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‘It’s solid fear’: How the impact of Trump’s immigration agenda is already being felt in Minnesota

The administration has found some promises easier to keep than others.

Upon entering office, Trump swiftly moved to act on his immigration agenda.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

From the very beginning of his campaign in 2015 to his election as president, Donald Trump was most clear, forceful, and consistent on one issue: immigration.

His core ideas on immigration — stopping refugee resettlement, building the border wall, removing undocumented immigrants — were unambiguous, and resonated deeply with his supporters.

Upon entering office, Trump swiftly moved to act on that agenda, but seven months in, his administration has found some promises easier to keep than others. On one hand, federal immigration authorities are toughening enforcement, arresting more undocumented immigrants, and slowing refugee resettlement to a near-halt.

On the other, the president’s ban on travel from a group of Muslim-majority countries has been mired in the courts, the fate of the border wall remains uncertain, and so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions continue to defy the president’s wishes that they cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

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The White House’s strident outlook on immigration, combined with an inconsistent enforcement of policy, has created an environment that Minnesota immigration experts describe as confusing, difficult, and anxiety-provoking for the immigrants and would-be immigrants affected by the administration’s policies — and they don’t expect any relief anytime soon.

False starts and clear steps

Trump’s first move to enact his immigration agenda came on January 25, when his administration handed down an executive order “enhancing public safety in the interior of the United States.”

The order, which blasted the prior administration’s handling of illegal immigration, broadened the category of immigrants subject to, and prioritized for, deportation. Under Barack Obama — whose administration deported record numbers of migrants — those with violent criminal records were primarily targeted for removal.  Under Trump, people convicted of nonviolent crimes, charged with a crime, and/or ordered to be removed previously also became prioritized for deportation.

The January 25 order also directed the Department of Homeland Security to hire 10,000 new immigration law enforcement officers and construct the border wall with Mexico; it directed the Department of Justice to withhold federal grant money from sanctuary jurisdictions, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, which do not inquire about an individual’s immigration status, nor do they send any information to ICE.

The order also directed DHS to make public a list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in sanctuary jurisdictions “to better inform the public regarding the public safety threats associated with” those places.

Then, on January 27, the administration handed down the first version of its executive order banning travel to the U.S. for nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, lowering the number of refugees resettled in the U.S., and suspending the refugee resettlement program for three months.

The “travel ban” instantly threw a wrench into the U.S. immigration system, creating confusion for travelers — including legal residents of the U.S. from the affected countries — and drawing court challenges from several states. After a successful court challenge, the administration put out a revised, narrower version of the order in March.

After reviewing another challenge, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that parts of the ban could remain in place, and those with a “bona fide” connection to a U.S. entity could be permitted to enter. The high court is expected to issue a fuller ruling on the order in its fall term, leaving immigration enforcement and legal authorities to sort out the definition of “bona fide” in the interim.

A ‘dramatic switch’

Immigration lawyers in Minnesota say that Trump’s early moves on immigration have had significant impact.

For one, the broadening of deportation priorities and a more aggressive posture at Homeland Security has led to a spike in arrests of immigrants. Nationally, the average number of immigrants arrested per month by ICE has increased by over 40 percent in the first months of the Trump administration versus the last months of Obama’s.

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The number of immigrants arrested in Minnesota and its neighboring states has also increased since the January executive order, according to data released by ICE. For ICE’s St. Paul region, which comprises Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Nebraska, 1,917 people were arrested from February to June 2017, at an average of 383 a month. From October 2016 through January 2017, ICE arrested an average of 256 immigrants per month.

According to Danielle Robinson Briand, an attorney who works at the Center for Immigrant Justice in St. Paul, “there’s more people being taken into custody, so the community is feeling that all around… Also, people are getting swept up in some apprehensions because they happen to be there when ICE pulls over a car or goes to a house.”

Robinson Briand says car-stop scenarios have led to more arrests in particular. “In the Latino community, people often carpool to get to job sites. It’s happened on a number of occasions,” she said. “Unfortunately, because you do see people in the system who, under the Obama administration, would not be in the system, or they would be deemed a nonpriority and ICE would just move on.”

“It’s having psychological impacts on the community for sure,” she adds.

John Keller, the executive director of the Immigration Law Center of Minnesota, calls the policy outlined in the January order a “dramatic switch” from what the Obama and George W. Bush administrations had in place.

Keller said the increase in arrests is “putting fear in the community… that anybody, even if you’ve never had any encounter with law enforcement, if you’ve been working, paying taxes, those things are no longer taken into any kind of account.”

“The new status quo has been to arrest anyone else who [ICE] can find. That’s a pretty dramatic change from what was happening,” Keller explained. “Immigrants, even people who’ve been here a long time, suddenly feel like it’s no-holds-barred. Any kind of random encounter with law enforcement could lead to their detention,”

In particular, the case of Ariel Vences-Lopez looms large among immigration advocates. In May, Vences-Lopez, an undocumented immigrant, was riding a Metro Transit train in Minneapolis when a transit police officer confronted him over fare evasion — and then asked if he was here legally. The incident, which was caught on video and drew national attention, resulted in Vences-Lopez’s detainment. (He was released in July.)

Through immigrant communities, rumors and stories of raids in places like Worthington and Willmar travel fast and far. It has changed people’s behaviors, says Heidi Romanish, an activist with the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee.

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“People are trying to reduce their driving as much as possible,” she says. “People are scared to ride transit, too… It’s not confusion. It’s solid fear.”

Lack of clarity on sanctuary status, refugees

When it comes to the issue of sanctuary jurisdictions, though, there has been confusion. The police forces of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and several other Minnesota municipalities are making clear they are not cooperating with ICE, even as the administration moves to deny them some federal funding because of it.

The situation has been less clear at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office, which is working too closely with ICE in the eyes of immigration advocates, and is not working close enough with the agency in the eyes of the administration.

Some jurisdictions that cooperate closely with the feds will detain an undocumented inmate for a longer period, at ICE’s request, and without an order from a judge. The office of Sheriff Rich Stanek says it will not do that, and Stanek has asserted it’s not his department’s job to enforce federal immigration law — all of which helped Hennepin County land on the administration’s list of “noncompliant” jurisdictions.

But Hennepin County does give ICE some information that other jurisdictions won’t: officers in the sheriff’s department will notify the agency if they have arrested a foreigner. As the Star Tribune reported, that could give ICE agents a few hours to arrive at the booking station and meet with the inmate, which the sheriff’s office allows.

In July, this prompted Rep. Keith Ellison, who represents much of Hennepin County, to send a letter to Stanek, asking for “clarification” to the full extent of his office’s cooperation with ICE.

Clarification, however, has been slow to come to those who work to resettle refugees in Minnesota. Micaela Schuneman, who directs refugee services at the International Institute of Minnesota, describes a climate of confusion as various elements of Trump’s order on travel and refugee resettlement have been implemented, struck down, and then revised in the last seven months.

She described a case where a man who was meant to be resettled in Minnesota but was denied because of the Supreme Court’s language on “bona fide” connection to a U.S. entity — his connection to the U.S. was a friend, not a relative, and so it didn’t pass muster. He had already gotten a plane ticket before Schuneman was notified he would not be able to come to the U.S.

“It impacts our credibility in the community that we can’t explain what is happening to individual cases or when people would come,” she says. “It’s hard to give answers. We can explain the process usually. This year, even explaining the process has been difficult for us. It changes really frequently, even weekly.”

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What has been clear, according to Jane Graupman, the director of the International Institute of Minnesota, is that refugee resettlement has slowed significantly, as the orders intended.

The months of July, August, and September are typically the organization’s busiest for handling arrivals. But this year, Graupman says, “We have no arrivals for August, no arrivals for September. We had seven people in July. Usually, we would have resettled 15o to 200 refugees in those two months.”

“Since the executive order came out in January, we’ve seen a steady decline in arrivals each month,” she said.

A new normal

As immigrant communities and advocates adjust to the new normal of the Trump administration, they’re warily eyeing a future that could bring more difficulties. The pace of deportations in the first months of the Trump administration has been even with that of the Obama administration, but experts point out that is partly due to a backlog in processing deportations in court.

Federal government appropriations for the next fiscal year have yet to be determined, but the administration has called for more ICE agents, more Border Patrol agents, and a general increase in funding for Homeland Security to carry out its mission.

Keller, of the Immigration Law Center, says this gives him pause: major changes have already occurred just with strokes of Trump’s pen, and not through any increase in funding.

“The vision that the president and the administration are laying out, if it were to be coupled with 10,000 new ICE agents and 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, I think it would be much, much worse in terms of what we’re seeing.”

There is also talk that the administration may pursue changes to a significant Obama-era immigration policy, the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which is meant to allow undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. under the age of 15 an opportunity to live in the U.S. without fear of deportation. (Trump has publicly waffled on DACA, once promising to eliminate it, but recently saying it was a hard decision to make.)

There are about 6,000 young people in Minnesota approved under DACA, Keller says, adding that the fate of the program — still untouched by the Trump administration — is the next major uncertainty.