The Grand Rapids Association of Pastors met on Thursday, November 15 to talk about immigration--both to work through some myths about it and to hear from Hillary Scholten of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) about two local issues.
Rev. Kate Kooyman and Rev. Adam Lipscomb led the discussion of immigration myths, their facts rounded out by stories from two pastors of Hispanic congregations, Father Steven Cron and Rev. Dale Dalman. They talked us through a True/False quiz that we took before lunch. You can download the blank quiz with the link below. As Rev. Kooyman said, "It's very hard to have a discussion about immigration if we're operating with myths."
While being willing to work was once good enough, it is no longer. Now, you have to already have a job. In addition, the visa is not owned by the immigrant, it is owned by the employer, so if the immigrant loses that job, they lose the visa. The employer has to go through a lengthy, expensive process of proving that they've tried to hire Americans and have been unable to before they are given a work visa for an immigrant. One notable exception is if an immigrant is an investor with at least $500,000; they can get a visa on that basis.
Asylum Seeker is a technical term. Here is the definition from the American Immigration Council:
Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who meet the international law definition of a “refugee.” The United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol define a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Congress incorporated this definition into U.S. immigration law in the Refugee Act of 1980.
Immigration is federal law, and it is not part of the criminal code, so it is Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) responsibility to enforce it, not local police.
Immigration Court is not a criminal court, so the rules of criminal courts do not apply. Representation by an attorney is neither required nor will an attorney be supplied. This is how we've seen three-year-olds in court representing themselves before immigration judges.
As a general rule, if a person is not a U.S. citizen, she is not eligible for most welfare benefits unless she has a green card and has been in the U.S. for at least five years. And if he has a temporary visa or no visa at all, he is not ever eligible for those programs. There are two benefits an undocumented immigrant can receive: a K-12 public education, and emergency medical care. Father Cron noted that as of recently, they can get married in Kent County; it used to be denied if they didn't provide a SSN, so even though it is now allowed, there is lingering fear in the immigrant community.
There is no law barring ICE access to these places, but there is a memo that advises ICE not to enter these "safe zones," a kind of good-faith agreement that it is best for the community if people can worship, seek medical care, drop their kids off at school without fear.
Until 2008, a driver's license was a state ID and undocumented immigrants were able to get them, but that year, Michigan decided to make our driver's licenses comply with the Real ID Act (passed after 9/11) so they could be used for federal purposes, such as flying. Father Cron noted that local police officers will accept valid driver's licenses from other countries (including Mexico)--officers have told him that their desire is to know who you are, so any form of ID will be helpful, even better if there is a translation supplied.
This statement is false on two counts. 1. It can take decades for an immigrant to get a visa for a family member. 2. These visas are only available for immediate family members: spouses, parents, children, siblings. An immigrant can never petition for an extended family member. If an immigrant has a green card, then they can only petition for their spouse and young children.
This is in addition to sales and gas taxes they pay with every purchase. As Father Cron said, "There is no express lane that is cheaper for the undocumented."
DACA gave Dreamers temporary protection from deportation and the ability to work: they do not have legal status and their in-between status is not permanent.
Rev. Kooyman noted that people's fear of immigrants is stoked by the media, that the reality is that those under the shadow of undocumented status do not want to draw attention to themselves. Father Cron noted that working with ICE ruins the relationship of local police with the lower-crime neighborhoods where lots of undocumented immigrants live.
Rev. Kooyman said, "Less than 1% of the world's refugees are ever resettled into any country and we have the most rigorous process of any country." It is a lengthy process that involves background checks, long administrative waiting times, and retinal scans. The conservative Cato Institute found the following: "the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year while the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year. By contrast, the chance of being murdered by a tourist on a B visa, the most common tourist visa, is 1 in 3.9 million per year."
Kooyman noted that, especially in West Michigan, many people's grandparents or parents had a relatively easy time immigrating to the U.S. because they came from Northern Europe, which gave them an advantage. Now the system is not country-based, but depends on the kind of visa a potential immigrant is trying to get.
Now that we were no longer harboring myths about immigration, we were ready to hear from Hillary Scholten, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), which is both a law firm that represents immigrants in court and a statewide advocacy organization. She spoke about two issues they are focusing on:
Kent County's contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
Earlier in November, MIRC and several other local organizations including the ACLU and Treetops Collective, petitioned the Kent County Board of Commissioners to end the county's contract with ICE. She clarified what this contract is and what it is not: Kent Country has contracted to always do a search for federal immigration status with every person they arrest, no matter what they arrest them for. This means that if someone is stopped for having a tail light out and it is discovered that they are driving without a license (a particular problem for undocumented immigrants) and local charges are pressed, that person's fingerprints are run through a national database, which will alert ICE. Kent County will then voluntarily hold that person for ICE until ICE collects them. Scholten said that this is, in effect, "instigating a new arrest," holding a person when, if they posted bail, they would normally be released.
Holding the person for ICE is not part of the contract; that is voluntary. Scholten told us that, "The courts have unanimously held that holding people is entirely voluntary." When MIRC has spoken with the outgoing and the current county sheriff about this, their response is that, "We're just trying to keep our community safe." To which Scholten responds, "Does an immigrant pose a greater danger to society merely because they're an immigrant? If you'd release another person in that same situation, why not release the immigrant?"
Other counties that do not have a contract with ICE determine danger to society according to the local charge and through their usual bond process. An undocumented immigrant does not get a different process than a U.S. citizen--they are each held and released according to the same standard. When Kent County chooses to hold someone for ICE, the hold takes effect right away, before any conviction for the local charges, so it sometimes happens that a person is deported even though all local charges have been dropped.
In addition, the federal government pays Kent County $85/day for holding someone--the actual cost of holding a person is $100/day. This frustrates Scholten because, "We have so much need in our county that our money should be going to instead of going to holding immigrants for ICE."
It would be possible for ICE to pick up a person after they'd served their time for the local offense, but some law enforcement officials object that release times are changeable, so that isn't practical. Scholten also noted that MIRC doesn't prefer ICE to wait for the person to get home to arrest them because that can be so traumatic for children and families to witness.
Scholten also corrected the myth that ICE operates like other law enforcement agencies:
There is no due process and there are no checks on their power. They can arrest someone on the mere suspicion that they are here illegally. When ICE issues a detainer, the warrant is not checked or overseen by anyone--unlike when a police officer requests a warrant and a judge has to look it over. And then it is six weeks before someone taken in by ICE can even speak to a judge about their situation.
MIRC remains committed to reaching a resolution with the Sheriff's Department and with the Board of Commissioners through conversation, rather than through the courts. Scholten recently participated in a 6-week discussion with past Sheriff Larry Stelma, current Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young, and the Kent County Commissioners, to try to figure out what they could do. She found LaJoye-Young to be "receptive and open to listen."
Driver's Licenses for Immigrants (and others)
As we found out in the myth-busting activity, Michigan used to issue driver's licenses without checking citizenship status. This meant that undocumented immigrants used to be able to have a legal license, and used to be able to get auto insurance. After Michigan made their driver's licenses comply with the Real ID Act so they could be used as federal identification, undocumented immigrants were left without the ability to drive legally.
Scholten asserted that it does not make Michigan safer to have unlicensed people driving cars without valid license plates or insurance. Besides the legal impact (being pulled over for a minor driving violation can turn into a major problem, including deportation), there is also economic impact. Workers who are undocumented are unable to drive for their employer. And all of our auto insurance rates are high because of incidents involving unlicensed and uninsured drivers.
There is support for a state driver's license among a wide array of groups, including advocates for the elderly, who often have a hard time providing original birth certificates, and thereby renewing their licenses. There are two bills in the Michigan House that support a state driver's license: House Bills 4794 and 4795. They have been co-sponsored by a Democratic and a Republican representative, and are supported by a further 12 Democrats and 1 Republican. Unfortunately, they are in a committee where one pastor joked, "bills are sent to die."
To encourage the current leadership to move Bills 4794 and 4795 out of committee, Scholten encourages pastors to contact their local state representative to let them know that this is an issue for people in their congregation and that they'd like to see the bills get voted on.
What Can a Pastor Do?
Scholten encouraged pastors to educate themselves and to be prepared to correct myths about immigration that their parishioners may express. While MIRC has already presented a copy of a letter calling on Kent County to declare itself as welcoming to immigrants, pastors are still able to add their names in support. Find the letter here.
If a pastor is interested in having her or another immigration education expert come to speak at his or her church, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put you in touch with the right person.
Pastors can also vote, and speak with their local state representative, telling them how these state contracts and laws affect the people in their congregation. Find your state rep. here.
And pastors can pray. As Scholten said, "This is hard work. Really hard work. Right now we're representing a 6-year-old boy who's been separated from his parents--family separation is not over."
In the interests of not over-burdening pastors with yet another thing in the busy Advent and Christmas season, we will not be meeting in December. We look forward to seeing you again on January 17, 2019 at 11:30am (place to be determined). Mark your calendars for our meeting on February 21 when we will host Mayor Rosalyn Bliss.