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DACA Blues

Sonoma County sings the immigrant song

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ARCHITECT OF EMPATHY  Legal-observer trainee George Beeler says immigrants are ‘critical to our local economy - and in celebrating the exuberance of the food culture.’
  • ARCHITECT OF EMPATHY Legal-observer trainee George Beeler says immigrants are ‘critical to our local economy and in celebrating the exuberance of the food culture.’

Hector Jimenez is a 20-year-old sophomore at Santa Rosa Junior College whose parents brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was all of one year old.

Like many recent and undocumented immigrants, his parents were flushed out of their Oaxaca home by the negative economic impacts of the '90s-era North American Free Trade Agreement.

"I've been in the Santa Rosa area ever since," Jimenez says. But if Trump has anything to say about it, he's facing deportation to a country that's not his home.

Jimenez is one of 800,000 people, about one-fourth of them from California, who face possible deportation after Trump's decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which established a formalized registration system under which Americans like Jimenez could come out of the proverbial shadows and get a Social Security card, a driver's license and live without fear.

Jimenez has a cousin in the same situation, a graduate of Sonoma State University who, "when he got his degree and tried to use it, nobody would hire him because he didn't have a Social Security number," Jimenez says. His cousin graduated when Jimenez was in middle school, "and that's when I really realized what this meant for me." He recalls that he "essentially gave up on school—I didn't ditch it, but I just wasn't in it mentally because I realized that, 'what's the point if, when I graduate, I won't be able to use my degree anyway?'"

But he stayed in school and Obama unveiled DACA while Jimenez was entering high school. Like many youth in that age bracket, he wanted to get his driver's license but couldn't. "Luckily, this program came around, and I was excited but also very afraid; it put all of us in a vulnerable position, giving them all of my information that if they wanted to use it against us, there would be no legal consequence. It was a vulnerable and terrifying position to be in, but at the same time I was so excited to get my driver's license."

Now Jimenez is studying sociology and law at SRJC which, like many schools around the state and country, has become something of a sanctuary school, with about 1,500 undocumented students on the rolls and a dozen or so DACA Dreamers like Jimenez, who works in the schools' immigrant-resource Dream Center.

In response to Trump's order, the University of California state system has come out in vociferous opposition, and on Monday the state of California itself announced it would sue the administration for its push against the Obama legacy item. The state community college system is yet another of a number of organizations and agencies to come out swinging against the destruction of DACA. Local politicians, from State Sen. Mike McGuire to U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman, have issued blistering take-downs on the rescinded policy over the past week—"un-American," in Huffman's words—as Trump has rolled out his latest version of governance-by-blackmail to a compliant GOP Congress.

The program, says Jimenez, opened up a future that he couldn't envision before 2012. Persons who came to the States as children were given the opportunity to register in exchange for a commitment from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that they wouldn't be targeted for deportation. Seemed like a pretty square deal that fixed a long-standing problem.

That promise has been taken back, as Trump has broken faith with the essential decency and practicality of DACA, which emerged only after one do-nothing Congress after another refused to take on immigration "reform," lately under the Dream Act. Now Trump has called on Congress to pass reform, and if they don't, he'll start deporting people whose only crime is something their parents did. The same Trump who pardoned disgraced Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and issued an executive order banning Muslims from the United States, has now argued that Obama exceeded his authority.

"I couldn't believe it at first," says Jimenez. "It was angering and frustrating to hear that the reason they were ending it was the rule of law—but they go out and pardon Joe Arpaio? How is this justifiable as well? This individual committed numerous crimes, and you pardon him? How is that just at all?"

Through DACA and the politics that pushed it into existence, Jimenez found his way, got interested in organizing and was part of the movement that pressured the Obama administration "so that something would occur. I was motivated and moved by that."

That's all changed now, says Jimenez, whose work at the SRJC Dream Center puts him in contact with undocumented students. "I've noticed the panic within the community—there's a lot of people coming here who seek comfort, and there's definitely been a spike in depression and anxiety, which is completely understandable. People who already have all sorts of things going on—they are taking 17-plus [college credit] units, working two jobs and also have to pay rent and on top of that—are now being told that they might not even be able to work."

The DACA downer has added urgency to efforts underway to protect undocumented individuals from excessive zealotry at the hands of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security.

It's a hot and dry Saturday afternoon in Petaluma, where about 20 Sonoma County residents have showed up at the Unitarian Universalist church on the west side of town to be trained as legal observers.

The Sonoma County Rapid Response Network emerged in the early days of the Trump White House and has so far trained about 800 people to monitor ICE as it goes about its business—often conducted in the shadow of constitutionality, say critics of the agency.

Sam Tuttelman is one of those critics. The Petaluma resident lost 95 percent of his family in the Holocaust and has a friendly but forthright delivery as he co-hosts the training meeting for potential legal observers, under the auspices of the Petaluma Rapid Response Network.

The network aims to witness, accompany and advocate on behalf of immigrants who might find themselves subject to deportation. When fully up to speed, the network will operate as a sort of alternative emergency-response system designed to assist a particularly vulnerable community.

Under the emergency protocol, Sonoma County residents who find ICE agents at their front door will call a hotline and connect with a dispatcher who will then send a text message to any legal observers available within a five-mile radius of the raid. The legal observer will get the text message and head to the home, where, as Tuttelman stresses, the job is not to be a hero or intervene, but to bear witness in the service of the Constitution and due process.

George Beeler is one of the trainees and a member of the Unitarian Universalist church. Beeler is a retired architect who grew up on a Kentucky farm and extols the added value of the local immigrant community, which, he says, "is critical to our local economy and in celebrating the exuberance of the food culture" of the North Bay.

"This is a country built on immigration," Beeler adds, "and farming is very hard work that people don't do unless they have to." The DACA crackdown, he says, is adding insult to a grievous injury already inflicted on immigrant communities—an intolerance that has itself seeped into the nominally tolerant streets of Petaluma.

"It's just heartbreaking," Beeler says as he recounts the occasional spotting of Confederate flags in the pleasantly seed-strewn agriculture town, and some of the "hateful rhetoric" that greets immigrants and their supporters in the streets.

He also notes that Petaluma has launched an "It Won't Happen Here," campaign, riffing on the Sinclair Lewis novel wherein the United States is rendered anew as a totalitarian state. The Lewis book is famous for its observation that when fascism comes to the United States, "it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross."

And yet here we are, ironically enough, in church, where a group of concerned citizens includes first-generation Americans with immigrant parents from various European locales, a Republican military veteran, teachers and a woman who works in a popular local restaurant and says her interactions with undocumented co-workers brought her here today.

One attendee spoke of parents who escaped the Bolsheviks. Another spoke of undocumented Irish parents who lived in a prior generation's shadow world. Said one, "We're not going to lay down and wait for it."

The observers' training includes information on the ways ICE agents have found legally questionable workarounds to effectuate their raids. Tuttelman notes that any ICE warrant "has to be signed by a federal judge, but the overwhelming number of warrants are not." ICE agents have used the "detainer" policy to get around that particular Fourth Amendment due-process concern. That's the tactic where ICE utilizes local law-enforcement agencies to hold arrestees until they can swoop in with the deportation papers, no warrant needed.

And even though ICE agents typically know who they are looking for in most immigration raids, "they can start intimidating other people, asking them to show documents," Tuttleman says. Or, he says, they mask their participation in raids by wearing generic police vests that don't identify them as federal agents.

Speaking to the dangers inherent in signing up as a legal observer, Tuttelman tells the group that legal observers are encouraged to write a lawyer's name on their arm in case they, too, get arrested during the raid. But he also stresses that they're not on the scene to be heroes or to "get in the face of ICE or vent rage or outrage." The observers are there to do one thing: develop evidence for people facing deportation to demonstrate where ICE is not following its own rules.

"In 90 percent of cases, ICE violates people's rights," Tuttelman says.

The high-tech observer system in the works can't come soon enough for Sonoma County residents like Hector Jimenez, who faces deportation to a country he doesn't know—as do his parents. He has two siblings, both American citizens born in this country with significant health issues. "If anything were to happen [to my parents]— the ability for them to stay here is what is keeping my siblings alive."

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