Imagine what it would be like if each time you wanted to go to the store you had to think twice about getting in your car, says Juan Venegas, a community organizer and soccer coach. He explains how undocumented Oregon residents are affected by the requirement to prove citizenship in order to get a driver’s license since SB-1080 went into effect in July 2008.
It’s a difficult situation for tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants. Though they cannot legally obtain a driver’s license, they have jobs, pay taxes and their family members may be American citizens.
Detective Juventino Banuelos, who grew up in the Hispanic community in Independence, says, “Sometimes it’s a choice to drive illegally or lose your job.” He says it is unfortunate that otherwise law-abiding residents are being put in a position of breaking the law.
Typically people who work in the fields have to leave at 4 a.m., Banuelos says, so public transportation doesn’t work for them. The Mid-Willamette region has over 35,000 seasonal and resident farm workers who can be affected in this way.
SB-1080 was enacted in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 under the Federal Real ID Act passed by Congress in 2005. It was meant to prevent illegal immigrants from using driver’s licenses to access airports and enter government buildings. Eugene-based immigration lawyer Barbara Hecht suggests that what the anti-immigrant rhetoric misses is that “these are people who are law-abiding residents and making an extreme effort to be perceived as law-abiding. They want to work to support their families; that’s why they came here in the first place. Not to be able to drive to get to work creates a tremendous amount of fear.”
It is the first Wednesday of the month, arraignment day, and the courtroom in Independence is standing room only. 19 of the 44 citations involving traffic violations are for Latino drivers. A half-dozen must ask for interpreters.
Municipal Court Judge Jan Zyryanoff says that this is a typical day; driver’s license violations including driving while suspended or failure to carry and present are common charges. She thinks the problem of people driving without valid licenses or insurance is a big problem, a safety issue and a poverty issue.
A pretty Hispanic woman with a fashionably streaked updo and stony face is cited for a third time of driving while suspended. The judge imposes a fine and a warning: “Your fine will keep going higher; it will not go down.”
Like virtually all the Latinos present, she does not contest the charge. She exits the courtroom with the exasperated air of someone doing what she needs to do to survive.
“If there was a way we could get everybody licensed and insured it would be better for everybody,” Zyryanoff observes. “[The law that stops] people from getting licenses lets people who are not going to comply, go out on the roads with no experience or knowledge of [the rules of the road].”
It does happen that a person can land in the Polk County Jail for a minor violation if their identity cannot be established. Although the Independence police take pains to establish identity, often calling family members, and though they are not allowed to enforce federal immigration law, once someone is taken to the county jail, the matter is out of police hands. Fingerprints of all detainees are automatically run against the Homeland Security database in addition to FBI criminal databases under Secure Communities, a data-sharing policy implemented statewide in September 2011. A match will trigger a contact with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal immigration agency).
Because anyone held in a county jail for any reason can so quickly come to the attention of ICE, local law enforcement officers are perceived among immigrants as immigration enforcers. “In the eyes of the community they are the first link in the chain to take someone out of the family and their job and into the nightmare of the deportation process,” says Amanda Aguilar Shank of the Rural Organizing Project, (ROP) an Oregon grassroots group which advocates for immigrants, people of color and LGBT folks.
One tragic result of the county’s connection with ICE is that immigrants are reluctant to come forward to witness, or even testify as a victim in a crime. This is more common with domestic violence cases and among more recent arrivals, and puts the entire immigrant community at risk for crime.
Once ICE becomes involved, it can place a hold request on anyone identified as having an immigration history. The ICE hold means that after the person has completed their sentence, ICE will transport them to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington.
The process becomes shadowy at this point, and Detective Banuelos has received phone calls in the past year from families wondering what has happened to their relatives after leaving the Polk County Jail.
According to Immigrant Family Advocates (IFA), an affiliate of the Rural Organizing Project, detainees in the privately owned Tacoma detention center can languish for months or years, waiting their day in immigration court.
Public defenders are not available and the vast majority of those reaching Tacoma are deported. Statistics show steady increases in deportations from the Bush years going into Obama’s first term. A majority of deported people in 2010 – 250,000 out of 400,000 – had no criminal record.
Local numbers are strikingly similar. Betsy Lamb of IFA became alarmed when people started disappearing from Deschutes County without a trace. Her investigation found 749 individuals were placed in ICE detainers at the Deschutes County jail from January 2007 through June 2012.
67% of them were the result of traffic stops, minor infractions or no charge at all.
“While deportation numbers are slightly down in the Northwest, the figures released from the DHS show that deportations nationally were at a record-breaking high of 409,000 in 2012 FY. 225,000 of these are immigrants removed without criminal records, each of these is a family torn apart,” says Amanda Aguilar Shank with the Rural Organizing Project.
To help address the problem, ROP members met recently with law enforcement officials from all over the state at the Sheriff’s Executive Committee. At the Salem event, ROP organizer Amanda Aguilar Shank urged sheriffs to work with community groups to restore trust by practicing discretion in turning over immigrants to ICE.
She emphasized immigrant youth, especially those in the process of applying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program announced by the President in June. (DACA allows temporary status to immigrants brought here as children.) Currently, though DACA candidates can get social security cards, it is unclear if they will be able to get driver’s licenses in Oregon.
Shank also argued that though ICE has the authority to request that local jurisdictions hold immigrants, it does not require them to comply with the detainers. (In fact, officials such as Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, have refused to turn over immigrants arrested for low-level crimes to federal authorities.)
Finally, Shank proposed a stopgap alternative; for local law enforcement to begin to accept the Mexican Consular card, which is an ID issued by the Mexican government to citizens residing outside Mexico. If sheriffs accepted this card to establish identity, they would join Oregon state police who have already agreed to do so. Shrank pointed out that although the card was easily forged in the past, it now has more security features than even the Oregon driver’s license.
Whatever the sheriffs decide, it is clear it is time for Oregon to resolve this issue. By 2016, all drivers’ licenses granted before SB 1080 will expire. That means 80,000 more Oregon residents will have no legal license at all.