On August 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that local police do not have the power to enforce deportation orders without explicit instruction from federal authorities. In the decision, Judge James A. Wynn wrote that “absent express direction or authorization by federal officials, state and local law enforcement officers may not detain or arrest an individual solely based on known or suspected civil violations of federal immigration law.” The ruling helps clarify the Supreme Court’s vague decision in Arizona v. United States last year about local discretion in enforcing immigration orders.
The civil rights ramifications of the Fourth Circuit’s ruling are clear. Less obvious are the economic consequences for immigrant families who fall within the Fourth Circuit’s jurisdiction, and whose livelihoods can now less capriciously be upended by local police.
As the Center for American Progress pointed out in a 2012 report:
The economic fallout of a deportation is perhaps the most significant of the long term consequences of immigration enforcement. … Prior to a detention or deportation, [many immigrant] families constitute a class of low-wage workers. With a detention or deportation, families slip easily into poverty. For families experiencing a detention or deportation, household income drops drastically from one day to the next, which is a shock for families already getting by on low wages.
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The plaintiff in the Fourth Circuit case is Roxana Santos, a Salvadoran dishwasher at a Maryland food co-op. In the fall of 2008, Santos was approached by local police while she was on her lunch break at work. For 15 minutes the officers questioned her, looked at her Salvadoran identification, and then ran a background check, which revealed her outstanding deportation warrant per the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Santos was then jailed for the next 36 days, during which time she was separated from her 1-year-old son.
Her experience is not rare. “People in the community were sharing with us that they were being stopped and harassed,” said Enid Gonzalez, senior manager of Legal Services at Casa de Maryland, an immigrant rights and legal services organization based in Baltimore that aided Santos. The systemic seizures are believed to be at the behest of Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County, Maryland, who, according to immigrant rights advocates, has been zealously enforcing deportation orders without federal direction.
While the Fourth Circuit’s decision does not explicitly mention Santos’ family or economic status, the implications are clear: She was an immigrant woman dishwasher sitting on a curb eating a sandwich when two armed officers approached, questioned, arrested, and jailed her.
“Deportation has a devastating domino effect. Our members are low-income immigrants, generally from third-world countries, who have endured very difficult circumstances already,” said Gonzalez. “We are talking about resilient people who endured hardship but still eke it out for their families. When removed, everything they’ve achieved is lost. Often it’s the breadwinner who is arrested and deported.”
In addition, Gonzalez points out that the U.S. economy can “create draw for low-skilled workers, yet law only allows a very limited number of visas for low-skilled workers per year.” This observation is applicable across many sectors in which immigrant workers toil, and reflects how immigration policy can either punish workers like Santos and their families with an arrest and jail time, or render them completely invisible. In her 2011 essay for the Michigan Journal of Race and Law, legal scholar Terri Nilliasca points out the ways in which U.S. law has enabled the importation of immigrant women as domestic laborers while not affording these women sufficient, or sometimes any, legal protections. She says immigration policies “reflect the state’s continuing desire to allow employers access to the labor of immigrant women while simultaneously affording no legal protections to domestic workers.”
Increasing the number of visas for caregivers, for example, has not been a priority in the recent immigration reform debate.
It is unclear how other circuit courts of appeals will interpret Arizona v. United States, but the Fourth Circuit’s ruling feels promising, at least for some workers who are doing their best for their families.
“I understand we can’t let everyone in, but there’s actually huge demand for low-skilled workers to come here, and when they get here they’re vulnerable to being arrested and jailed,” Gonzalez said. “You have someone who has managed to earn money and feed their family for years, but once they are arrested and deported, everything they’ve worked toward is often destroyed.”