The sweeping immigration orders being put into effect by the Trump administration are drawing concern from Minnesota immigration attorneys, and from some church leaders who have vowed to offer sanctuary to those affected.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that the new measures don’t herald a mass deportation, but more than a dozen churches across the state have already pledged to offer sanctuary to individuals and families facing deportation.
“This is not just about people somewhere out there far away,” said the Rev. Lisa Friedman of Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul. “This is about our neighbors, our fellow students at our schools, our community wherever we are.” Some churches are already hosting families or individuals, she said.
The immigration executive orders were signed by President Donald Trump last month, but two memos issued Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) explained how they will be implemented.
The orders list seven categories of immigrants who will now be prioritized for deportation, including anyone convicted of or charged with a crime. One of the categories includes anyone deemed a threat to public safety by an immigration officer, essentially opening the door for deportation of any immigrant in the country illegally.
The orders also call for the hiring of 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, 5,000 Border Patrol agents, 500 air and marine agents and the construction of new detention facilities and a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Through the ISAIAH faith coalition, 15 congregations have vowed to become sanctuaries and nine other congregations said they would offer other support. Pastor Eliot Howard of Linden Hills United Church of Christ said the members of his congregation voted to become a sanctuary church on Sunday.
“Initially this was seen as something that could possibly happen to people,” he said. “Now it just feels more and more likely.”
Howard said the church needs several weeks of renovation and would like to get more legal advice before comfortably lodging an immigrant, but would take in someone immediately if necessary. Howard and Friedman said their congregations were motivated to act by their Christian principles.
Immigration attorney John Keller of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota said he was disheartened to see the order’s treatment of children who are fleeing violent places. Those cases, said Keller, often involve children fleeing gang violence in countries where the local governments are so overwhelmed that they have essentially given up trying to protect people.
The U.S. government in the past has granted special protections to children who arrive alone at the border, classifying them as “unaccompanied alien children.” Some 155,000 have been apprehended at the southern border in the past three years, according to the DHS.
The new measures issued by the DHS on Tuesday point out that about 60 percent of those children end up with a parent living illegally in the United States. It called for a review of such cases because the children would no longer meet the definition of “unaccompanied.”
If the review meant the child lost the protections afforded them as “unaccompanied alien children,” it could expedite their return to the country they were fleeing, said Keller.
“They’re not seeking to enter illegally; they are seeking protection,” he said, calling the new measures “the definition of mean-spiritedness and cruelty.”
Keller predicted a wave of litigation will result from the new measures.
The order exempts people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, or DACA, created by the Obama administration in 2012, which says children 15 or younger who have lived in the country for at least five years, attend school or graduated from high school and who avoid criminal prosecution are not a priority for deportation.
That exemption brought relief to Karen Velez, a 20-year-old student. Covered by DACA, she now believes the Trump administration won’t issue another executive order calling off DACA.
“At this moment, I’m not worried,” said Velez, who was born in Mexico City. “We are a huge help to this economy and to this country.”
Tuesday’s order also calls for the expansion of a federal program known as 287(g) that deputizes local police officers to enforce immigration rules. Several police departments contacted Tuesday, including those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, said they don’t plan to start deporting people or asking for someone’s immigration status.
Henry Jimenez, the executive director of the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs, a nonpartisan advisory group to state government, said the memo left him with more questions than answers.
“There’s almost this assumption that immigrants are a criminal threat to our safety and security,” Jimenez said. “We don’t believe that.”
He pointed to research by the Urban Institute think tank, which has conducted immigration studies in the past.
“There’s anecdotal evidence that the 287(g) program has led to strained relationships between the state and local law enforcement and the local communities,” Jimenez said. “We feel it’s important that people feel they can trust in local law enforcement regardless of their legal status.”
The new executive order won’t change community policing in Worthington, a southwest Minnesota city bustling with immigrants who work in the local pork processing plant.
Immigration law is a federal civil matter, said Worthington Police Capt. Kevin Flynn. “We don’t enforce federal law,” he said.
Latino residents made up more than one third of Worthington’s population of 13,000 residents in the last census, and the community has been targeted for large-scale immigration raids in the past.
In 2006, ICE agents descended on the former Swift & Co. packing plant in Worthington and arrested hundreds of workers. The plant lost an estimated tenth of its workforce in a single day. At that time, Swift, which was targeted for simultaneous raids at facilities in six states, saw 1,300 workers detained and deported.
“The key element is not to panic,” Flynn said. “Let’s see what develops.”
Staff writer Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report.