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Pima County families can spend $24k — often more than a year's earnings — to fight immigration cases

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Pima County families can spend $24k — often more than a year's earnings — to fight immigration cases

UA researchers: Immigration arrests operate 'like a giant vacuum, sucking wealth and resources out of the community'

  • A Mexican man waits for his appointment during a Keep Tucson Together event at Pueblo High School to get legal advice about his wife's immigration case.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA Mexican man waits for his appointment during a Keep Tucson Together event at Pueblo High School to get legal advice about his wife's immigration case.

Immigration arrests can cost Tucson families more than a year's wages in direct and indirect expenses, and more than half of these arrests begin with a local law enforcement agency, including Tucson Police Department and the Pima County Sheriff's Department, two University of Arizona researchers found. 

The 18-month long study, completed through the UA's Binational Migration Institute and funded through the National Science Foundation, found that on average the direct costs for a family that has a loved one detained includes $9,228 in direct costs, including bonds, lawyers' fees, and court fines, and that families also lose $14,956 in indirect costs. All told, this means that families with a median household income of $22,500 might expend nearly 107 percent of their year's earning fighting immigration cases.

The researchers found a wide-range of consequences for families, ranging from the liquidation of assets, including houses and cars, as well as health affects, long-term stresses, and affects on education. 

The study, titled "The Immigration Dragnet and the Dispossession of Household and Community Wealth in the United States," was conducted by Dr. Geoffrey Alan Boyce and Dr. Sarah Launius, and collected data from interviews with 125 households representing 519 people living in Pima County. 

"We wanted to see if we could put a price tag on the cost of immigration arrests," said Boyce. "We didn’t want to just quantify the impact, but look at the strategies that households are using to try to deal with what is oftentimes an acute crisis—a huge chunk of money has to be raised really quickly," he said. 

This "affects things that often have nothing to do with immigration," said Boyce, and the study "illuminates why local municipalities and governments  should be concerned with immigration policy," including "the conduct of local police and county sheriffs, who may be adding to income inequality in the city." 

The researchers found that impacts, including long-term financial impacts were felt "regardless" of an immigration case’s outcome. 

Households included in the study had to be residents in Pima County for at least one year. And, many households experienced multiple arrests, either because multiple residents were involved in a single incident, or family members were deported to Mexico and returned to the county and were again arrested by immigration authorities. 

While the data included arrests that occurred over 25-year period from 1993 to 2018, a vast majority of those arrests happened after 2006, illustrating in part, the effect that Arizona's controversial "show me your papers" law — formally known as Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, but better known as SB 1070 — had on immigrant families in Pima County. 

While SB 1070 was largely dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court, and agreements made between state officials and advocates settled in 2016, the report illustrates how the remaining elements of the controversial law can lead to local police officers detaining people so they can be picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs or Border Patrol agents. 

Ultimately, the state of Arizona ultimately agreed to pay $1.4 million in attorney's fees to nearly a dozen groups involved in the lawsuit to fight SB1070. 

Dr. Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, the co-director of the Binational Migration Institute, a part of the UA's Department of Mexican American Studies called the study an "excellent report" that is highly needed in the Tucson community. "The Binational Institute is dedicated to responding the community research needs," she said, adding that the study "is a wonderful opportunity to look at something that has not been studied, but shows the way that families suffer, and how they are deprived because they have to spend money defend themselves against violations of their human rights." 

Local police contribute to immigration arrests

Following SB 1070's passage in 2010, the authors noted a sudden spike in reported arrests by both local and federal law enforcement officials from their survey, and that number remained or declined until 2017 when the number of arrests again spiked, largely driven by Border Patrol and ICE arrests. 

"The spike is largely related to ICE-initiated arrests,"  said Boyce. "I think it is fair to speculate that this is a result of policy changes that followed the inauguration of Donald Trump." 

Despite the increase in ICE-initiated arrests, around 67 percent of cases involved Border Patrol.  "Alongside those immigration arrests initiated by Border Patrol directly, this figure indicates a need for greater public attention to routine cooperation between the Border Patrol and local police agencies that fall within its 100-mile jurisdiction," the authors wrote. "This figure also reveals the contribution of the U.S. Border Patrol to immigration arrests that take place in the U.S. 'interior.'" 

"With that said, we also see an increase in PCSD (Pima County Sheriff's Department)-initiated arrests in both 2016 and 2017," he said. 

Data from the survey shows that TPD arrests spiked in 2012 and declined before rising slightly in 2017. 

One woman was arrested in 2015 by TPD officers on the way to pick up her children from elementary school, and then held for nearly an hour before Border Patrol arrived. While in 2012, an official with the Arizona Department of Public Safety stopped a father and held him for Border Patrol custody while he was traveling to a hospital for his son's operation. 

And, the authors reported at least three cases, where people were transferred to Border Patrol or ICE custody after first interacting with Pima County Sheriffs or Tucson Police and were victims—one in a traffic accident, another was assaulted, and a third was a victim of domestic violence. 

In nearly 20 percent of cases, family members, including children, "were present and witnessed the detention of their loved one," the authors wrote. 

Lawyers costly, but necessary

Direct costs included money used to secure bonds, lost wages, court fees, as well as fees charged by private prisons for visitations and commissary costs, but also lawyers' fees. Unlike the criminal court system, the immigration court system is largely a civil affair, and people fighting removal are not provided an attorney at the government's expense, the researchers wrote. 

Families spent on average $3,700 to mount a legal defense, and those that did were more than five times as likely to win some form of relief than those who did not, making an attorney a vital necessity for families hoping to protect a loved one from deportation. 

This result follows similar findings from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a database of federal records based at Syracuse University, which found in 2017 that asylum seekers were five times as likely to win their case if they had legal representation. 

And, of those who were deported, nearly 90 percent attempted to return to "reunite with their family and loved ones," and many of those relied on a smuggler to make that happen. On average, returning family members spent around $2,000 for a guide. 

"These findings are important for several reasons," Boyce and Launius wrote. "First, they show how deportation becomes a source of revenue for organized criminal groups, literally creating a market of individuals who can be charged thousands of dollars to be smuggled back to family and loved ones in the United States. Second, they reveal that despite the hardship generated for those households exposed to immigration detention and/or removal, and despite the cost to the government involved in these efforts, they rarely result in permanent territorial removal – at least not when the individual targeted has strong ties to the United States, and is therefore determined to return." 

At least one-third of those who had their cases completed before or during the study "won some form of relief," however, in nearly 56 percent of cases, the person was deported from the U.S. 

The data comes as people in Tucson consider Prop. 205, an initiative that could make Tucson a "sanctuary city." 

As the proposition heads to a vote, with ballots already returning, several Tucson and Pima County officials have argued against the bill, arguing that the "sanctuary city" designation would put Tucson firmly in the cross-hairs of the state Legislature and may violate SB 1070. Backers have asserted that the bill, launched by the People's Defense Initiative, undoes a status quo marked by "over-policing and militarization of our communities, and the fourth-highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world." 

Meanwhile, the White House continues to clamp down on immigrants in the country, having already removed the few of the gossamer provisions installed by the Obama administration to "prioritize" immigration arrests to people who have committed serious crimes, as well as undoing DACA, forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, and stripping thousands of parents of their children after they crossed into the United States. 

As the former head of ICE, Thomas Homan told Congress in June 2017, immigrants in the country without authorization "should be afraid." 

"When I say all people are on the table, that's what the executive orders say," Homan said, referring to Trump's 2017 orders. "The executive orders could have been written in one sentence: we will now enforce the laws on the books, which we haven't been allowed to do."  

Long-term costs

Indirect costs including long-term wage gaps, because 101 households reported that a family "bread-winner" lost their job because of an immigration arrest. 

Of the families surveyed, nearly 75 percent took on long-term debt to cope with costs, and close to half of the households pulled money from savings accounts, or sold cars and houses to cover the costs. And, families reported that they borrowed thousands from both immediate and extended family members, acquaintances, and employers. 

Some relied on their churches, while others borrowed money from fellow detainees, and some were able to receive help from the Mexican consulate. 

"But they also included formal institutions, including four households who obtained assistance from grassroots organizations who fundraise to support immigrant detainees, and one respondent who described a pool of funds developed among a network of immigrant families who pay in on a monthly basis in order to draw on the fund in the event that a household member is detained – essentially a form of insurance," the authors wrote. 

On average, those surveyed had spent around 16 years in Pima County, "indicating that many of these families are deeply integrated into their community," said Boyce and Launius. And, many of these households included at least one legal permanent resident or U.S. citizen, "a pattern that tracks with the broader trend for immigrant households in the United States," the authors wrote. 

"The most important takeaway from this report is that the impacts of an immigration arrest comes to affect not just the individual targeted by federal authorities, but broad swaths of the community," said Boyce. "So from a policy standpoint we have to understand how peoples' exposure to federal immigration authorities impacts many other issues of concern to local authorities, from food and housing security, to health, education, and long-term questions of economic opportunity and wealth inequality."

"The data in our report shows how an immigration arrest operates like a giant vacuum, sucking wealth and resources out of the community," Boyce said, estimating that the Pima County families identified in their research lost as much as $5.5 million in wealth. "And this is certainly only a fraction of the cumulative total for all immigration arrests involving long-term U.S. residents," he said. 

"Our research provides a foundation to begin to calculate this total," he said. 

Survey 'snowballs' 

Researchers conducted interviews at multiple location using a 110-question research survey, including an organized labor center, a soup kitchen, a free weekly walk-in legal clinic, and an invitation-only clinic hosted at a Tucson-area church. The researchers then relied on a "snowball" method, asking participating subjects to encourage others to participate in the study, an effort they noted was made more difficult by the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as president in January 2017. 

Data was collected by 14 bilingual undergraduate students, and the research was approved and overseen by University of Arizona officials. 

One family member told the researchers, "I feel like my daughter was kidnapped, and there’s nothing that I can do. The other kids are afraid. When their father is working late they think that he's not coming back. Sometimes my youngest watches TV to hide that he’s crying. It’s been rough just this week, with the kids crying in school, and their teachers asking what's going on. Of course it affects their school." 

"During the one month and 15 days I was in detention, I felt like I was being psychologically punished," one immigrant told the authors. "And now there are just so many barriers to the things I wanted to do, like buy a house. I spent about $10,000, and everything [in the immigration process] is like a business. Even a call home costs money, and the banks are profiting." 

"I’ve constantly struggled with depression, and my son has panic attacks and many times he doesn’t sleep. So we don’t go out... Because I’m afraid of being stopped by the police, or by immigration."

However, as Boyce and Launius wrote, other people used their situation to renew their outlook, or in the case of one person, become politically active. As one person told them, detention pushed them to march in Washington. "It's worse to stay in the shadows, it's one of the reasons I decided to fight." 

The research was based on Launius' long-term work with Keep Tucson Together, a community immigration legal clinic hosted at Southside Presbyterian Church in south Tucson. 

Boyce said that families "frequently" told volunteers at KTT's clinics that managing financial costs were the most "acute and immediate hardship they confronted," and that families struggled with deciding "whether to pay bond so that a loved one can be released from long-term immigration detention" or to cover "routine household expenses like food and rent following the disruption to income and employment involved in a typical immigration arrest." 

"So we started this research, first, to understand locally how so many people are winding up in immigration custody, and second, more generally, to try to quantify and understand these financial costs, and to document their downstream impacts," he said. 

And, the impacts were not just financial, but instead, soaked into everyday life for immigrant families, altering personal routines, long-term financial plans, and individual health. 

The researchers found that 19 families reported long-term impacts on a household member’s physical health. Many of these cases were linked to stress—including panic attacks and asthma—but other families reported suffering serious medical conditions, or struggled to receive care needed for their children. 

One woman became sick while in detention and needed two open-heart surgeries after her release, while another family said they could no longer obtain a scheduled medical operation for their child.  In other cases, children could not receive medical care needed for chronic illnesses due because of this new cost. 

Some families also said that the "stress and difficulty" linked to an immigration arrest was the principal case of divorce, while three other people said that they abandoned their engagements. Two parents told Boyce and Launius that the disruption and economic hardship caused them to lose custody of their children.

Researchers ask for limits on data, relationships between ICE and local officials

Along with their findings, Boyce and Launius made more than a dozen recommendations.

This includes prohibiting police from asking about citizenship or immigration status and limits ICE's access to jails. The authors also argued that cities and counties should abandon their 287g programs, and strictly limit or withdraw their participation in larger databases that feed directly to ICE, including Palantir’s software and Vigilant Solution’s license plate reader database—earlier this year, Pima County began using some of Vigilant's equipment on Sheriff's Department vehicles. 

In October 2018, Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier announced that he would remove ICE agents from the jail, an ultimately successful maneuver to convince county supervisors to restore a federal grant known as Operation Stonegarden after they rejected it months earlier. 

They also argued that cities should issue identification cards to people regardless of immigration status, promote the use of U-visas—a special visa that protects witnesses and victims of crime—and provide "universal representation" for county residents facing immigration removal proceedings.

Boyce and Launius also said that communities should broadly disseminate "know your rights" materials, informing people of their rights under the U.S. Constitution, and establish community bond funds, and help attorneys and law-firms to "scale up" their pro-bono work through non-profits and philanthropy. 

Boyce and Launius also argued that immigration officials end "administrative detention" for those who have violated immigration law. Ending detention would "eliminate the family separation that often is imposed even as a person fights their immigration case and well before a judge has had the opportunity to rule on its merits," they argued, adding: "By eliminating detention as a matter of policy there would also then be little justification for those current 'alternatives to detention' that prey financially on impacted households by charging exorbitant fees for electronic monitoring." 

And, they asked that the federal government make it easier for people to receive visas to "cross the border safely and lawfully in order to reunited with their family in the United States." 

"Family unification is already an explicit objective of U.S. immigration law, but as this report renders clear the immigration system as currently designed often fails at accomplishing this objective," they said.

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