Although Charlottesville is a Welcoming City, undocumented immigrants still live in fear

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Although Charlottesville has declared itself a Welcoming City, undocumented immigrants remain fearful of being deported from their new home, and others work behind the scenes to help them. Staff photo Although Charlottesville has declared itself a Welcoming City, undocumented immigrants remain fearful of being deported from their new home, and others work behind the scenes to help them. Staff photo

The first time Maria’s husband was ticketed for driving without a license was after being stopped because of a broken taillight. The second instance occurred after he hit a deer. 

Both Maria and her husband are undocumented immigrants living in Charlottesville. They settled here after fleeing their native El Salvador due to a civil war and the accompanying wave of gang violence that threatened their family’s lives.

In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, undocumented immigrants most often run into trouble with local governments over their lack of driver’s licenses. Absent a birth certificate, even the most competent driver cannot obtain a driver’s license in Virginia. This turns any minor traffic infraction into a potentially life-ruining event.

“I am always very scared, I live in fear every day,” says Maria. “Every day we leave the house, we don’t know what could happen.”

We all know Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States January 20. But since he was elected as president in an Electoral College win over Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory, communities across America have been divided by how best to protect their immigrant populations. During his campaign, Trump promised to round up undocumented immigrants and block Muslims from entering the country in a manner that Eva Schloss, stepsister of Anne Frank, compared in Newsweek to Adolf Hitler’s purge of Jews from Germany.

One often-discussed option is the idea of becoming a sanctuary city. Sanctuary cities officially declare their refusal to gather information about the immigration status of people through traffic stops and other routine interactions between civilians and city employees. But Trump has pledged to cut off all federal funding to communities that become sanctuary cities. What would this mean for Charlottesville?

According to Charlottesville City Treasurer Jason Vandever, in fiscal year 2015 the city received $24,083,689 from the federal government, “both directly and passed through state agencies.” Roughly $10,532,325 was provided by the Department of Transportation alone. The Department of Agriculture contributed $2,712,498 for food assistance, including the school lunch program. And millions more are provided by the Department of Education, including $100,000 for adult English literacy and civics education intended to prepare immigrants for naturalization.

No president of the United States has the sole authority to suspend allocation of money previously budgeted by Congress to municipalities, including Charlottesville. But Trump has nevertheless insisted he will do this. With his party in control of majorities in the House and Senate and an anticipated majority on the Supreme Court, it isn’t clear that any legal violations by the administration would be met with consequences.

Maria taught math and physics in El Salvador, but her certification as a teacher, and as a competent driver, is not recognized in America. Here, she cleans houses. And she takes the bus everywhere because she is afraid of what might eventually happen if she drives a car.

If her husband is stopped a third time and charged for driving without a license, he will be taken to jail, and his immigration status could automatically be shared with federal authorities. That can result in being deported.

The means of deportation after arrest for driving without a license would typically be an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detainer. When a prisoner is about to be released from jail (after bail has been paid or the charges have been dismissed), federal immigration authorities are notified that an undocumented immigrant is being held in jail and will be out on a particular date.

Representatives of the Charlottesville and Albemarle County police departments have expressed in community workshops with Sin Barreras, a local nonprofit that provides services to undocumented immigrants in the Charlottesville community, that they do not want their officers to inquire as to the immigration status of people they come in contact with. But in practice, this unofficial policy has not always been followed.

“We know from the Hispanic community…there are officers who do not follow those informal policies and do ask immigration [questions] even though perhaps they shouldn’t,” says Frank Sullivan, a Sin Barreras board member. “We think it’s important, and we would encourage the city of Charlottesville, city managers and Board of Supervisors of Albemarle County that this will be a welcoming city, such as Santa Fe, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where police have a policy not to ask immigration questions.”

Some of these cities, including Santa Fe and New York, have been unabashed about declaring themselves sanctuary cities. But these are cities in states that do not have Virginia’s Dillon Rule, a set of legal precedents that prevents Virginia municipalities from passing laws other than those from a set of options presented by the commonwealth’s government. New York City can levy an income tax, or nearly any other source of revenue it wishes, to compensate for lost federal or state income. Charlottesville cannot.

Undocumented issues

Sin Barreras was created five years ago and operated until 2016 as an all-volunteer organization (it now has one part-time paid staffer). In its tiny office on the second floor of the Jefferson School City Center, its members advise immigrants about legal matters, access to health care and any issues they have while trying to adjust to life in an unfamiliar country with a government they find difficult to understand. It is the only organization in Charlottesville devoted primarily to assisting undocumented immigrants—in 2015 Sin Barreras responded to 1,600 phone calls, including emergency calls late in the evening.

One call was from a Mexican woman who explained through tears that her son was taken from a court appearance directly to jail and she didn’t know where he was. The nonprofit used its contacts with the police to locate him, and assured the mother her son was well and would be home in four days. And the group has helped more than 200 people who were brought to the U.S. as children receive DACA status, a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit, through an Obama administration policy.

But the group’s No. 1 issue is undocumented immigrants’ lack of access to Virginia driver’s licenses. The commonwealth does not issue licenses to undocumented immigrants, even if they can pass a driving test and provide proof of identity through documents such as birth certificates, passports or driver’s licenses from their home countries. The lack of a driver’s license means that a bad bulb in a taillight or a missed turn signal can suddenly turn an ordinary trip to work into a nightmare. Driving without a license is illegal, and multiple offenses will result in a trip to jail, where ICE might intercept and deport them.

“I know that our jail board has taken a position that they won’t hold people on ICE detainers,” says Kristin Szakos, a Charlottesville city councilor. “They don’t have to—after their time is up, they are released.”

This means that the local jail releases immigrants immediately on a judge’s order, rather than holding them until federal authorities come to get them.

The Charlottesville City Council issued a proclamation on October 5, 2015, declaring itself a “welcoming city.” The proclamation establishes no specific policy responsibilities for the city or its employees. Curiously, Charlottesville is not listed as a participant on the website of Welcoming America, a nonprofit that sets standards and guidelines for what are formally considered to be welcoming cities.

Charlottesville’s ‘Welcoming City’ resolution

Advancing equity and inclusion is critical to the success of our community and our nation. Our diversity is the source of our pride and our prosperity.

As political rhetoric on the national level has become heated and divisive, and with an increase in hateful and dangerous speech and acts locally and nationwide, many of our neighbors have experienced fear and anxiety.

At this time we must strongly reaffirm our commitment to diversity and to fostering an atmosphere of inclusion.

We reject hate speech, hate crimes, harassment, racial bias, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti immigrant discrimination, and harmful bias and discrimination in all forms.

We welcome all people and recognize the rights of individuals to live their lives with dignity, free of fear and discrimination because of their faith, race, sexual orientation or identity, national origin or immigration status.

We believe the public sector has a critical role in ensuring the public good and pledge to continue our work in making our services and programs accessible and open to all.

Even Welcoming America’s technical standards for a “welcoming city” are a bit hazy. The group calls for tolerance, access to local government services and a general feeling of inclusiveness toward newcomers. A search of its website for the words “ICE detainer” yields zero results. The phrase “driver’s license” only appears once in its digital archives. Welcoming cities generally seek to foster inclusiveness in their community but stop short of formally refusing to cooperate with ICE to provide information about the presence of immigrants. Sanctuary cities go farther than mere inclusiveness.   

“One of the things we have done with our welcoming city declaration is just making sure that people understand that we value immigrants and [we] want to make sure that people feel safe and welcome here, but I don’t know that we have a lot of particular policies around that,” Szakos says.

Future concerns

The consequences of falling afoul of federal authorities for a minor offense are major. Fanny Smedile, a legal immigrant from Central America and president of Sin Barreras, has an adult son who remained undocumented. In tears, she says her son was captured by federal agents and deported to Panama, a country unfamiliar to him since childhood. She has visited him periodically in Panama since his deportation.

Maria says her children—only one of whom has technical citizenship— strive to be good citizens.

“We have a lot of gratitude toward the United States,” she says. “My children give back. They are volunteers. They are bilingual. They speak English and Spanish perfectly. They volunteer at hospitals. They actually volunteer giving out food at the church. I’m very proud of it. They speak for a lot of the Hispanic population that really has a lot of gratitude toward America and what they’ve done for us.

“My youngest child is actually American-born. A U.S. citizen,” says Maria. “However, it would throw things off tremendously if I were to be deported. Who would take care of this child? Would I have to bring him back to a culture of poverty and violence? If not, would I leave him here to be a ward of the state? It’s an impossible dilemma by not having legal status.”

She says that as a family they are already feeling the effects. Her 11-year-old hears comments in school about Trump. “Now he worries, ‘What are going to happen to my parents?’” Maria says. “‘Are they going to be deported?’”

“Our former mayor was an immigrant,” says Szakos. “This is a community that has 60 languages being spoken at home. …My daughter is a soccer player and one of her best friends is from Somalia. And it broadens the perspective of our citizens, and I use that ‘citizens’ [as] specifically city citizens instead of legalized citizens. It enriches us and gives us a broader global perspective.”

While Szakos worries about the children of undocumented immigrants, she also worries about other local residents who depend on some of that $24 million in federal funding to Charlottesville for social services that Trump has threatened to cut off.

“There are potential downsides. Technically, [being a sanctuary city is] not legal. And the president-elect has threatened to cut off all federal funding to cities that declare themselves welcoming cities. A lot of cities in the country are sanctuary cities by practice, if not by naming, so it’s going to take some work to figure out exactly what he meant,” she says. “…One of my concerns is that a lot of federal funding that comes into Charlottesville is used to provide programs that support our most vulnerable residents, and I don’t want to endanger that.”

The stakes might be more than just the well-being of vulnerable citizens—law and order is also an issue. A combination of the language barrier and fear of deportation makes many immigrants Smedile serves fearful of contacting the police to report a crime or seek help.

“They are afraid when there is a crime and they are witnesses,” says Smedile. “They don’t like to be involved because they are undocumented. They don’t want anything with the court or anything with the police. Sometimes they don’t say what did they see. In an accident or a fight or whatever it is. …Of course the police, they want to come talk to them and protect them, but it’s not easy.”

All of the immigrants and their advocates interviewed for this article agreed that getting pulled over without a driver’s license is the leading local cause of deportation. But data in government computers could theoretically be used to identify undocumented immigrants. Social services reports often include that information, and health records may also include clues.

Szakos thinks that federal law should prevent the city’s data from being taken by ICE and combed through for the names of immigrants.

“I’m not sure which laws are which, but HIPAA [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] is one of the things that has to do with health-related data,” Szakos says. “There are various federal regulations that govern the privacy of data being held by social services agencies. So that individual records can’t be held by other agencies except under certain circumstances. …As far as I know there’s pretty rigid protections on the data.”

Asked what she would like from the city of Charlottesville, Maria had a quick answer through an interpreter.

“To give us a chance,” Maria says. “To have the rights that most people have in this country. We’re honest. We’re looking to work. We came from a culture of violence and poverty. We found refuge here in the United States and so have our children.” She also asked for the possibility of getting a legal work permit and being able to obtain a driver’s license.

To make ends meet, Maria also works a part-time job in a restaurant. On one occasion, a customer said, “What are you doing here? Go back to Mexico. This job belongs to someone American-born.” She wanted to cry. She lives in a neighborhood filled with other Hispanic immigrants. Her neighbors have told her they have experienced discrimination at work sites. American co-workers have said to them, “After the 20th, time’s up! You’re out of here!”

“That’s the time we need to be even more united, when we’re being ostracized,” Maria says. “To prove we don’t retaliate with violence. We go back to our foundation of Christianity and Catholicism and we rest on that and hope to turn people’s hearts by not reacting to the discrimination that we experience.”

The monetary price of resisting Trump’s demands in Charlottesville could be in the tens of millions of dollars. But when asked whether the dollar value is worth the effort, Smedile does not hesitate to answer.

“We are human beings,” she says. “That’s what we have to think about.”

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