Op-Ed

L.A. faces a moral test: How will we respond to deportation threats?

“Since election day, children are scared about what might happen to their parents,” says Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles. “And parents for their children. We fill out at least 10 guardianship letters every day for [undocumented] parents who fear for their [U.S. citizen] kids if they — the parents — are deported.”

Los Angeles has rarely been a more fearful place than it is today. L.A. and Orange counties are home to roughly 1 million immigrants in the country illegally — more than any region except greater New York. That’s not counting the U.S. citizens in mixed-status families — like those American-born children losing sleep at the prospect of losing their mothers and fathers.

Business is off at stores with a predominantly immigrant clientele, Salas says. The possibility of stakeouts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents has caused thousands of Angelenos to abbreviate their daily rounds.

With the Trump administration eliminating most of the legal distinctions between law-abiding, productive undocumented immigrants and their violent, convicted counterparts, the entire city is facing a test of character. “The question before us,” says Rusty Hicks, who heads the L.A. County Federation of Labor, “is how do we make this different from 1942, when Japanese Americans were carted away and no one lifted a finger to help them.”

At CHIRLA, the to-do lists have changed. The organization is now compelled, sometimes hourly, to confirm or deny reports of ICE sweeps. (No, CHIRLA put out the word on the day I interviewed Salas, there aren’t any ICE agents on the platforms at Union Station today.) But its primary mission is to inform immigrants of their rights and help provide counsel if they’re caught up in the government’s deportation machinery.

Through videos and daily live presentations, CHIRLA provides a Know Your Rights seminar. Along with such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigration Law Center and the Labor Federation’s Miguel Contreras Foundation, it has assembled a network of pro bono and “low bono” attorneys to represent immigrants in deportation proceedings.

Last weekend, about 600 Angelenos — the majority, presumably, immigrants in the country illegally — attended a “Know Your Rights” forum convened by State Senate President Kevin de Leon in downtown Los Angeles. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and LAPD Deputy Chief Robert Arcos sought to assure the assemblage, in McDonnell’s words, that “we focus on behavior, not who somebody is or how he got here.”

“We know you’re suffering from fear, anxiety and distrust of law enforcement,” Arcos said. “But know that your LAPD is here to protect and serve you.” Under any other set of circumstances, it was the most pro forma of assurances, but in this case, one that produced a burst of applause. Both Arcos and McDonnell also implored their listeners to trust their officers, at least enough to report crimes or suspicious behavior — lest crime rates begin to soar.

Not all of the state’s many police agencies have made clear that they won’t help the feds apprehend immigrants whose only “crime” is being here. For that reason, de Leon has authored Senate Bill 54, which would prohibit police across the state from working with ICE on detention arrests and limit their cooperation with ICE in holding arrestees so the feds can interrogate them on their immigration status. The bill is likely to move through the Legislature later this month.

Among the many words of advice offered by the immigration attorneys who spoke to the crowd at de Leon’s forum, the one invoked repeatedly was “silencio.” “You have a right to remain silent,” said Peter Schey of the L.A. immigrant rights bar. “If ICE is at your door, you have a right not to let them in unless they have a court order. Ninety-nine of 100 deportations are due to statements made to agents at the time of the arrest.”

Los Angeles will be the primary battleground of the fight to resist the deportation of immigrants (all save those convicted of violent felonies). The state government weighed in as far back as last summer, when it raised to $30 million the amount it devotes annually to immigrant legal aid. It will double down on its commitment to keeping its immigrant residents here if SB 54 is enacted. The city’s pledge to its undocumented population goes back all the way to 1979, when the police department forbade its officers to apprehend anyone because of immigration status, or question such status.

It’s not as if Californians are clamoring for mass deportations. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll from May 2016 showed that 65% of state voters believed that immigrants in the country illegally should be allowed to apply for citizenship, 14% percent thought they should gain legal status but not citizenship and only 16% favored deportation. But President Trump’s budget will greatly expand the number of ICE agents, and many of the new hires inevitably will come here.

What happens to the million among us who lack federal documentation — one-tenth of Los Angeles and more, when factoring in their families — will be determined not just by those immigrants, or by ICE, or by the courts and attorneys, but by Angelenos as a whole.

A massive march in defense of immigrants, backed by the Service Employees International Union, is scheduled for May 1. Organizers hope it will combine the mega-turnouts of the immigrant legalization march of 2006 with the women’s march of this January. The organizations providing legal assistance — the most crucial determinant in deportation proceedings — need more funding, and some immigrants likely will need physical sanctuary, too.

Cities seldom get a moral test as defining as this one.

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect. He is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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