In late January, the Department of Homeland Security issued a moratorium on deportations for 100 days at the request of the new president, Joe Biden. But a federal judge blocked it after Ken Paxton, the embattled attorney general of Texas, sued. For immigrants and immigration advocates, it was a painful reminder of the limits of the new administration to alter immigration policy with the stroke of a pen.
It was also a bitter irony. Paxton’s actions will undermine his own state’s prosecution of an alleged mass-murderer who killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019. A witness to that slaughter is a 27-year-old woman known as Rosa. Against her better judgment, according to reporting by The Washington Post, Rosa came forward to give key details to Texas state and federal authorities about the events of that day. But she also had a standing warrant for deportation, and a recent police stop for a broken taillight led to her being deported to Mexico, where she hasn’t lived since she was a child. Rosa was in the process of obtaining a U-Visa, which prevents crime victims from being extradited while they can offer critical testimony.
Why care about a case in Texas? Because Rosa isn’t alone. Paxton’s actions are having ripple effects far nearer to home, in Rockland County.
While Rosa was being detained, so was 40-year-old Paul Pierrilus, a financial consultant who has lived in the US since he was five. On February 2, he was deported to Haiti. Pierrilus isn’t from Haiti—his parents were born there, but he was born on the Island of St. Martin, and was never given citizenship there, either. He’s technically stateless, and according to Newsweek, had been allowed to stay in the US under an order of supervision, which required he regularly check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But that changed on January 11. Instead of releasing Pierrilus from his check-in, ICE detained him, flew him to a prison in Louisiana, and began proceedings to deport him.
Freshman Congressmember Mondaire Jones, whose district includes Rockland County and parts of Westchester County, managed to prevent the initial attempt to send Pierrilus to Haiti on January 19, just 24 hours before Biden took office and the DHS issued the 100-day halt on deportations. But because that memo was blocked, ICE continued deporting people—including Pierrilus.
New Yorkers Pay for ICE
The Trump Administration passed over 1,000 rules and regulations concerning immigration, and despite a litany of actions in the initial days of the Biden White House, some of those ordinances are still in place. Perhaps most pernicious is a decision last March that allows border agents, under Title 42 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention code, to expel anyone entering the country without due process under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19. A January 28 letter to the CDC signed by dozens of health experts excoriated the policy and called for its immediate removal.
The Biden administration has said it will review the policy, and a February 2 executive memo suggests it may be revoked, but for now migrant expulsions continue. According to Customs and Border Protection data, there have been more than 380,000 “expulsions” (meaning without due process or any right to claim asylum) since the pandemic began; the advocacy organization Witness at the Border says there have been 68 ICE deportation flights since Biden took office.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Representative Jones called for deportations to stop. He wrote that the Pierrilus case highlights ICE’s punitive and capricious nature, noting in part that “Pierrilus is not a citizen of Haiti…had never even been to Haiti, [which] is roughly 1,500 miles from the Rockland County, New York community that has long welcomed Mr. Pierrilus as a beloved neighbor. In spite of these facts, ICE deported Mr. Pierrilus anyway.”
In a statement to The River, Jones not only reiterated the danger ICE poses, but added that its relationship with prisons is corrupting. While Pierrilus was first sent to a facility in Louisiana, most ICE detainees in the region are held prior to trial at the Orange County Correctional Facility, in Goshen, which receives $133.90 a day per inmate. The Goshen prison was paid $8 million from ICE service agreements in 2017 and 2016, according to reporting by the nonprofit immigration news site Documented. Jones argues that “detention should not be the default position for migration processing.” He seeks an end to the for-profit prison system in both state and local jails, “like the ones in which Pierrilus was imprisoned in Louisiana.”
There’s another reason to sever the relationship of New York’s counties and towns to ICE: money.
Jane Shim is a senior policy attorney with the Immigrant Defense Project in New York, which seeks broad changes in how the state and federal government directs its energies against immigrants. She points out that when local prisons work with ICE, they open themselves up to lawsuits when they allegedly restrict people’s rights on behalf of ICE. There have been many across the country, both against prisons and local police, such as a $14 million payment LA County had to make late last year. Currently there’s a class action lawsuit against the Orange County Correctional Facility and the Orange County Sheriff for unlawfully detaining people who, the suit argues, pose almost no danger if they were released back into their communities and asked to appear for hearings.
Based on a comprehensive 2019 study of ICE arrests undertaken by Syracuse University, the number of detainees who were apprehended for anything like a violent crime dating over the past six years is vanishingly small. Out of 500,000, a mere 68 people (0.0123 percent) were convicted of terroristic behavior. And as for Trump’s constant claim of gang activity, ICE managed to convict only 0.0149 percent, or 82 people. “Going back before Trump,” Shim says of ICE, “their agenda is to see community members as threats. To treat people as disposable.”
New York vs. ICE
While lawsuits against state and local prisons can feel like an abstract cost, taxpayers face a more subtle expense when local police work with immigration enforcement: detainer agreements between ICE and local precincts help train police, but ICE isn’t paying the salaries or pensions of those officers. Cops are now out working cases that, Shim makes clear, mostly have nothing to do with the safety of the public they were hired to defend and protect.
One state legislative solution, backed by the Immigrant Defense Project and local advocates like Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, is the New York for All Act, which would make it unlawful for police, court officers, parole officers, or school officers to work with ICE or CBP; would bar them from enforcing immigration law; and would prohibit passing information to federal agents without a judicial warrant. “Right now, somehow ICE gets wind of someone showing up for their court-mandated hearing,” Shim says. “Upstate, near the border, CBP gets alerted when someone gets pulled over for a traffic stop. This would put a legal stop to this collusion and collaboration.”
Shim says New York for All is necessary regardless of the fact that Biden issued a directive to DHS to limit its efforts to tracking down those guilty of “aggravated felonies.” Unfortunately, she notes that this falls to the discretion of both ICE and local law enforcement. “Too often what they arrest people for are neither aggravated crimes nor felonies.”
State Senator Julia Salazar, the bill’s lead sponsor, linked it to COVID-19 spread, arguing that blocking officials from passing data to immigration enforcement is key to giving immigrants more confidence in seeking health care. In a February 11 media briefing, Salazar described “Immigrant New Yorkers living in fear of going to a COVID testing site, or to get vaccinated out of fear of immigration enforcement.” Salazar also mentioned the rampant spread of COVID-19 in the Batavia facility that houses some ICE detainees (currently there are 54 cases) as one of the worst recent outbreaks of the disease in the state. During the same briefing, lead Assembly sponsor Karines Reyes made that connection clear, too, arguing that ICE’s tactics “burden state resources while undermining the state’s public health efforts.” Reyes noted the irony of government officials praising frontline workers, a disproportionate number of whom are immigrants, without actually doing anything to protect them.
The Bigger Picture on Immigrant Protection
Reyes’s words ring especially true to Emma Kreyche, an attorney in Kingston with the Worker Justice Center of New York, which focuses on worker rights, particularly in low-wage jobs where advocacy is critical. The organization is especially focused on two other state legislative actions.
One would establish occupational standards for exposure to airborne infectious diseases. “As an organization that focuses more on rural communities and on workers in industries like food processing and agriculture, we saw very early on in the pandemic that these were industries that were extremely hard hit by COVID,” Kreyche says. She cites an outbreak that hit 186 farmers in Oneida last spring because their living conditions didn’t allow for social distancing, but she says you don’t have to think about farming to understand why air quality standards are critical across the state. “Look at the back of the house of any restaurant or the hospitality industry and you see, whether you’re an immigrant or not, those frontline workers are endangered.”
“We do know, right, that Biden’s different from Trump,” says Diana Lopez, Ulster County community organizer for Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson. But she seconds Kreyche on how what is actually grinding on immigrants is the entire force of the pandemic—plus fear of arrest. “It’s not just ICE. It’s feeding your kid. It’s getting them the medical attention they need.” To that end, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, in addition to Worker Justice, is meeting with Hudson Valley legislators to push for the Excluded Worker Fund Act that would help workers who don’t otherwise qualify for unemployment. Lopez notes that would cover the undocumented, and also gig workers who live more on tips or seasonal workers who depend more on cash. “It’s house cleaners, people like that. I hear all the time from people who need help paying the rent, need to go to find a food pantry,” Lopez says. “People are really struggling and it’s heartbreaking.”
The federal government has distanced itself from some of Trump’s policies. Advocates for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals cheered executive orders that extended DACA benefits to two years and directed the United States Attorney General to defend the program. (The latter move is necessary because nine states, led by Texas, have argued that DACA is illegal; a US district court judge may rule as soon as this month. The Trump justice department didn’t defend the case in court.)
Biden’s longer-term legislative goal is to create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million noncitizens in the country, including DACA recipients. But he has already signed a number of executive orders in his first weeks in office that directly bear on immigrants in the US. The most symbolic of these is a halt of construction on the border wall. Biden also established a task force to try to reunite families separated by Trump’s Zero Tolerance policy; a Justice Department Inspector General’s Report out just a week before Trump left the White House found that policy leaders ignored advice that Zero Tolerance would lead to prolonged family separations and when that began to happen, ignored the devastating effect it had on families.
And Biden has already ordered a study and likely revocation of Trump mandates that prevented a legal path to citizenship if a person used any social service aids (the so-called “public-charge” rule), and rescinded part of a Trump 2019 order that threatened US-citizen sponsors with legal action if they shared their own benefits with noncitizens. These included the most basic, subsistence aid, such as food and medical care for immigrant children. Biden also retracted Trump’s attempt to exempt noncitizens from the census, as well as Trump’s wielding of ICE within US borders (and Trump’s order to apprehend anyone with or without a criminal record).
It’s also likely Biden will end the so-called Safe Third-Country Agreement, which forced anyone claiming asylum in the US from having the right to stay if they’d passed through another nation on their journey to America, almost no matter what terror they had fled.
If that sounds abstract, it’s not. It’s life and death.
The New Yorker Radio Hour recently played audio from a court proceeding where a judge tells a woman that she has to take her daughter, who was raped in front of a police officer in Honduras, back to that country because of this Trump directive. The judge’s pained reading of the law is that the woman should have sought asylum in one of the countries she traveled through on her way here with her daughter; therefore, the US cannot protect her.
The case makes abundantly clear that the Safe Third-Country Agreement has been in complete contravention of the reason the US established asylum laws in the first place: That America would never send a person or family facing sure terrorism, death squads or rapists, back to that place simply because they’d crossed a line on a map.
The Bottom Line
According to the Center for American Progress, DACA recipients in New York pay $315 million in federal taxes and $210 million in state and local taxes each year. They also pay a combined $128 million in rent and mortgage every year. (If you have DACA, you frequently live in a household of mixed immigration statuses, meaning these figures often reflect undocumented and documented immigrants footing these bills as a unit.) As Lopez of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson puts it, it’s time to honor those payments with aid. “Nobody can do it all by themselves. We all need community support.” Lopez says state lawmakers can make that happen, though she’s concerned that mid-Hudson Valley representatives fear a backlash about helping immigrants.
But Lopez is also hopeful that empathy will win out. “Step up and help people who are hungry and hurting,” she says. “Do whatever it takes.”
As for Pierrilus, he arrives in a country beset by political protests that have been met by increasingly violent crackdowns by authorities. “Right now he’s not doing well, him being in Haiti for the first time,” says Guerline Jozef, cofounder and executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit organization serving Haitian and other Black immigrants in the US, and which is working to bring Pierrilus home to his family. “He is holding on, and we are fighting on his behalf.”
That fight isn’t slowing anytime soon. According to the Haitian Bridge Alliance, nearly 1,000 people have been sent to Haiti so far in February, including pregnant women and children. Hours before Jozef spoke to The River, she had been fighting to stop a flight bound for Haiti that had children as young as 1 on board.
“It is unconscionable for the US to continue deportations during the pandemic,” Jozef says. “We are calling on the administration to stop.”
Additional reporting by Phillip Pantuso.