Immigration actions spark fear, support
Residents on different sides politically hope for solution
The Trump administration’s mixed approach to immigration enforcement has cheered some supporters and sown anxiety among Northwest Arkansas residents who lack valid visas.
Other area residents on different political sides said they yearn for a better, more cohesive fix to the illegal immigration issue.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed in mid-June it would continue the Obama-era deferred action program granting temporary work visas to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came into the country illegally as children. President Donald Trump repeatedly said during his campaign he would end the program immediately but hasn’t taken a firm stance on it since his inauguration.
The decision contrasts with sharply increased arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement around the country, and the administration’s broader scope on which immigrants to target. Officials have pointedly rejected the stance of former President Barack Obama, who instructed agents to focus on immigrants with criminal histories and gang connections.
“If we wait for them to violate yet another law against the citizens of this country, then it’s too late,” acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director Thomas Homan told members of Congress last month. Addressing all people who aren’t authorized to be in the United States, he said, “You should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”
‘NEW LEVEL OF FEAR’
The message has sunk in no matter what Trump does with Obama’s Deferred
Action for Childhood Arrivals program, said Erick Sanchez, who enrolled in the program in 2013. Trump has said he will deal with the program’s participants “with heart” but canceled the Obama proposal to extend the same protection to many of their parents.
“He says one thing and does the other thing,” said Sanchez, 24, who studies business management at Northwest Arkansas Community College and works as office manager for the Immigrant Resource Center in Springdale. His mother brought him to Arkansas when he was 9.
Sanchez and other deferred action participants said they’re laying low, driving under the speed limit at all times to avoid attention, for example. The whole family travels less and has made an emergency plan and given powers of attorney to family friends for his younger siblings, who are citizens and minors, in case the adults are picked up and deported to El Salvador.
Sanchez’s father and grandfather still live in El Salvador, but it’s been more than a decade since he has seen the place.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried,” he said. “I really don’t know what I would be doing over there.”
Almost 6,000 people in Arkansas applied for deferred action as of March and 2,000 more are eligible, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
The low-cost Community Clinic, which provides health care on a sliding fee scale in Springdale and other cities, saw a wave of canceled appointments for many immigrant families who wanted to sign up children or other family members who are citizens or otherwise eligible for Medicaid, director Kathy Grisham said.
The clinic, much like the other local hospitals, doesn’t ask patients about their legal status and doesn’t turn anyone away but asks about insurance if patients have it and other personal information.
Some families have since returned to sign up members for Medicaid anyway, Grisham added. Other hospital systems said they hadn’t seen similar changes among patients.
“There’s a certain resignation to a new level of fear and distrust,” said Mireya Reith, director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition that helps run the Springdale immigrant center. “This is what happens when you don’t take a comprehensive approach that’s been well thought-out and announced.”
Parts of the immigrant community have begun avoiding law enforcement, she said, and some families have returned to their home countries. Local police departments have said they won’t ask about residents’ immigration status or make immigration arrests, but Benton and Washington county jails screen detainees for their status and will turn them over to federal authorities if requested.
Immigration arrests nationally from January to April jumped by 11,000, or 38 percent, from the same period last year under Trump’s new approach, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency’s field office in Louisiana, which covers Arkansas and four other southern states, arrested about 2,100, up 50 percent, according to an analysis of arrest data by George Joseph at the liberal-leaning research group Demos.
The administration and its supporters say Trump’s harsher stance on immigrants has led to a steep drop in border apprehensions, which give a sense of how many people are trying to cross. Customs and Border Patrol reports apprehensions from January to May this year dropped by more than 100,000 compared with last year, cutting the total in half.
“The reality is they have backed down a bit from what they used to be, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Jim Estes, chairman of the Washington County Republicans. “If we’re going to have laws on the books, we ought to abide by those laws.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., called Trump’s actions a “positive step” for similar reasons, though the senator opposes deferred action because it comes from a president’s decision, not laws passed by Congress. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on Friday called on the administration to phase out deferred action, calling it unlawful.
“Even former President Obama acknowledged many times that he did not have authority to unilaterally grant this type of legal status to over one million aliens,” she said in a statement.
Estes said he believes Hispanic immigrants are industrious, hard-working people, and he doesn’t mind deferred action sticking around despite Trump’s earlier promises.
“I think there needs to be consideration for [childhood arrivals]. But here’s the thing we’ve got to do first: We’ve got to stop illegal immigration,” he said, echoing Boozman.
Reith advocates for a path to legalization or citizenship for immigrants who don’t have visas and said she opposes the focus on enforcement to the exclusion of all else.
“We have a broken system — you don’t fix it by addressing one spoke of the wheel,” she said, pointing to a legal immigration process that can take years or decades to clear for immigrants who aren’t sponsored by an employer or spouse.
Octavio Sanchez, a Bentonville City Council member and member of the Benton County Republicans, agreed with Reith in some respects. Many families understandably won’t wait 10 years for visas, he said. But they also cut in line and find support and work inside the U.S. that shouldn’t be available.
He hopes for a solution that rejects “nonsense” at both extremes of the political spectrum, he said. Sanchez said he is a naturalized citizen who immigrated from Mexico for a high-skill job at Wal-Mart.
The border must be more secure and the government should keep track of all who enter, he said. On the other hand, deportation should be a limited tool for criminal immigrants, and other immigrants here without visas should be able to become legal residents — not citizens, and only after the security improvements, he said.
Sanchez stressed the actual solution can only come with negotiation among many sides of the debate but said it must above all deal with multiple facets of the issue. He called Trump’s widening of the arrest net “good and bad” and deferred action “inadequate” because it can be cancelled at a president’s whim.
“There’s a certain resignation to a new level of fear and distrust. This is what happens when you don’t take a comprehensive approach that’s been well thought-out and announced.”
— Mireya Reith, director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition