An undocumented Mexican national living near Tacoma has bounced between life’s personal milestones and a pending procedural reality since his release on bond a year ago from the Northwest Detention Center.
Oscar Campos Estrada has witnessed the birth of his first grandchild and paid off $1,500 in fines and fees to renew his Washington driver’s license since departing Tacoma’s federal immigration lockup last September.
He has escorted his oldest son cross-state for freshman orientation at Eastern Washington University, watched his youngest son get baptized and learned he’ll be a new father for a fifth time early next year.
He also has legally obtained a Social Security card and a valid permit to work for up to one year in the United States – accoutrements Oscar and his family will need while he fights to stay here.
The special employment authorization card came after federal immigration officials launched removal proceedings against the 39-year-old laborer, who slipped across the U.S. border more than 21 years ago.
“I’ve been trying half my life to get legal; now after they decide they want to deport me, they give me this,” said Oscar, holding the work permit. “And that’s why I say immigration laws are twisted.”
The Department of Homeland Security issued the work permit to Oscar while federal justice authorities seek to expel him for his illegal status and a misdemeanor criminal record, which includes convictions for drunken driving and fourth-degree assault. Oscar awaits a formal removal hearing to decide whether he’ll get to stay in this country or must leave it. He’ll have that hearing date set later this month.
Federal immigration officials say such work permits can be issued to illegal aliens under certain circumstances, including when a noncitizen is facing deportation. The permit also can help illegal immigrants to legally obtain a Social Security card.
“If someone has reason to stay in the U.S. because of some kind of pending legal action, it’s better in the interest of the people of the U.S. for that person to have an employment authorization,” said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. “It’s done so they have a way to support themselves.”
Oscar’s recent experiences have coincided with a radically evolving landscape of American immigration policies and enforcement priorities. Such changes will have little or no impact on Oscar’s case, but they will factor prominently in the lives of tens of thousands of people among the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now living in this country. They also could mean changing population trends are in store for the immigration detention center in Tacoma.
Young get reprieve
In June, President Barack Obama announced a two-year executive order to defer deportations for some young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as kids, then raised here.
Called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the initiative could grant temporary legal status to an estimated 1.4 million people – including as many as about 40,000 in Washington – allowing them to legally work, go to school and obtain certain benefits.
Federal immigration authorities began to implement the new initiative last month, with thousands of illegal immigrants packing into government centers nationwide to apply for the program.
Eligible candidates must have arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and have been 30 or younger as of June 15. They must have been enrolled in school or the military since coming to the U.S., and they can’t have significant criminal records.
Obama’s order, which headlined some of the past year’s policy changes, comes during an election year and amid ongoing debate about federal immigration policies.
Some activists say the president has failed to deliver on campaign vows in 2008 for meaningful immigration reform. Others, such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, have denounced changes under his administration as undermining federal laws meant to protect against immigration violators.
All the while, the number of illegal immigrants being expelled from the nation has climbed to an all-time high. Last fiscal year, the U.S. deported 396,906 people – a single-year record. Overall, the Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants during a single term than any other president.
John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), says the latest deportation figures reflect the administration’s “smart and effective” approach to upholding federal immigration laws and protecting the public.
Shifts in the bureau’s priorities have helped the federal government better utilize some $2.5 billion spent annually to enforce, detain and deport, Morton has said.
ICE’s new enforcement focus targets illegal immigrants who have criminal convictions, pose national security threats or who’ve recently or repeatedly crossed borders. Fifty-five percent of last fiscal year’s removed immigrants had convictions – the highest percentage in almost a decade.
“These year-end totals indicate that we are making progress, with more convicted criminals, recent border crossers, egregious immigration law violators and immigration fugitives being removed from the country than ever before,” Morton said in a statement last October.
Critics say ICE’s statistics skew reality. The bureau defines an alien “criminal” as any illegal immigrant convicted for any criminal offense, no matter how slight. While ICE stressed removals last year of convicts with violent felony and drunken driving convictions, the vast majority of deportees continue to be misdemeanant offenders, not serious criminals.
“It’s really hard to make a good assessment of what (the) offenses are, but a disproportionate number are minor,” said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, a group that provides legal aid for immigrants in Washington.
“So when ICE says 92 percent of those removed are ‘priorities’ and people think, ‘Good, those are all serious criminals,’ well. no. Driving with a suspended license – that’s a criminal alien, too.”
Last year, Morton issued two memos to ICE agents nationwide, providing guidelines for the bureau’s new emphasis on using “prosecutorial discretion” in removal enforcement.
“When ICE favorably exercises prosecutorial discretion, it essentially decides not to assert the full scope of the enforcement authority available to the agency in a given case,” he wrote.
The memos went on to detail “certain classes of individuals that warrant particular care” when ICE officials determine when and how fully to enforce civil immigration violations.
Children, the elderly, nursing and pregnant women, the disabled, and victims of domestic violence and other serious crimes are included on that list.
Late last year, ICE officials were directed to weigh such discretionary factors in reviewing more than 300,000 cases pending in U.S. immigration courts, with an aim toward closing cases and eliminating a massive backlog.
That examination remains ongoing, but the latest figures show ICE has closed few cases. As of July, about 7,200 cases – less than 2 percent of those reviewed – had been administratively closed. At the same time, more than 111,000 new cases have been filed since the program began, meaning the court backlog has grown.
Seattle-area case closures have fared slightly better than national ones, with about 5 percent of the roughly 5,200 cases reviewed so far being closed.
But in Tacoma, of about 600 pending cases reviewed so far, only one has been closed.
Advocates have since decried the program as largely inadequate.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Baron said. “But it’s also been disappointing.”
Meantime, ICE agents on the front lines are employing a new law enforcement sharing tool, largely expanded by Obama, in their mission to ferret out and remove “priority” aliens.
Under the Secure Communities program, the FBI now regularly sends fingerprints to ICE of people arrested and booked into local jails.
For years, local law enforcement has fed such information to the FBI for routine checks, but now locals are required to run them for comparison against federal immigration databases.
The program’s aim is for ICE to immediately locate unlawful immigrants at their point of local contact with the justice system. It uses technology to advance existing partnerships between ICE and local police agencies, in which the bureau has employed jail roster checks and other information-sharing to help track illegal immigrants.
Once voluntary, Secure Communities will become mandatory next year. In Washington, it expanded from four counties to all 39 in April. Its expansion came after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most of Arizona’s SB1070, except for the so-called “papers please” provision authorizing police to stop people and demand proof of immigration status. That immigration law drew political foes nationwide, including on the Tacoma City Council, which passed a resolution in 2010 to condemn the measure on a split council vote.
Likewise, Secure Communities doesn’t come without its detractors.
Immigrant groups have launched a national campaign decrying the program, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a plan in July that would limit his city’s full participation.
Elsewhere, identifying illegal immigrants has been ramping up under the program. In all, nearly 200,000 people have been expelled nationwide under the program since 2008.
So far in Washington, ICE has deported 634 people under Secure Communities through June. Illegal immigrants in Pierce County accounted for 17 of those removals, but most of them – 13 – were immigrants with misdemeanor offenses.
To critics, the statistics run counter to ICE’s stated goal of targeting only “high priority” cases.
“With Secure Communities, you’re going to catch more people, but you’re going to catch more who are low priority,” Baron said.
Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said his department hasn’t yet studied the local impact, but added that the program could prove successful.
“Potential advantage is that it does provide more consequences for those who commit serious crimes in the community and happen to be illegally in the country,” Troyer said.
What about the center?
What the enforcement changes will mean to the Northwest Detention Center remains unclear.
Andrew Munoz, ICE’s local spokesman, said his agency doesn’t “anticipate any significant changes to operations, other than the detainee population makeup shifting as ICE concentrates on removing more criminal aliens.”
Under ICE’s current contract with The GEO Group, the detention center’s private owner, ICE must maintain a minimum detainee population of 1,181 at a rate of $100.65 per day.
ICE officials say that only means GEO is guaranteed to be paid for 1,181 beds, whether or not ICE uses them.
In fact, last year’s “average daily population” at the Tacoma immigration lockup was 1,174 – below the contract minimum.
But so far this year, population figures have been significantly higher. Through mid-July, the Northwest Detention Center’s daily population averaged 1,318 detainees, with their numbers breaking the 1,400 mark on several occasions.
Last fiscal year, while the nation’s deportation figures soared to record levels, the number of immigrants removed from the Northwest dropped to its lowest levels in five years.
In all, 7,607 people were deported in 2011 from Washington, Oregon and Alaska – a 30 percent drop from the facility’s peak in 2008, when more than 10,900 people were removed from the three states.
But the numbers are selective. They don’t count deportees who came to Tacoma’s detention facility from other parts of the country. As of July 7, at least 165 illegal immigrants picked up in other areas of the country were being held at the Northwest Detention Center while facing deportation.
As the nation’s fourth-largest immigration lockup and with a 1,575-bed capacity, the center increasingly has been able to accommodate overflow detainees from elsewhere.
Advocates say such transfers can cause hardships to families, prevent detainees from accessing legal representation and otherwise interfere with the ability to build a legal defense.
Earlier this year, ICE issued a new directive meant to “minimize detainee transfers outside of the area of responsibility to the greatest extent possible.”
Another change now being phased in at the Northwest Detention Center and other immigration lockups is new “performance based national detention standards,” which ICE issued last year.
The revised standards were crafted to improve detainees’ access to health care, legal services, religious opportunities and to make other safety and welfare improvements.
The new standards are still being implemented in Tacoma, ICE officials have said. The latest compliance inspection of the facility, done in January, was based on standards written in 2008. Inspectors found three operational deficiencies at the Tacoma facility related to use of force and medical paperwork issues.
Overall, the inspection determined the center “to be a well managed detention facility.”
On a hot August evening, Oscar Campos Estrada rolled up to a low-rent apartment complex in Midland in a minivan bearing a red “EWU Dad” sticker in its rear window.
Inside a modest unit upstairs, his girlfriend, Maria, and 3-year-old son, Jasiel, waited for him. A key turned a lock, a thin door flung open, and instantly, a boy wrapped his small arms around a father’s legs.
“Papa!” Jasiel squealed.
Oscar was tired. Today, he worked a 10-hour shift on a seasonal construction job that pays him $15 an hour for up to 12 hours per day, seven days a week.
Renewing his driver’s license a few months back – Washington is one of two states that issues full driving privileges to illegal immigrants – has enabled him to legally drive the 80-mile round-trip each day to his worksite in King County.
With his new federal employment card, Oscar hopes to land a permanent job closer to home.
He still owes his immigration attorney about $4,500 – a fee he’s paying off in installments. He owes another $7,000 in back child support payments missed during his five-month stint last year in the Pierce County Jail and Northwest Detention Center.
And more bills are coming.
“We’re expecting another baby in February,” Oscar said. “Times are tough, but we don’t want to raise a single child.”
The new arrival will be Oscar’s fifth child – the second with his current partner, Maria.
“That’s all for me,” he laughed. “I’m done.”
Oscar’s four children, ranging in age from 3 to 20, all were born in Pierce County, making them all American citizens. But should Oscar be deported, his family will split. His kids from his first marriage will stay, while he and his new family will go.
“We’ll move back to Mexico,” he said. “I’ll have to start over. There’s no other option.”
For a time, when Oscar faced a potentially more imminent departure, he believed all but the oldest of his children would be forced to go with him to Mexico. Oscar has since rethought that idea.
On Sept. 28, Oscar is scheduled to attend a master calendar hearing in federal immigration court in Seattle, where a judge is expected to set the date for his deportation proceedings. Amid a backlog of cases, it could take three to seven months before Oscar’s case is heard.
His lawyer is prepared to argue that Oscar should have a green card by now and be well on his way to obtaining citizenship. Federal prosecutors are certain to detail Oscar’s illegal entry and multiple misdemeanor criminal convictions – grounds for his removal that also might become an eventual obstacle to future admissibility.
For Oscar, the odds don’t bode well. Federal law limits the number of deportation orders that can be canceled or suspended each year to just 4,000. About 100 times that many immigrants are deported each year.
If his argument fails, Oscar will turn to his daughter, America, for help. Next year, she will turn 21. The milestone will make her eligible as a qualifying family-based sponsor who can submit a new green card eligibility petition on Oscar’s behalf.
“That’s Plan B,” Oscar said.
It’s a plan that could also take years to realize. As of this month, illegal immigrants from Mexico with petitions filed as long ago as 1993 are just now becoming eligible to obtain green cards. An immigrant with a petition filed sometime next year likely would wait in a queue for at least a dozen years or longer.
Meantime, Oscar Campos Estrada will try to keep life in order, but take it as it comes.
“Sure, I’m afraid,” he said. “But you know what they say, ‘Prepare for the worst, expect the best.’ What else can I do?”
InvestigateWest reporter Carol Smith contributed to this report.