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Immigrants In Dane County Experience Fear Following Executive Orders

Undocumented Immigrants In And Around Madison Question What Executive Orders Mean For Them

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents
Bryan Cox/ICE via AP Photo

Around 7:30 p.m. last week in a classroom on Madison’s south side, a group of mostly Latino immigrants and English as a Second Language teachers sat in a circle listening intently as two special guests – Madison Police Capt. John Patterson and immigration attorney Raluca Vais-Ottosen – answered their questions.

A Latino man wearing a yellow shirt asked in Spanish, “When you get pulled over, can the police ask you where you’re from?”

Patter answered, saying police normally won’t ask where people are from.

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“If you’re stopped by the police, we will normally ask you for your name, your (date of birth), your address and whether or not you have ID,” Patterson said. “… If I’m stopping you, let’s say you go through a stop sign, it would really make no difference to me where you’re from. If you go through a stop sign, the reason to stop you is it’s unsafe to go through stop signs. Nowhere on the ticket does it say where in the United States do you come from.”

Patterson and Vais-Ottosen were invited to speak at Literacy Network, a nonprofit organization where adult ESL learners take classes in reading and computer skills, after President Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders on immigration that left students asking questions about what the new orders could mean for them.

The heightened uncertainty has law enforcement in Dane County such as Patterson rushing to tell immigrants they don’t have to risk deportation to report crimes to the police.

“When news like this is out there and changes like this are being made at the federal level, the risk is clearly creating situations or amplifying situations that already exist of people who are tragically victims of crime and then are consciously deciding not to call us because they think it’s going to lead to something far worse than what they’re now victims of. That’s my biggest fear,” Patterson said.

The fear experienced by immigrants in southern Wisconsin is a reflection of the larger uncertainty faced by immigrants throughout the United States in recent weeks since Trump – who ran on a campaign critical of the presence of immigrants and refugees in the U.S. – was sworn into office.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 235 people were arrested in six Midwestern states, including Wisconsin, in the week prior to Feb. 13. The New York Times has reported more than 600 people were detained across 11 states in the same time period. It is unclear whether the arrests were a continuation of ICE’s normal activity or if the raids were the result of increased immigration enforcement initiated by the incoming Trump administration.

Because immigration enforcement falls under federal law and not state law, it is not the job of local police to ask members of the public if they are in the U.S. illegally. But an executive order signed Jan. 25 and titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” states that the Secretary of Homeland Security shall work with the governors of states and local officials to establish “agreements” about how law enforcement can perform the functions of immigration officers in their communities.

Vais-Ottosen said empowering state and local law enforcement agencies to directly investigative and enforce immigration laws is something that did not exist under the Obama administration.

“These executive orders would in fact empower a police officer to ask people about their immigration status if you get pulled over for speeding or you get caught driving without a license, and in turn, these agreements could empower that law enforcement officer to turn over that immigrant for immigration processing,” Vais-Ottosen said.

Among other things, the Jan. 25 order calls for the hiring of 10,000 additional immigration officers and broadens the scope of who is a priority for ICE to include those who have been convicted of or charged with any crime – including low-level offenses.

The changes are raising questions and concerns for immigrants in Dane County. Most revolve around day-to-day life. Driving, whether it’s to and from work, or dropping kids off at school, is a big concern for students at the Latino Academy of Workforce Development, a bilingual job training center in Madison with a staff that is keeping students updated on executive orders and risks posed to undocumented immigrants.

Staff recently read aloud a statement from the Dane County Chiefs of Police Association reassuring immigrants in the area that officers from 25 Wisconsin police departments would not routinely ask people about their immigration status. The announcement echoed previous public comments from Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney that he would not deputize members of the force to enforce immigration laws.

Student Carmen Cumbajin, an Ecuadorian immigrant who has lived in Madison for 15 years, is worried she could lose her job as a temp working in the returns department of a warehouse because of the executive orders or be sent to work outside of Dane County where protections aren’t guaranteed.

“We’re not safe. Because maybe that’s what the sheriff says, but for other people, not everybody is like that. They’ll just say, ‘It’s under the president’s law,’” said Cumbajin. “They say they’re looking for people with problems and all of that, but one day you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that’s it. They’ll end up picking you up too.”

Joel De La O, who came to Madison from Mexico almost 22 years ago and is studying for the GED at the Latino academy, said Trump’s rhetoric about immigration has made him nervous around his neighbors. He said he thinks it gives Americans who aren’t used to being around people from different countries the freedom to report people they think are undocumented.

“I live with this fear that … is it my turn (to be apprehended) today? Tomorrow? When?” De La O said. “I’ve been living in this city for more than 21 years. I’m basically from here. I don’t create problems for anybody.”

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said no agreements have been made between ICE and local police in Madison so far.

“I can assure you that the range, and the order and the magnitude of the concerns, the fears, the apprehension, is literally palpable as I go in and about the community,” Koval said. “No one has formally reached out to us and asked if we’d be willing to enter in on a consensual basis, some sort of partnership alliance or strategic effort in doing anything in terms of federal enforcement strategies. If they did, we would be polite, but we would respectfully decline.”

It’s not known if Gov. Scott Walker has had conversations with federal agents about the topic, and the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As of now, the option for local law enforcement to enter into agreements with ICE is just that – an option. If the federal government decided to designate Madison a “sanctuary jurisdiction” and withdraw funding, that could put pressure on MPD and other agencies to make changes to their practices.

Regardless of MPD’s policy, ICE is free to independently carry out raids in Wisconsin, something the agency has done this month. Once immigrants leave Dane County, Koval said he can’t make any guarantees.

“I would not feel comfortable saying you could drive from Beloit to Superior without worry,” Koval said. “I can’t say that.”