First They Came for the Immigrants

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Because I Was No Longer an Immigrant

Abolish ICE!

The shooting was inevitable. This is a nation that has forgotten that thousands of children remain separated from their parents and housed in cages near the southern border, that has a president who revels in racism and who both rhetorically and through policy has encouraged a national policing agency to act with impunity, that has turned immigration into a dirty word.

That was my reaction after an undocumented immigrant was shot in the face Feb.6 by federal agents in Brooklyn after he allegedly stepped in to help his mother’s boyfriend, who had been tackled and detained by officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As reported by ABC New York’s Eyewitness News, ICE agents attempted to serve a deportation order on Gaspar Avendano Hernandez when Eric Diaz-Cruz intervened. Cruz is Avendano’s girlfriend’s son. His family says he stepped in because ICE agents failed to identify themselves, which led to a scuffle and the shooting. Avendano was also tasered, according to the report.

“He resisted because they didn’t show him no papers, like ‘Oh I’m the police,’ no badge, no nothing, no warrant, no nothing,” the victim’s brother, Kevin Yanez Cruz, told ABC. “They just tackled him, and that’s why he reacted the way he reacted. He didn’t say, ‘Get down,’ he didn’t say nothing. And he didn’t have nothing, my brother, he didn’t have no weapons in his hands, nothing. The minute they’re tackling him, they get up to the door step, I’m here, my brother is here, he thought I was going to get involved, and he pointed the gun at my brother and didn’t even hesitate and pulled the trigger.”

Sadly, this was bound to happen. The confluence of white supremacy and militarized law enforcement, of anti-immigrant rhetoric and the empowering of federal policing with few safeguards or accountability has left not just the undocumented community but all immigrants vulnerable. And as long as we have a federal law enforcement agency like ICE operating in local communities without the consent of those communities. It is no accident that there are echoes in this shooting of the shootings of Michael Brown, Philando Castile and many other black men.

Kevin Escobar, an organizer with the Morristown-based Wind of the Spirit, described what happened in Brooklyn as terrorism.

“It’s difficult to process that immigration agents are now terrorizing our communities through brute force,” he told me in an email. “Immigration matters are civil matters and the people in our communities are now being shot at. This is just another example of how immigrant communities don’t matter in this country.”

Jorge Torres, of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, offered a similar analysis. He said in a press release announcing a Sunday (Feb. 9) action that the shooting was “a hate crime.”

“This escalation is a clear sign of violence and the agent must be investigated, charged, and arrested,” he said. “ICE acted illegally in this situation and did not identify themselves, did not have a warrant signed by a judge, and they assaulted Gaspar with repeated tasering.”

The agency confirmed the shooting in a statement to ABC, but blamed the incident on Avendano and New York City officials saying its “officers were physically attacked” and that the agency had “attempted to lodge an immigration detainer” but were rebuffed by local officials.

“This forced ICE officers to locate him on the streets of New York rather than in the safe confines of a jail,” it said in a release.

No one should be surprised that ICE is attempting to spin their own bad behavior as an indictment of efforts by New York City, the states of New Jersey and California and numerous other jurisdictions to protect all of their residents. The Trump administration has made it clear that it views sanctuary and fair and welcoming directives as a lawless coddling of criminals, which is how it views all immigrants who lack legal authorization. Trump, in his Feb. 4 State of the Union address, misrepresented so-called sanctuary cities as dens of iniquity, where officials indiscriminately “order police to release dangerous criminal aliens to prey upon the public, instead of handing them over to ICE to be safely removed,” cherry-picking incidents that had nothing to do with the policies he was deriding and in the process defaming all immigrants.

This dehumanization — which he has engaged in since before he announced his candidacy and which he has not tempered since taking office — has played a dangerous role in how immigrants are treated. But it only tells part of the story.

The other issue, which should worry all of us, is that Trump has built on the expansion of federal policing powers, which began during the Cold War and then exploded in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. ICE is a product of this shift and why calls for its abolition should be taken seriously.

ICE was created with the November 2002 passage of the Homeland Security Act. As ICE states on its own website, this “set into motion what would be the single-largest government reorganization since the creation of the Department of Defense.” The agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, “was granted a unique combination of civil and criminal authorities to better protect national security and strengthen public safety in response to the deadly attacks perpetrated on 9/11.”

The language here, of course, is designed to paint the agency in a positive light, but the reality has been a grim one. The list of ICE abuses is long and well-documented, and they track the kind of abuses engaged in by local police departments: no-knock raids, wide-spread sweeps, warrantless searches and arrests, intimidation, and so on. The difference is that local law enforcement is accountable to local communities, or at least potentially accountable. ICE answers to no one but the administration, and it also portends the further nationalization of policing.

Immigrant advocates have criticized ICE’s methods for years — going back to at least the Obama administration, saying the agency plays by a different set of rules than other law enforcement entities. ICE denies these critiques, but the sheer number of complaints should at least raise red flags.

In 2016 in New Brunswick, for instance, ICE “swarmed (a) home … saying they were looking for a person by the last name of Rodriguez.” They then “forced their way in with guns drawn,” Fox News Latino reported, and arrested a 21-year-old, German Nieto-Cruz, who had been granted protected status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

I talked with Nieto’s attorney, Oscar Barbosa, in 2016 for a piece for NJ Spotlight. He told me then that the public safety rationale often used by ICE was a rather flimsy one. While he didn’t address the Nieto-Cruz arrest, he called the system rigged.

“There are multiple people detained because of their Facebook pictures, hand signs, and clothes — and referred to ICE by the state Gang Task Force,” Barbosa said in 2016. “Many of these have no arrests, no criminal record.”

Remember, this was under an Obama administration that had sought ways to normalize status for many who lacked status. Trump’s priorities are very different, which has led to the ramping up of arrests and a slackening of Obama efforts to prioritize violent offenders.

As Katrina Eiland, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrant Rights Project, told Pacific Standard magazine in 2018, the agency had “taken off the gloves” and was “going full throttle without regard to consequences” — or sense of proportion. “They don’t have any logical enforcement priorities anymore — everyone is an enforcement priority.” That means that, despite what we hear from Trump and company, all undocumented immigrants are the same — threatening bogeymen. And what do you do when faced with something like that? You defend yourself, often with force.

Immigration often is painted in one of two ways, both relying on the notion that immigrants are “the other.” Immigration-restrictionists describe those migrating here as threats, while many who view themselves as supportive still see them as outsiders and not as extensions of themselves, or ourselves. This allows many well-meaning liberals to view immigration reform as a tangential issue to others they view as more important — the economy, war, climate change. The reality, however, is that migration internationally is being driven by economic displacement, the violence of war, by warlords and gangs, by environmental collapse. American-style capitalism, with its thirst for profit and appetite for scarce resources, creates massive instability that batters vulnerable populations, who then are force to flee their homelands.

At home, the expansion of police power, especially federal police power and the use of the military to help contain mass migrations at our borders, is unlikely to be contained to those communities and will instead become the norm in all communities — echoing the War on Drugs. It’s why calls for ICE to be dismantled should be taken seriously. Reforming the agency and reining it in is not enough. Its existence creates its own imperative to act, meaning immigrants will remain targets, with other marginalized groups slowly moving into the crosshairs.

To paraphrase Martin Niemoller, first they come for the immigrants. Once it’s clear there are no consequences, that the police agencies will face no punishment, they will come for others. It’s inevitable.

Hank Kalet

Hank Kalet is a poet, professor & longtime newsman, who covers economic & other issues for NJ Spotlight and other publications. Check out my Patreon blog @ newspoet4

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Hank Kalet
Hank Kalet’s poetry and journalism have appeared in regional and national publications, including The Progressive, In These Times, the Journal of New Jersey Poets, Big Hammer, Big Scream, The Free Press and elsewhere. He has authored three chapbooks — Suburban Pastoral (Voices of Reason, 2008), Certainties and Uncertainties (Finishing Line Press, 2010), and Stealing Copper (Finishing Line Press, 2015) — and his work was included in Palisades, Parkways & Pinelands: An Anthology of Contemporary New Jersey Poets (Blast, 2016).He is a regular contributor to NJ Spotlight, where he covers poverty, immigration and urban issues, and writes a regular column for The Progressive Populist and the blog Channel Surfing. A long-time editor and editorial writer for the Princeton Packet newspaper chain, he now teaches journalism and writing at Rutgers University and Middlesex County College. He lives in Central Jersey with his wife Annie and their two dogs.