HOUSTON (CN) – Alarmed by the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies that make no distinction between hardened criminals and hardworking parents, a Houston group is giving the undocumented tools to avoid being deported.
Samantha and Elizabeth Montaño, 18-and-19-year-old sisters, choked back tears at a recent Houston City Council meeting as they told how their mother had been arrested that morning for not having a driver’s license after a Houston police officer pulled her over for going the wrong way on a one-way street.
“She’s undocumented and I’m afraid that she’s going to be deported, and that was no reason for her to get arrested. She got arrested like a criminal and she’s really a really good mother and I just wanted somebody to hear my voice,” Elizabeth told the City Council.
Oscar Hernandez, 28, is an organizer for the Houston branch of United We Dream, an immigrant-led coalition formed in the mid-2000s to push Congress for legislation to give the undocumented a path to citizenship.
With his bright orange United We Dream T-shirt proclaiming “Undocumented and Here to Stay,” and thick black shoulder-length hair, Hernandez exudes authority.
He brought the sisters to the meeting and huddled closely with them in a pew, reassuring them that his group’s Deportation Defense Team was working to get their mom out of jail. She posted bail later that day.
Hernandez told the City Council the family’s ordeal contradicted Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s claim just a week before that Houston police do not arrest people for not having a driver’s license.
United We Dream, as part of a partnership between the city and groups such as the ACLU of Texas and the Anti-Defamation League, has floated proposals to protect immigrants, and helped pressure Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to fulfill a campaign promise to end collaboration with Immigration and Custom Enforcement in checking county inmates’ status at the jail in downtown Houston.
But Gonzalez said he will still hold any inmate at ICE’s request.
Houston police spokesman Victor Senties said the department has a longstanding policy of not asking people about their immigration status, but not having identification is grounds for arrest.
“If you don’t have any type of identification there’s a possibility you could be taken to jail and booked and fingerprinted, so they can determine who it is they’re dealing with. Because obviously, at that point, an officer would have no indication of who this person is. You don’t know if they have warrants out, you don’t know if they’re a dangerous felon,” Senties said.
He said Houston police accept consular IDs.
But Hernandez, who is from Puebla, Mexico, said Houston police once refused to recognize his consular ID.
Hernandez is one of around 750,000 immigrants, called Dreamers, granted relief from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program started in 2012 by President Barack Obama lets some people brought to the United States as children get work permits, driver’s licenses and protected status in renewable two-year terms.
“I’ve been arrested and sat on the sidewalk because HPD wouldn’t accept my consulate identification. This was before I got my Texas ID [through DACA] and they would have taken me to jail if I hadn’t called friends to pick me up,” Hernandez said in a telephone interview.
He started a Houston landscaping company after graduating from high school, and said that taught him a lot about the city and where its police aggressively patrol minorities.
After receiving his DACA status, Hernandez said, he left the landscaping business to work full time with United We Dream in Houston, helping other youths apply for the program.
Trump unexpectedly left DACA undisturbed despite signing executive orders that put nearly all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States at risk of deportation.
Hernandez, a Houston homeowner, said DACA is not an ideal fix for unauthorized immigrants, and he does not trust that the Trump administration will not try to deport Dreamers.
“What is he saying? That I’m not going to deport you but if I see your mother walking down the street I’ll take her to jail? That’s not OK. I might be a DACA recipient, but DACA isn’t the answer to the issues that the country faces,” Hernandez said.
“I mean, you want to talk about taxation without representation, essentially that’s what DACA is. I can’t vote, I can’t get any benefits, I can’t apply for health insurance unless it’s through my employer. So there are a lot of people who are working with DACA who can’t get any medical benefits because they don’t have an employer who provides health insurance.”
ICE arrested DACA recipient Francisco J. Rodriguez Dominguez, 25, at his Portland, Oregon home Sunday and took him to a jail in Tacoma, Washington because he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI in December. ICE released him on bond Tuesday.
Since Trump took office in January, United We Dream has led several “Know Your Rights” workshops at Houston schools and churches.
At a recent workshop at the group’s headquarters, a converted classroom in the back of an elementary school in the shadow of downtown Houston’s skyline, workshop leader Ana MacNaught warned a dozen people sitting around her in plastic chairs that immigration agents sometimes approach in plainclothes.
MacNaught, 34, said in Spanish that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents cannot detain anyone without a warrant and that any immigrant confronted by a nosy ICE agent should firmly ask the officer two questions: “Am I being arrested? Can I go?”
MacNaught stepped into the shoes of an ICE agent for a conversation with a short-haired bespectacled middle-aged woman who played an immigrant.
“Hello, señora. How are you? What’s your name? Where are you from?” MacNaught said rapidly.
“Am I under arrest?” the woman said, smiling, but clearly uneasy.
“No, but we need to know your immigrant status.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“I need to see your papers authorizing you to be in this country.”
“Can I go?”
“Yes, you can,” MacNaught said to a collective exhale and applause from the audience.
“That’s really hard,” the woman said.
MacNaught warned the group to tell their children not to open the door for strangers because ICE agents can enter homes without a warrant if they’re invited in.
Teresita Alvarado told MacNaught at the workshop that she doesn’t know anyone in her southwest Houston neighborhood who is not undocumented, and worries about who would take care of her grandchildren if she’s deported to Guatemala.
United We Dream tells immigrants to give power of attorney to a U.S. citizen, authorizing them to have access to and close a deportee’s bank accounts, manage their utilities and pay their home lease or mortgage.
MacNaught, who agreed to sign a power of attorney for Alvarado, also said it’s important for immigrants to make connections with people in their communities, for instance, members of their church and or their children’s teachers, so if they are facing deportation, this network can vouch for them.
“We want people to organize around their communities and themselves so they can create more momentum around any given case,” MacNaught said in an interview.
Alicia Vasquez, 26, said she came to the workshop because she counsels Dreamers at her job with a company that places high school students in internships.
Though she is a fifth-generation Texan, Vasquez said the Trump administration’s policies have made her concerned about returning to the United States after an upcoming trip to Mexico. She said every time she has traveled internationally, five or six times, she has been singled out for extra questioning by U.S. Customs agents.
“I know in my brain that legally I’ll have every right to enter. Now I’m getting the feeling that maybe it’s not all right, maybe it’s a privilege,” she said.
MacNaught, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said Trump’s policies coupled with her childhood in Mexico, where police are often corrupt, make her wary of law enforcement, and particularly uncomfortable when she is driving in front of a police car.
“I see this every day in my work and my personal life. I see people being afraid to go to work, to drop off their kids, and I’m not only talking about our undocumented communities, I’m talking about our Muslim brothers and sisters,” said MacNaught, who manages a Houston community center.
“Really, the rhetoric is about belonging or not; it’s about excluding the ‘unknown other,’” MacNaught said.
She said she knows Mexicans who are considering moving back because they are undocumented and are afraid they will be deported, though they immigrated out of fear for their safety in Mexico.
“So, Trump says he’s going after criminals, but really he’s criminalizing our communities. So that to me is very, very problematic,” she said.