Imagine a woman asleep in a small apartment in a Southern state with her two children. Suddenly there is a knock on the door. “Who is it?” A male voice answers: “Open the door; I am an ICE agent.” Fear in her heart, she goes to the door and with a trembling voice says, “No, if you don’t have a warrant for my arrest, I will not open the door.” Silence. “OK, lady, I am just here to adjust your ankle bracelet.”
She lets him in, and within minutes she and her children are on their way to the Atlanta airport to be deported. A story like this was reported Jan. 3 on National Public Radio as the nationwide sweeps of undocumented families began.
What is the difference between police sweeps of homeless camps in Portland and national raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents of undocumented persons? The Department of Homeland Security announced on Christmas Eve that they would begin to round up and deport families who arrived in 2014 and who had received “final deportation orders” and “exhausted all legal remedies.” These are families who fled Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador because of violence, drug extortion and government corruption.
Many people who are unhoused in Portland have also left families or living arrangements due to domestic violence, abuse or lack of jobs. What the Central American families and unhoused in the U.S. have in common is the search for decent housing and a safe place to live.
In 2015, I spent four months living and working in Tucson, Ariz., with Central American children and families fleeing violence in their home countries. In October and November, more than 1,800 unaccompanied minors (children younger than 18) and 1,500 single parents and their children entered Arizona.
A young woman from Honduras living in the temporary shelter where I volunteered told me her story. She had a small business, selling food on the street. She saved enough to open a small food stand. The local drug gang demanded a “cooperation” fee of $90 a week. She refused. Her business was burned to the ground. Then, the gang leaders beat her, raped her and left her for dead. Fortunately, a neighbor found her and took her to the hospital. After that, the same gang threatened to take her 9-year-old son into the gang to learn how to rob and kill others. She fled to the United States.
ICE released her to a temporary shelter until she could find a family member in the U.S. That shelter provides a bed, a shower, clothing and food for families released by the Border Patrol and ICE. They are also given a notice to appear before an immigration official at their final destination to process their case and to apply for asylum. Unfortunately, most of these single parents and children can’t find or afford lawyers to seek asylum.
In 2015, more than 80 percent of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran women screened by asylum officers were found to have a credible fear of persecution if they returned to their home countries, according to a Migration Policy Institute report. Without a lawyer they will be deported.
Children travelling alone (unaccompanied minors) are treated differently than the families. The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement has a responsibility for placing them with social service agencies that support them until they turn 18. A local Portland group, the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, or IMIRJ, is housing a young Guatemalan woman who “aged out” of her foster family. When IMIRJ volunteers met with the agency representative about her choices, he explained that “she can either go to a homeless shelter in Portland or to the Tacoma, Wash., detention center. IMIRJ volunteers decided to provide housing and support for her. She is fortunate in that she has received her visa and will be able to stay here. If no one had taken her in, she would have become another homeless person.
The ICE raids parallel police sweeps in Portland that break up homeless camps and force people to leave, frequently without their possessions. In the case of Central American families, they lose their possessions as well, but then they are deported back to the same terrible conditions that they fled.
Laura Lichter, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the Arizona Daily Star that the feds “fundamentally misunderstand the problem. Because they don’t have an accurate understanding of the issues, they continually choose solutions that won’t solve anything.”
Portland recently declared a housing emergency with plans to open more temporary shelters and day storage units. The Oregonian reported in early October 2015 that there were 1,800 people on the street – the same number of unaccompanied minors that entered Arizona. Do current plans reflect a real understanding of homelessness in our city? Are the homeless included and involved in finding solutions? It takes real political will to persevere to solve homelessness locally.
As for the Central American families and children, no solution is being offered, except deportation. Anti-immigrant and racist language dominates the airwaves – the Trump effect. President Barack Obama’s executive order that would prevent the deportation of approximately 5 million people with U.S.-born children is awaiting a Supreme Court hearing in April.
There are ways locally that you can work for immigrant justice through VOZ, the day laborer’s center; CAUSA, an immigrant rights organization; and IMIRJ. The Portland Immigrant Rights Coalition is working to establish a hotline to handle calls if ICE comes to the door. American Friends Service Committee is offering a series of workshops on Know Your Rights. If you have a neighbor or friend who is undocumented, be an ally and get them help. Let’s be allies for the unhoused locally and globally.
Pat Rumer is an immigrant justice activist with 40 years experience in international and local community development work. She also teaches an international capstone classes at Portland State University.