Las Vegas Sun

March 20, 2019

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Forced into shadows: Deportation fears silence undocumented crime witnesses, victims


Wade Vandervort

Bliss Requa-Trautz poses for a photo at Greenspun Media Group’s studio, Monday, July 2, 2018.

Editor’s note: The names of the undocumented individuals in this story have been changed for fear of retaliation against them and their families.

Beneath the Mojave’s blue-velvet night, Allen snapped open two black folding chairs and placed them in his parents’ driveway between the vehicles of family and friends. Exhausted after his shift as a porter at a local casino, he slowly lowered himself onto one of the chairs.

Allen, who is in his mid-20s, is the eldest son of Azucena and Tata — Allen’s sister is in her early 20s and has a family of her own, and his youngest brother is studying nursing at Nevada State College.

All three of Tata and Azucena’s children are protected by DACA, brought to the U.S. about 16 years ago on the back of a truck from Oaxaca, Mexico. Allen’s parents arrived two years before the children, hoping to make money to support their family.

In those first two years, a border divided Azucena and Tata from their three children. That same border threatens to divide them again and is where more than 2,300 children were recently separated from their parents as a result of the zero-tolerance policy enforcement enacted by the Trump administration.

Those families left their countries for many reasons — poverty, natural disasters and violence — but they crossed the border with the same rationale Tata and Azucena used so many years ago. They wanted their children to study, be good citizens and have a better life.

“I consider myself American; I was raised here; I grew up as an American; my wife is an American,” Allen said. He has two young boys and a third on the way who are U.S. citizens. He’s married to his high school sweetheart.

Family and friends trickle into Tata and Azucena’s house to eat, dance and talk, celebrating the couple’s release from Nevada Southern Detention Center in Pahrump. Allen stays outside and talks of the night his father called Metro seeking help.

• • •

In the same house where friends and family were celebrating, Azucena’s and Tata’s tempers flared a few months prior and spilled into a fight that tore the couple away from their family and initiated their deportation case.

Allen says it was about another woman — Azucena was jealous and slapped Tata. Allen’s younger brother stepped between his parents, pushing his father, and Tata pushed back. In an effort to keep things from escalating, Tata called 911, and Metro Police arrived. As is common in domestic disputes where both parties are found at fault, they arrested Tata and Azucena on charges of domestic violence for a 12-hour hold at the Las Vegas Detention Center.

It was there that Tata and Azucena were handed over to ICE.

• • •

The family struggled to pay the more than $17,000 in arrest fees — bond for ICE, a separate bond for Metro and legal costs — but Allen recognizes that things could be worse. At least Tata and Azucena had family and friends who could pitch in and children who speak English and are old enough to find a lawyer.

“I’m glad we’re older now, because I can’t imagine what kids — you know, little kids who watch their parents get deported — go through. And there are a lot of people who can’t come up with the money to be released,” Allen said. “I can’t imagine how it is for people that don’t have any resources; they don’t have any help. There are a lot of people who don’t really speak English … that wouldn’t know what to do when an attorney tries to help and asks for affidavits or property ties.”

He’s not wrong, and his fears are not isolated. For 8 percent of undocumented immigrants in Southern Nevada, each day is a choice between reporting crimes committed against them and risking deportation or remaining silent about their victimization.

“Undocumented immigrants have a lot of fear in calling 911. They have fear about cooperating with police, about being witnesses to crime,” said Michael Kagan, law professor and UNLV immigration clinic director. “I want to encourage people to call the police, but Sheriff [Joseph] Lombardo and Las Vegas Metro have given a very unclear message to the community, and the trend lines of what I see on everyday cases are moving Metro closer and closer to ICE.”

In 2016, Sheriff Lombardo renewed Metro’s Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with ICE, allowing participating police officers to conduct immigration enforcement activities with the supervision of ICE officers.

Metro’s jurisdiction is one of 78 across the nation that participate in these MOAs granted through Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The optional agreement allows ICE to access records of undocumented immigrants who may have been booked on charges but not actually convicted of crimes, similar to Tata and Azucena’s situation.

The 287(g) agreement gives Metro access to another system to cross-reference individuals in its custody, which is why Metro elected to participate in the agreement, said Jacinto Rivera, a public information officer for Metro. The agreement is in effect until summer 2019.

Law enforcement officers do have discretion when booking individuals on charges, but that discretion leads to inconsistencies and an environment in which one undocumented immigrant may interact safely with police and avoid deportation, while another faces the deportation process.

In 2012, Allen was pulled over. He had a warrant for an expired ticket, and the officer brought him to the Clark County Detention Center.

In his late teens at the time, Allen worked construction alongside his father so his hands and fingerprints were scratched, scarred and could not be run through the system.

During an interview, an ICE officer told him he may be deported. He asked Allen if he planned to go to school and was impressed with Allen’s English and work ethic.

Then the officer told Allen he never wanted to see him again, tore up the report and let him walk out of the door.

Allen has since married an American citizen, works steadily, is raising children and plans to enroll in college.

That was six years ago, when ICE officers had prosecutorial discretion. One of the Trump administration’s first actions eliminated that in 2017.

“I say this with a lot of regret—I want to encourage people to call the police and work with the police. Most of the police officers I’ve worked with are quite professional, but I can’t assure people that you won’t end up in the hands of ICE if you talk to Las Vegas Metro,” Kagan said.

Metro stated that they only participate in the jail-based program through 287(g), and an individual must be arrested before Metro can run them through the ICE database and place a detainer on them. If the individual arrested was born anywhere outside the U.S., they are run through the program. But even Metro recognizes flaws in system.

“People who are arrested by a police officer are technically innocent until they go to court and a judge or jury sees all the evidence and hears all the testimony,” Rivera said. “The charge might be dropped because there’s no evidence.”

• • •

The breadth of crimes committed against the undocumented community in the valley include violent crimes, labor and financial crimes, theft and petty street crime — all crimes that can also affect the larger population.

“Undocumented immigrants are an intrinsic part of the fabric of Southern Nevada but often feel that they have no recourse and that no one would protect them if they’re abused in a small way or a large way,” Kagan said.

Informal day laborers who often fulfill temporary work needs in specialties such as construction, landscaping and moving face exploitation at the hands of employers, according to the 2018 Day Labor in Las Vegas report. The research found that many of the workers were victims of wage theft and exposed to work site hazards.

Wage theft, the nonpayment of wages for the work completed, is a common occurrence for day laborers in the Valley, with 33 percent of those surveyed reporting at least one instance in the last two months with a median amount $160 and a maximum amount of $2,000.

Employers will use an undocumented immigrant’s status as a reason for paying them less than the agreed amount or not paying them at all, said Bliss Requa-Trautz, director of Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center. Requa-Trautz co-wrote the 2018 labor report, which not only explored the exploitation of day laborers in the valley, but also the interaction between day laborers and Metro.

“Day laborers are some of the most visible migrant workers, and that’s true across the country,” Requa-Trautz said. “In that respect, they’re often the frontlines for all kinds of different abuses due to the vulnerability.”

In 2006, Los Angeles native Eugene Nunnery terrorized the Las Vegas Latino community, targeting day laborers. Nunnery murdered three people, including Saul Nunez Suastegui, 29, and Antonio Perez-Martinez, 40. Additionally, Nunnery attempted to kill at least 11 people and committed several robberies during his crime spree.

According to a 2010 Las Vegas Sun article, “Police said Nunnery told them that his group targeted Hispanics for the robberies mainly because they were less likely to report the crimes to police.”

In addition to a death sentence, Nunnery is serving other sentences totaling about 270 years, all running consecutively, according to a Sun article.

“The day laborer workforce is comprised largely of immigrants (94 percent), and the problems day laborers experience with police are exacerbated by police involvement in federal immigration enforcement,” according to the labor report.

When day laborers were asked in this report if they’d reach out to the police after wage theft, 47 percent said they were worried that officers would ask about their immigration status or the status of someone they know.

“The rate at which people reported fear of engaging with law enforcement here in Las Vegas does parallel a national study from 2006 on Latino fear of reporting to police regardless of immigration status. It’s a measured national issue, and it’s a measured local issue,” Requa-Trautz said.

Requa-Trautz encourages people to report crimes to the police but understands their fears and notes that this affects the safety of the larger Las Vegas community.

“When people are unwilling to report crimes that they’re a victim of, those same perpetrators are free to go on and continue to commit [further] crimes. When they’re afraid to report crimes they’re a witness to, those same perpetrators may not be prosecuted because the people who can provide the most relevant testimony have been deterred from engaging with law enforcement,” Requa-Trautz said.

Police chiefs in Los Angeles, Houston, Salt Lake and Frederick County, Maryland, noted a worrisome trend where the wider Latino and immigrant populations are reporting crimes less frequently, according to a 2018 Immigrant Impacts in 287(g) report by the Center for American Progress.

“The biggest thing for an undocumented person is to just stay off of ICE’s radar,” Kagan said. “If interaction with local police puts you on ICE’s radar, it becomes a good reason, a very rational reason, for a person who is just going to work every day and taking care of their family to become fearful of the police, and when that happens it becomes much harder for an urban police department to ensure everyone’s public safety.”

This chilling effect happens beyond the undocumented community and affects those who are American citizens as well, according to that same report.

Approximately 22 percent of the Las Vegas Valley is foreign born with a vast range of immigration statuses. Many of these individuals live in mixed-status families where one or more of their family members has a green card or citizenship.

And nationally, there are more than 10.8 million people who live in a household with an undocumented individual, including almost 6.2 million children under the age of 18 (8 percent of all youth).

For young American children of an undocumented parent involved in a domestic violence situation, these trends can be especially difficult, said Gabrielle Jones, Deputy Directing Attorney of the Family Justice Project at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

The Family Justice Project has a team of lawyers dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence navigate not only the criminal justice system but the immigration justice system as well.

“Even if you took immigration out, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are often reluctant to go to authorities or are afraid about how they’ll be treated. Throw in fears about immigration issues, and it can really tip the balance in favor of the criminal,” Kagan said. “There’s been a real decline in Latinas reporting sexual assault, and nobody thinks that’s because there’s less sexual assault happening.”

For some victims of crime who are undocumented, there’s a pathway to citizenship through a U-Visa, given to victims of violent crimes who collaborate with a law enforcement agency. But the backlog by the federal government, the collaboration from local law enforcement and the strict requirements make it difficult to obtain. Jones said that the majority of cases handled by the Family Justice Project deal with U-Visas.

Victims of non-violent crimes don’t have the option to apply for a U-Visa.

“Any policies that make immigrants more scared about calling the police are really good for criminals,” Kagan said. “They’re good for abusive husbands, they’re good for rapists because it makes a population of people feel that they can’t go to the police for help.”

Regardless of immigration status, when Metro receives a domestic violence call they’re required to book someone on charges, Kagan said.

“There is no guarantee that the person that called won’t be taken in. The police on the scene make a judgment on who was the aggressor, and once someone is booked in the jail, they will be screened for immigration, and that is how they will be sent to ICE,” he said. “Even if charges are later dropped, once you’ve been flagged for ICE, it’s too late.”

• • •

For Allen’s parents, one call for help marked the day of their family’s separation, and the interaction with Metro has affected their family’s perception of the police.

“They don’t want to be anywhere near a cop right now. They don’t want to give out any info just because they’re so scared. They have never seen the inside of a jail before this,” Allen said.

There are not many pathways to citizenship for Azucena and Tata, despite owning a home in Southern Nevada, paying taxes through an ITIN number, having children and American-born grandchildren nearby and the political instability in the states surrounding Oaxaca, Mexico.

“I don’t know why they didn’t just deport them,” Allen said, but he’s grateful for the time he gets to spend with his parents as their case works through immigration courts.

Maybe his parents can obtain asylum. Maybe the contracting company that employed his father for 10 years will sponsor a work visa. But the best option for them might just be to voluntarily leave and wait until one of their children become naturalized and can sponsor them, Allen said.

“That means I won’t get to see my parents for five, six years, maybe longer,” Allen said. “They’ve raised us here; they have six grandkids, who they love more than anything in the world, and they don’t want to leave them. That’s why they don’t want to go back. They won’t see us or their grandkids for who knows how long.”

Finished sharing his parents’ story, Allen closed the folding chairs and walked into the light, festive atmosphere of friends and family chatting, dancing and eating.

He may be shouldering the weight of his parents’ looming deportation, but for a few hours he can just enjoy their company.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.