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As Government Talks Reform, Activists Push to Halt Deportations (UPDATED)

Posted: Jan 30, 2013

UPDATE: The author of this report obtained the following update from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson on Wednesday, January 30, at 3:20pm MST:  “After conducting a comprehensive review of Mr. Garcia-Armas’ case, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has chosen to release Mr. Garcia-Armas from custody with a one year stay of removal. ICE uses discretion on a case-by-case basis, taking enforcement action based on the merits of an individual’s case and a comprehensive review of specific facts.”

PHOENIX – José Garcia, an 11-year-old U.S. citizen, pleaded on camera Monday for President Barack Obama to stop the imminent deportation of his father, Edi Armas, a Guatemalan national.

“ICE came, they took my dad and put him in the car. When I was trying to say goodbye to him they pushed me away,” Garcia told television reporters.

Now, Garcia’s father could be sent back to Guatemala on a flight as early as Tuesday evening, just hours after the president addressed the nation with his message to fix a broken immigration system and create a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But as Congress and the Obama Administration engage in a debate over how to reform the nation’s immigration laws, situations like the one confronting the Garcia-Armas family are spurring immigrant rights activists to shift their focus from justice for some, to justice for all -- renewing their calls for Capitol Hill to take immediate action to halt all deportations.

A Guarded Hope

“The words of Obama give us hope that the conversation has started, but the same words that used to give us goose bumps no longer have the same effect, because families continue to be deported,” said Carlos García, director of Puente Movement, a community-based immigrant rights group.

José Garcia’s plea to the president drew tears from a crowd of pro-immigrant groups on Monday who were gathered at the Arizona State Capitol for a press conference, where they reacted to the political roadmap for immigration reform recently proposed by what has been dubbed the “Gang of 8” – a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators that includes Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).

The group’s plan, which includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that is contingent on securing the border, has been lauded by some as a positive first step in starting a dialogue. In his own speech on Tuesday, Obama applauded the principles presented by the Gang of 8 as being “very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years.”

Lydia Guzman, an immigration activist from the organization Respect/Respeto, said the Obama administration should stop the deportations precisely because there is a meaningful national debate happening.

“We know that every single day (people) are being deported, and they’re probably sitting in the bus listening to the conversations that Obama is having on immigration reform, wondering what would happen if I had a few more days, a few more hours,” she said.

Puente Movement director Garcia echoed the concerns.

“The last thing we want to see is a debate going on for another year, and another 400,000 people being deported,” he said.

Garcia said either Congress or President Obama could take action by making sure his administration follows through with a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) memo from 2011, in which ICE director John Morton wrote that his agency would consider a range of factors before deporting a person, including preference to individuals with family members living in the U.S. who have no criminal record.

“The bad part is we’re not seeing it go into effect,” said Garcia.

Shifting Focus, From Dreamers to Family

Local groups in Arizona are trying to make sure the Obama Administration follows through, by drawing public attention to situations faced by the likes of the Garcia-Arma family.

Meanwhile, young “Dreamers” – young people who were brought to the country illegally as children -- and recipients of the recently enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, have taken the resolution set forth during the United We Dream (a network of youth-led immigrant organizations) conference last December -- to fight for families and their parents -- to the streets.

Other groups, like the Arizona Dream Act Coalition (ADAC), have focused their efforts on similar goals. After they managed to stop the deportation of the mother and brother of Dream activist Erika Andiola, ADAC joined forces with the Puente Movement to advocate for other families.

The National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) has also called for an immediate suspension of all removals. Pablo Alvarado, director of NDLON, believes the playing field should be leveled to give all undocumented people the opportunity to have a reprieve from deportation, like the Dreamers were given with DACA.

“Until deportations stop, President Obama and Congress will be in the impossible position of deporting the very people they are ostensibly trying to bring into citizenship,” said Alvarado.

Despite a growing chorus in favor of halting deportations completely, immigration reform advocates have mixed outlooks on whether President Obama has the political capital to pull it off, or even suggest it.

“I don’t expect him to do that, now that there’s movement in the Senate,” said John Loredo, a Democratic political consultant and former minority leader in the Arizona State Legislature. “What he’s going to want to do is force Congress to look at this as a comprehensive package rather than just piecemeal it out.”

Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva ultimately agreed:

“I think he has the executive authority to do it and that is something that is being explored. I think family unification issues are being explored, but I think right now things are being held in advance so we give this legislative process an opportunity to be,” he said. “At this point, the less excuses we give people from bailing out, the better.”

Grijalva as well as immigrant rights activists have lamented the emphasis on border security expressed by the “Gang of 8” Senators and Obama alike, yet they do acknowledge that the bi-partisan framework has opened up possibilities for real reform.

“Our hope is they and other leaders will be on the right side of history and favor a plan that keeps families together and sends a strong signal to the world that Arizona is ready to lead on an issue that’s so vital to our state, our nation and the world,” said Petra Falcon, director of the group Promesa Arizona.

Recent statements by key politicians indicate that Obama will need to make concessions on the security issue, if any path to citizenship stands a chance of happening. For example, under the “Gang of 8” proposed plan, border governors like Arizona Republican Jan Brewer would play an important role in assessing whether or not the border has been secured, before citizenship can be offered to people seeking temporary legal status.

“Our nation cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past by pursuing immigration reform before tangible and effective border security, particularly in the Tucson Sector, is completed,” said Brewer in a statement.

A Family’s Plea

The campaign to stop Edi Armas’ deportation is expected to continue throughout the day, via phone calls to congressmen and ICE, and online petitioning

According to statistics obtained by Colorlines magazine, there have been over 200,000 deportations during the last two years that involved parents without criminal records.

Armas first came to the attention of immigration officials in 2009 when local police contacted ICE, suspecting Armas was in the country illegally. He tried to fight his case in immigration court, but the judge order his voluntary removal, according to the court immigration record. His wife, Norma Ramirez, said he decided to stay in the U.S. to support the family and his three children, who have severe asthma and were hospitalized at different times recently.

“If they deport Edi to Guatemala, they’re going to deport three citizens that are sick,” said Viridiana Hernández, one of the Dreamers leading the campaign against his deportation.

In an official release, ICE stated: “As a fugitive alien with an outstanding final removal order, Mr. Garcia-Armas was deemed to be an ICE enforcement priority. He is currently in custody at the Eloy Detention Center while the agency determines appropriate next steps in his case.”

Hernández contended that Armas should not be considered a “fugitive” but a worker that is trying to support his family.

“We’re going to continue to do this, because it happens too often in Arizona,” she said.

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