Providing Safe Communities for All

Immigrant-friendly policies have positive impacts on communities

by Niyati Shah

On November 15th, 29 cities, counties, and states with pro-immigrant policies received letters from the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”). The letters claimed that, as recipients of the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program (“Byrne JAG grant”), the jurisdictions are required to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts and asked these jurisdictions to affirm their compliance. Outrageously, these letters were sent while several lawsuits challenging these additional requirements filed by immigrant-friendly jurisdictions were proceeding.

We decided to find out what immigrant-friendly policies, or the lack thereof, really mean for the public health and safety of communities. Three first-hand accounts illustrate the real-life impact.

The personal family experiences of John C. Yang and Saba Nafees, leaders in the Asian Pacific American community, demonstrate what Jim Bueermann, former police chief of San Bernardino, California, knows about immigrants fear of police — “Common sense tells you that when an individual is afraid of being deported by police (who are also) enforcing immigration laws, they are less likely to speak up.”

John C. Yang, a profile in being undocumented in the 1980s

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC’s own President and Executive Director, John C. Yang, was undocumented. His family immigrated to the United States through his father’s work visa when he was two years old and his brother was three. When that visa expired, the family decided that staying in the United States — the only country that the kids, now 11 and 10, really knew — was the best choice for the family. For several years, until the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act gave them a pathway to citizenship, John and his family lived in the shadows without adequate access to law enforcement.

The lack of trust in law enforcement and the legal system because of their immigration status had a cost. In the early 1980s, John’s parents owned a second-run movie theater, and then later a video store, both in the north side of Chicago. At the theater, an usher embezzled about $1000 and cases of candy from the concession stand. John’s parents never reported it for fear of getting involved with law enforcement while out of status. Even more horrifying, at the video store, a robber came in and took money straight from the cash register. When John’s father tried to stop the robber, he was assaulted badly. Despite this painful experience, John explains, “my father did not feel he could contact law enforcement because he feared deportation,” and they never notified law enforcement.

But more than being victimized by crime, there were occasions when the fear of drawing attention impacted John and his family’s economic health and offended their personal dignity. For example, John’s parents never sought legal assistance when the family business got into a contractual dispute with a movie distributor or a vendor, even though they clearly felt cheated. Although other aspects of their immigrant experience played a role, such as language proficiency, their concern about the relationship between law enforcement and immigration enforcement clearly affected their economic, physical, and mental well-being.


Saba Nafees, DACA recipient in a mixed-status family

Despite growing up more than two decades apart, the Yang family’s experiences are uncannily similar to Saba Nafees and her family. In fact, the passage of time may have made the political environment more toxic for immigrants, because state and local laws had been passed targeting immigrants and creating a false belief that immigrants were a threat, rather than a source of strength, for America.

Saba lived in Lahore, Pakistan until she was 11 years old, when she was brought to America with proper legal status in 2004. Her family settled in Ft. Worth, Texas where her grandparents, U.S. citizens, had lived since the early 1990s. Her grandfather petitioned for Saba’s mother and her relatives for green cards. They came to the U.S. on tourist visas while waiting for the green cards to come through. Unfortunately, Saba’s grandfather died before the green card process was completed, and Saba’s family kept asking for extensions of their tourist visas, wondering what would happen now that the petitioner (her grandfather) had died.

According to Saba, “We were told that my U.S. citizen grandmother could not do anything regarding the petition. The attorneys told my family that the petition died with the petitioner. We were advised that we could stay in the U.S. undocumented and hope that comprehensive immigration reform would pass. I was only 12 years old at the time and didn’t understand the guidance that my parents received from the attorneys. My grandmother passed away in 2006 and around that time we also ran out of our visa extensions. Maybe the petition could have been transferred to my grandmother before my grandfather’s death but we didn’t have appropriate legal guidance on how to transfer the petition. We were only a few years away from receiving our green cards.”

When Time Runs Out

In 2012 someone reported Saba’s family to ICE, and the family was placed into ICE’s supervision program. Saba and her family had regular check-ins and automated phone calls, and went through voice recognition and fingerprinting. Their court date was scheduled for February 2013 in Dallas. By then, her two sisters were married so the immigration judge terminated their cases. Saba had just received her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) certification, so the judge administratively closed her case. But the immigration judge gave her parents a final order of removal and terminated their cases. Saba’s parents are still in removal proceedings and must go to their regular ICE check-ins.

Under the Obama administration, Saba’s parents were given prosecutorial discretion and their check-in frequency started to slow down in 2015. On November 28, 2017 Saba’s sister took her oath of citizenship and the family is hopeful that the petition for green cards will be approved very soon since their next ICE check-in on January 10, 2018. They must ensure that ICE does not deport them since it will take time for Saba’s sister’s petition to go through.

In May 2016, Saba married and submitted an I-130 petition to USCIS on August 2, 2016. They are still waiting for the initial marriage interview. Saba and her husband have been told that their I-130 petition is outside of normal case processing times. Even if the petition is approved, Saba will need to go back to immigration court to terminate her case since the case was only administratively closed due to DACA. After this, she can finally apply for her green card.

The fear and reality of being undocumented

Saba shared, “I’ve known that I am undocumented since I was young. I saw it all happen before my eyes. My sisters and I always tried to help with documents and applications. When I was in high school, I knew that I couldn’t simply go to the DMV and get a driver’s license. I knew that if we didn’t get our visa extensions, that we could be deported. I knew then that my family could run out of time and I would be undocumented. I knew that I had to be quiet about it. It was terrible at school; I played piano, sang in choir, and played tennis and whenever there was travel for extracurriculars, in most cases, I couldn’t go and I couldn’t tell my friends why. My father was afraid that travel would put me at risk of getting picked up and deported. I didn’t understand why this was happening to me.”

Saba graduated from high school in May 2011 and had to do a lot of research about how to attend college as an undocumented student. She graduated at the top of her class and her friends would ask if she was going to an Ivy League school, but Saba had to figure out if she was even going to college at all. Saba still has her college application to Harvard on her computer that she wasn’t able to send. She couldn’t qualify for federal aid as an undocumented student. Given her merits and financial need, Texas Tech set aside money for her to attend college for the whole first year. Saba is now a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Tech studying mathematical biology.

Despite the adversities they faced, Saba and her family have managed to thrive. But it is important to note that, just like John and his family, Saba and her family also felt isolated, fearful, and unprotected by law enforcement. For example, Saba’s father is now 63 years old and suffers under the daily burden of his undocumented status.

“In Lahore, he worked for Lufthansa Cargo as a manager,” said Saba. “But when he came to the U.S., he had to take whatever work he could so that he could support their family. He consistently worked long 12 hour shifts and never took a break. He has never complained but it has been a huge change for him. My father’s employers used to take advantage of him due to his undocumented status because they knew he wouldn’t complain.” Saba’s father has always been careful not to make mistakes because he knows he does not have the freedom to pursue the kind of work that would provide freedom and comfort. He rarely takes off from work because he has been given many responsibilities at his current job and he does not want to put his employer’s business in danger. He works at a liquor store from 10 am- 9:15pm, Monday through Saturday. He doesn’t get a proper lunch hour or break times and his salary clearly isn’t what it should be for running the store by himself.

A Life-Threatening Situation and the Inability to Reach Out

While at university, Saba faced a potentially life-threatening situation but remained leery of law enforcement. There was a shooting at her school where a student killed a police officer inside the campus police station. After the shooter fled, the campus was put on lockdown and all students were told to report if they saw the shooter. Saba’s lab mate knew the shooter and they both knew what he looked like, but if she had seen him and reported it, she would have opened herself up to potential immigration enforcement because, under Texas’ SB4 law, officers could question her about her immigration status even when she is trying to do the right thing and report crime.

Living in a non-immigrant-friendly jurisdiction has negatively affected Saba and her family. Similar to John’s case, the inability to trust law enforcement has negatively affected society as a whole. Crimes end up going unreported, and witnesses who can help identify suspects and prevent them from committing additional crimes do not come forward.


Jim Bueermann, an insight into law enforcement

Jim Bueermann, is the former police chief of San Bernardino, California, and currently is the President of the Police Foundation, which assists innovation and improvement in police work through research, technical assistance, and training. Through this work, Chief Bueermann has worked with local police foundations and police chiefs across the country.

Jim’s own law enforcement experiences have shown that John and Saba’s life experiences are nothing new. It is “important to gain trust of community, including immigrants, because [it is] fundamental to the police mission to protect the community. If police are hindered from capturing a criminal, the whole community suffers. Criminals in general want to take something from you, either things or your safety. They are opportunistic and get more sophisticated with each crime, so will expand to the entire community, not just immigrants who are in the shadows. Putting a wedge between police and a segment of a community through federal immigration enforcement can hurt the community as a whole.”

“Criminals target immigrants because they are less likely to report it. But most criminals don’t limit to one crime or community, they are more opportunistic. So allowing them (criminals) to run free in a community is more dangerous for everyone.”

Policing to Uphold Peace

When Chief Bueermann started in early 1970s, his department had a policy where, when they ran into undocumented individuals, it was the officer’s discretion as to whether to call border patrol. In 1998, when he became chief, he had a more sophisticated understanding of what undocumented communities go through, so collectively, his department only called Border Patrol when there was a serious criminal act, like murder.

According to Chief Bueermann, “Within the world of law enforcement, all want to work together (federal, state, and local). If someone commits a serious crime, we need to get rid of them. All feel that way, no matter how liberal a chief is. But internally, police chiefs enact ‘work arounds’ to being forced to cooperate with federal immigration efforts when it hinders their responsibility to their community. Fellow cops want to help each other, but can distinguish from supporting each other versus conducting routine immigration raids.”

Chief Bueermann feels that “Policing is more than about enforcing the law. We respond to mental illness, homelessness, drug abuse, etc. We are about problem solving and peace. It is more than about just breaking a statute. More than anything we become social workers and influence the law. You don’t make a safe community by isolating a portion of it or making them afraid of the guardians of their community. Police need to be more guardians rather than warriors.” And as such, “Current federal immigration enforcement policies can have the unintended consequence effect of empowering and emboldening criminals to attack immigrant communities.”

Without Trust, Community Safety Suffers

But, even more than simple law enforcement, if there isn’t trust between the police and citizens, community policing is virtually impossible. For example, when his department tried to implement a version of the “broken windows” program, Bueermann said, “We weren’t able to give money to folks in our community to fix houses to reduce community disorganization and to rehab dilapidated single-family residences in high crime areas. These folks were afraid that we were tricking them into taking houses and [would be] sending them back to Mexico. We wanted to slow down transiency and reduce schooling interruptions. The goal was to have kids invest in a community and have ties to an area, which they didn’t have due to the high turnover rates in housing. Not until there was a well-known community advocate who got involved, were they convinced to take the money. So no question in my mind that if we can’t get them to take money to fix their homes, we can’t get their help to keep the health and safety of our community in this environment.”

Immigrant-friendly policies are beneficial for the health and public safety of all communities. There is no evidence that jurisdictions with immigrant-friendly policies are more dangerous; in fact, such policies keep crime down.

And, if given the chance, as John and Saba embody, immigrant children grow into wonderful, civic-minded community leaders.

Niyati Shah is the Assistant Director of Legal Advocacy at Advancing Justice | AAJC.