Deceptive Tactics Used to Round Up Immigrant Women and Children, Advocates Say

A new report uncovers disturbing tactics used during raids in Georgia.

A young girl at an immigrant rights protest in Atlanta. (Photo: Tim Brown/Flickr)

Jan 31, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

They didn’t have search warrants, and they lied about their identity and intentions to get inside, banging on front doors before the sun was up. That’s how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents gained entrance to the homes of immigrant women and children in Atlanta this month, according to a new report from the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The controversial immigration raids, which began Jan. 2 in Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and other states, have resulted in the detention of 121 immigrants, according to the Department of Homeland Security, and triggered protests across the country. The detained are mostly women and children from Central America’s Northern Triangle, which includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Of those rounded up, 77 were deported within three days without ever speaking to a lawyer, despite available pro bono legal assistance at the detention center, according to the report. Multiple women reported asking to speak to a lawyer and being denied by ICE agents.

“These women and children are mostly asylum seekers who fled trauma and violence in their own countries,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They were complying with ICE orders of supervision. There’s no need to conduct raids this way.”

Through interviews with women at a detention center in Texas and their families in the Atlanta area, Graybill and her coauthor, Eunice Cho, learned disturbing details about the ICE agents’ tactics. On at least two occasions, ICE agents gained entry by telling women they were police officers searching for a criminal, then showing them a picture of an African American man—the fake alleged suspect. In other instances, agents said they needed to check ankle shackles worn by some of the women. The shackles are sometimes part of ICE supervision orders that allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country while obtaining legal status.

“We were treated like criminals,” Ana Lizeth Mejia Gutierrez told the report’s authors. Gutierrez fled Honduras in 2014 with her 10-year-old son and lived with her aunt. “I don’t understand why. I had gone to my ICE supervision appointments, and even had an appointment scheduled in a few days.”

The report also contends that ICE agents failed to present warrants before entering and searching homes, in some instances telling residents who asked to see them to “be quiet.”

“Allowing practices like this is a really big problem for everybody, not just immigrants,” Graybill said. “It’s the same Fourth Amendment that protects all of us. If it can be breached in this way for immigrants, it can be breached for others as well.”

Though immigrants in civil deportation proceedings have no legal right to counsel, Graybill said the government has an obligation to respect a detainee’s request to speak to a lawyer. In this case, some of the women interviewed were prevented from calling legal representatives. Rosa Vargas Morales of Guatemala was told by an ICE agent “not to make him mad” when she asked to speak with her lawyer. Other women were allegedly forced to sign legal documents they couldn’t read or understand because they were only provided in English.

“While ICE has not been given the opportunity to review the report, the agency is committed to enforcing our nation’s immigration laws effectively and sensibly, in line with its stated values,” wrote ICE press secretary Gillian Christensen in an email to TakePart. “ICE conducts targeted enforcement actions in full accordance with federal law and agency policy.”

The report, which is publicly available online, was also emailed to ICE in TakePart’s press request.

To Graybill, the raids and subsequent detention and deportations are at odds with the Obama administration’s increasing focus on criminal justice reform efforts.

“You’ve got this recognition from Obama that mass incarceration is a huge problem yet this simultaneous willingness to colossally expand the immigration detention system,” Graybill told TakePart. “They’re not recognizing the categorical inconsistency of what they’re doing.”

To understand the intersection of the immigration and criminal justice systems, it helps to know that both the Department of Homeland Security and the federal Bureau of Prisons contract with the same private corrections companies to run immigration detention centers and prisons throughout the country. Particularly in Southern states, illegal reentry cases involving immigrants have begun to dominate courts’ civil dockets.

“We need to work across communities to point out the many forms of mass incarceration,” Graybill said. “Private prison companies don’t care who’s in their prison in this rapacious hunt for bodies that keeps their business afloat—whether it’s Latin American women or African American men.”