Illegal immigrant workersask not to be deportedwhile Congress debates


Pedestrians walking through Freedom Plaza look at immigration posters on display Monday in Washington D.C. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
July 22, 2013

Marta Espinoza Lopez, 62, spent the past decade bent over a sewing machine in Arizona, stitching men’s work jackets and vests. In February, Lopez said, immigration agents swept through the factory and arrested her and other workers who are in the country illegally. This week, a few days after being released, Lopez drove to Washington to tell her story and ask President Obama to stop deporting people like her until Congress settles the issue of immigration reform.

“I love sewing, and I work hard. There is no shame in sewing or sweeping floors or cleaning bathrooms, but they are calling us criminals for it,” said Lopez, a retired secretary who said she crossed the border from Mexico on foot because she could not make ends meet on her pension. “You have to have the courage of hunger to cross,” she said Monday after a news conference at Freedom Plaza.

Lopez and a group of other immigrants facing deportation are spending this week in the capital as part of a campaign by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and several other organizations to call attention to the problems of working immigrants who are in the country illegally. Organizers said thousands continue to be deported, even though many illegal immigrant students were granted a reprieve from deportation by the president last year.

The groups have set up a week-long exhibit of artwork about immigrants at the plaza at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. One hand-painted poster showed two enormous fists smashing into walls and homes and grabbing a terrified, naked, brown-skinned family.

The event coincides with a traveling one-week fast against deportations that is being held in various cities. It is being observed in the District by some immigrants and church activists.


Jose Mejia, 39, of Phoenix, is originally from Mexico. He cries as he tells his story Monday about recently being held in an immigration detention facility. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Obama administration has adopted a “common-sense” deportation policy in the past four years, focusing on immigrants who break criminal laws, flee immigration court, repeatedly violate immigration laws or recently crossed the border.

Large-scale workplace raids were dramatically cut back, especially after a high-profile raid on a meatpacking plant in Iowa in 2008 that ended in 389 arrests and devastated the local community. Immigration officials shifted to making “paper raids,” especially tax audits, and pursuing employers of illegal immigrants rather than the workers.

“ICE is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration-law violators. ICE does not conduct enforcement actions to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately,” Nicole Navas, a spokesperson for the agency, said Monday.

Officials also said the agency reviews each deportation case individually, taking into account the person’s police record and length of time and family ties in the United States.

The agency said it deported about 410,000 immigrants last year. It said only a tiny fraction were law-abiding but undocumented adults, while 96 percent fell into other categories. Fifty-five percent were convicted criminals, 21 percent were repeat immigration offenders, and 17 percent were sent back at the border.

Between October and the first week of this month, ICE officials said, a total of 286,034 were deported, of whom 157,023 had committed crimes. Officials were not able to provide recent numbers of workplace raids.

Despite record numbers of deportations during the Obama first term, some Republicans have pressed for a return to the high-profile workplace immigration raids of the George W. Bush administration, calling them an effective way to prevent illegal immigrants from taking the place of U.S.-born workers.

Officials with the day laborers’ advocacy group said that thousands of illegal immigrants continue to be arrested in their workplaces, taken from their families, kept in detention for months and eventually deported. Most of the illegal immigrants visiting Washington this week said that they are likely to be deported, in some cases because they were charged with crimes such as using false ID papers that made them ineligible for leniency.

“There is an attempt to divide the undocumented into categories of good and bad, deserving and undeserving,” said Chris Newman, a legal adviser to the NDLON. “Either you are an innocent dreamer who wants to go to Harvard, or you’re a criminal. It’s a false choice, and there is something the president can do about it.”

The group is calling on the administration to stop all workplace raids and suspend noncriminal deportations while Congress is grappling with immigration reform. Under a bipartisan Senate proposal, some 11 million illegal immigrants would have a chance to be in the country legally. The more conservative House is approaching the issue on a narrower, piecemeal basis that emphasizes border security.

Jose Mejia, 39, a Mexican construction worker whose three children were born in the United States, broke into sobs Monday as he started to describe what had happened to him after immigration agents picked him up before dawn one morning in Phoenix last August while he was putting some construction materials in a truck.

“I tried to text my wife as they were taking me away, and she was so scared. The worst part was being separated from my family for so long,” he said. He spent months in various detention centers, where he said he was “humiliated” and fed rotten food. An advocacy group helped him win temporary release, but he could still face deportation. “I drove 39 hours to get here so I can tell President Obama, please don’t let other families suffer like mine,” he said.

One of the people participating in the week-long fast is Antonio Vanegas, 26, a restaurant worker from Guatemala whose immigration drama unfolded right across the street from Freedom Plaza.

Vanegas said he had worked in a fast-food outlet in the Ronald Reagan Federal Building complex for three years, often working 72 hours a week for $6.50 an hour. In May, he said that he and several fellow workers decided to stage a one-day strike for higher pay. They were detained by security guards, sent to immigration authorities for using false ID cards and barred from their jobs.

Although temporarily free, he is awaiting a court hearing and probable deportation, in part because he was accused of using false work documents, he said.

“The government doesn’t want to help us. They just want to make the problem disappear,” Vanegas said. “No matter what our status, we have the right to be paid for our work. That’s why we have to keep struggling.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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