For Amanda Morales, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who has taken refuge in a New York church with her family, it’s a question of life or death. Identified in an ICE database after a driving offense, she is subject to deportation and a return to a homeland where she believes her children’s lives would be in danger.
Many undocumented immigrants living in the U.S believe so-called “sanctuary cities” provide protection against the heightened risk of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But are they wrong?
Sanctuary cities, which some prefer to define as “safe cities,” limit their cooperation with immigration enforcement agents in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation. (They still turn over those who have committed serious crimes.)
But here’s the reality: if an undocumented individual, or an immigrant with a green card or temporary work visa, comes into contact with law enforcement, he or she is entered into a database system accessible by the federal agency, which acts effectively as a guidepost to locate individuals who might otherwise have escaped notice.
Under the Trump administration, which has stepped up the already-aggressive policies begun under the Obama administration of detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants found to have broken US laws, the fate of individuals who may have committed offenses at some point during their stay in the US has become even more uncertain.
Take, for example, Amanda Morales.
A mother of three living without documents in New York City for 14 years, she was involved in a minor accident while she was driving in 2012. When a police officer checked her documents, she had no driver’s license—a typical predicament for undocumented immigrants who fear making themselves known to authorities.
Once her name was automatically entered into a database, ICE was alerted.
Today, she’s a wanted fugitive, living in a church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her three children—two girls and a little boy, who were born in the US and are US citizens—where (she hopes) she’ll be protected from ICE agents.
Morales’ case is not unusual.
Significantly, traffic stops, particularly driving while under the influence, were the number one reason undocumented persons were deported in 2017.
The family has made Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz, a self-declared “sanctuary church,” into a home of their own, where they eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, play, and essentially try to lead normal lives.
The children race around the pews while Amanda talks with church staff and volunteers.
But when the congregation leaves the church at night, Morales becomes sad and depressed.
“I like the hustle and bustle of church during the day”, she told The Crime Report. “There are people singing, piano lessons being taught, people coming in and out to pray, and volunteers and staff working here.”
Amanda does not leave the church for fear of deportation, making the small library into a sort of prison.
“I don’t open the door for people I don’t know,” she said. “I’m scared.”
All because she was driving without a license.
There are several states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses. New York is just not one of them.
In California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont and Washington, immigrants can provide a foreign birth certificate, a foreign passport or a consular card, and evidence of current residency in the state.
According to Amanda Armenta, an expert on policies and practices of local law enforcement, if you don’t have a license, you are more likely to be arrested because you are “a suspicious person.”
“Once arrested, even the most liberal and progressive police departments cannot stop ICE from using criminal justice content for whatever they want to use it for,” she acknowledged.
“But obviously there are things police departments can do to help ICE more or less,” she continued.
“Unfortunately for most police departments, the ways they funnel people to deportation are invisible to them,” she said. “Police departments either don’t know… or choose not to know.”
Whether or not the New York Police Department knows it’s aiding immigration enforcement with the names of illegal immigrants, the number of Latin American, Hispanic, and African-American persons they pull over during traffic stops remains high.
In 2017, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 10,861 times. Some 58 percent of those people were black and 23 percent were Latino.
Only nine percent were white.
In conservative states, traffic stops are even more of a worry for undocumented immigrants, who may be arrested by ICE officials on the side of the road, said Armenta, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Those kinds of things are ‘illegal detentions,'” she said, “but (they) still happen.”
Ordinarily, that would not happen—or should not happen—in a city with a sanctuary policy, where police have been specifically told not to inquire about immigration status or to inform ICE about these run-of-the-mill police stops, she noted.
Critics argue that this is precisely what has contributed to cases in which undocumented individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes are allowed back on the “streets” only to commit new crimes.
But immigration advocates point to statistics that show undocumented individuals commit far fewer crimes than legal residents.
But there’s another side to the story.
Driving without a license, as in Morales’ case, is a misdemeanor offense. For a U.S. citizen or legal resident, the penalties can be stiff. An offender in New York State could be fined between $75 and $300, but could also be imprisoned for up to 15 days.
When an undocumented immigrant is convicted of a similar offense, however, the penalty is effectively deportation—not necessarily because of an assessment that the individual is a threat to the community, but simply on the grounds that he or she is in the U.S. illegally.
A recent session at the federal immigration court on Varick Street in New York, presided by immigration judge Mimi Tsankov, made that starkly clear.
The defendant stood before the judge with three Driving Under the Influence (DUI) convictions on his record. (His last DUI in November was an aggravated DUI.) His lawyer argued he would stop drinking, go to rehab, and never drive again.
The judge wasn’t buying it. She denied a bond hearing, and declared that whether or not the defendant is deported will be decided at a later appeal court date.
As I sat in the back with the defendant’s family, the defendant’s eleven year old son was crying on his aunt’s shoulder, unsure if his father would be deported to Mexico, or remain in the states to watch him grow up.
The defendant’s lawyer was not surprised by the outcome. But he was disheartened.
“Seeing the little boy cry made me want to break down in tears,” the lawyer, who asked that his name, and his client’s name, remain anonymous, said after the hearing.
The ICE officer I interviewed later that day, who also asked that his identity remain anonymous, agreed with Judge Tsankov.
“Criminals who are set free and released into the streets are a danger to the public,” he said simply.
An Asian American in his mid-30s, whose family immigrated legally, the agent said that “the goal of immigration enforcement is to catch criminals, and sanctuary cities hinder law enforcement’s ability to do so.”
“Sanctuary cities are a horrible idea… they make for the harboring of criminals,” he added.
For individuals like the defendant in Judge Tsankov’s court and Amanda Morales, the notion of “sanctuary” has little relevance.
According to Katrina Long, a senior immigration attorney at Cella and Associates, LLC, it’s a common misconception that undocumented immigrants are being deported for minor crimes, such as traffic violations and low level drug offenses.
The fact is, she argued, they are being deported because they are here illegally.
“When you cross border… you know you have no standing in U.S,” she told The Crime Report. “When you overstay your visa, you know you’re doing an unlawful act.”
Immigrants are being identified for minor crimes, she said, but at the end of the day, they are being deported because they have no legal standing here.
However, Long did acknowledge that for most undocumented immigrants, such as Amanda Morales and her family, being hunted by ICE officials is better than living in their homelands, which may be impoverished and violence stricken.
“If the quality of life improved in immigrant’s home countries, they wouldn’t be drawn to United States,” said Long, citing the gang violence perpetrated by drug cartels as one of the principal drivers of undocumented immigration from Central American nations like Guatemala.
“We can’t expect to solve immigration issues in the U.S and for everything to be perfect—no problem is isolated.”
Once identified on U.S. soil, an undocumented immigrant has some rights under existing laws, she said. Some may be eligible to have deportation proceedings cancelled if a child or family member is a U.S. citizen.
According to Long, an individual in those circumstances can apply for a green card, on the grounds that a dependent would suffer if he or she is removed from the country.”U” visas are also available for victims of crime who are willing to assist authorities with catching the perpetrator.
But these legal protections offer slim comfort to women like Morales, who fear taking the risk of subjecting themselves to a legal process they do not understand, and which could end in disaster—especially if they have been identified in a data base for a criminal offense.
For those among the 1.2 million undocumented immigrants living in New York who do not qualify for cancellation of removal, and who have exhausted all the mercies of the justice system, seeking refuge in a local church seems like the best alternative.
“Living in this church is much better than living in Guatemala,” Morales said, adding that in her country gangs preyed on anyone who they believed had money, in some cases kidnapping childen for ransom.
“You cannot even sleep thinking about people coming to get your kids,” she said.
“At least,” she added, “in the church you can sleep safe.”
But whether she can remain indefinitely as a fugitive—even in a city that offers itself as a “sanctuary”—is an open question.
Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers comments.