse of authority exercised by immigration officers handling deportation and detention government functions by holding regular once-per-week fasts.
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By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics