Courtesy La Firma Communications
Saturday, April 7, 2018 | 2 a.m.
A Las Vegas immigrant we will call “Miguel” already had fears about meeting with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials because of worries of being detained.
When word started to spread this week that Cecilia Gomez, a mother of three U.S.-born children who had lived in the country for more than 20 years, had been unexpectedly arrested at a Las Vegas immigration office when she arrived for a green card appointment, those reservations intensified — even with her release from custody Friday.
Gomez is in the United States without documentation, but she isn’t one of the gang members or criminals about whom President Donald Trump has warned the nation. Gomez’s attorney says she’s had no legal trouble.
Trump is taking unprecedented initiative to crack down not only on criminally affiliated immigrants, but also those like Gomez who abide by the law and are contributing members of a community. If it could happen to Gomez, how many others could be at risk of being detained when arriving for a similar appointment?
Miguel, 42, has been in the United States for more than 25 years since traveling north from his hometown of Ciudad Obregón in the Mexican state of Sonora and crossing the border through Tijuana. He considered applying for permanent residency as recently as 2016, when his eldest child, a U.S. citizen, turned 21.
For Miguel, like Gomez and many other undocumented immigrant parents whose children are born in the U.S., the only route to legal residency comes from an adult child, 21 years of age or older, who officially petitions for parents to stay in the country.
Since Trump was elected on a platform of tougher immigration enforcement, Miguel said there was “no way” he would apply for residency or “do anything” that required an appointment with federal immigration officials. He’d rather continue working under-the-table jobs, like restaurant buser and construction worker, to support his family.
“I’m restricted with work and everything, but at least we’re here and we’re able to live a better life,” he said in Spanish. “It’s not worth the risk right now.”
As long as immigrants are not documented and there’s an order for deportation, they are subject to arrest and removal from the country “at any time,” said Lori Haley, spokeswoman for U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“People who have an order of deportation just don’t have a chance of getting citizenship,” Haley said.
In Gomez’s case, the 46-year-old mother was a victim of notario fraud in the late 1990s, local activists said this past week. “Notarios,” who advertise as affordable alternatives to attorneys in helping undocumented immigrants fill out and file citizenship forms, often take the immigrants’ money and cut corners to obtain temporary permits through petitions like asylum.
When federal authorities later realize the immigrant isn’t legitimately seeking asylum and wouldn’t qualify for federal work permits, they initiate deportation proceedings. Gomez was listed by her notario as a Los Angeles resident, and never received federal documents ordering her to appear in court or an official notice of deportation, activists said.
Haley said an order for Gomez’s removal was issued in August 1998 by a federal immigration judge. When Gomez walked into the Las Vegas immigration office March 27, agents were there waiting to serve that order.
“Everyone wants criminals removed from their neighborhoods,” said David Walters, a Las Vegas immigration attorney. “Unfortunately, ICE no longer prioritizes criminals for arrest and have put all undocumented immigrants at risk.”
Walters, who has represented immigrants in Las Vegas since 2007, compared federal immigration enforcement in the Trump administration to a minefield. A mine does not deliberate who steps on it and what damage it causes, Walters said, and the U.S. immigration system also “arbitrarily and indiscriminately” denies benefits to people who unknowingly fail to qualify for citizenship requirements.
Such arbitrariness in the immigration system makes working with officials less safe and comfortable for immigrants and their families, Walters said.
Laura Barrera, a Bernstein fellow at UNLV’s Immigration Clinic, was contacted by Gomez’s eldest son Yonathan, just minutes after his mother was detained. Barrera, who specializes in defending immigrants, said the practice of seeing law-abiding people detained is “becoming more and more common.”
She acknowledged that now “might not be the best time” for immigrants to apply for citizenship or residency but recommended, if possible, immigrants use an attorney to guide them through the application and meeting process.
While it’s often more expensive, using an attorney can prevent the perils of working with notarios, as experienced by Gomez and her family, or trying to complete the process by themselves. Barrera went as far as to recommend that immigrants go to their appointments with an attorney by their side.
“It’s not just happening here in Las Vegas, it’s all over the country,” Barrera said. “People need to be prepared if they’re going to take that next step.”