With the United States deporting more immigrants than ever before -- almost 400,000 over the past year -- some of New York's elected officials and immigrant advocates are trying hard to draw attention to cases that, to them, seem blatantly unjust.
Dominican immigrant Eligio Valerio is one of them. He is a taxi driver and soon-to-be grandfather who has been working legally in the United States with a green card for decades. But last week, immigration officers made an early morning visit to his home. They took him into custody and began deportation proceedings because of a 1982 gun conviction. He has told advocates he kept an illegal gun in the Washington Heights bodega he had back then for protection. He did no jail time, just three years probation. But now, almost 30 years later, his name is on a list of criminal aliens to be deported.
Valerio was released on bail Thursday, and at a press conference, he made a brief, and almost tearful, statement thanking the press and local and state elected officials for the attention they have drawn to his case. City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said, while stabbing his finger angrily into the air, that he is happy this happened to Valerio, "because Valerio is like Rosa Parks." With a heavy, Dominican accent Rodriguez explained, "He's the perfect person to be used as a sample, as a role model of why immigration law is broken and it has to be fixed."
Together, Rodriguez, City Council Member Diana Reyna and State Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat listed everything they believe is wrong with what has happened to Valerio:
Valerio is being deported for a crime for which he was sentenced only to probation and, since then, he has raised an American family and, they say, has been an upstanding, tax-paying, legal resident of the United States.
When Valerio was first taken into custody, Rodriguez says he was told he would be moved to detention in Texas. Immigrant advocates have long objected to a detention system that moves detainees all over the country with little notice, particularly among New York's immigrant advocate community -- because once a detainee is moved away from New York it is not only much harder to speak with family members, it is more difficult to obtain a lawyer. Immigration detainees are not automatically provided with a lawyer and it is easier to get one in New York than in many other locations. Valerio was able to get a lawyer and make bail, instead of being moved, in part because his daughter works at a law firm and a lawyer there got on the case immediately, according to Council member Rodriguez.
Valerio himself said in Spanish at the press conference that other inmates he met while in detention had too little access to telephones and that reaching family members was like 'reaching for the sky.'
And Valerio is a father and will be a grandfather within weeks, and the Department of Homeland Security is potentially breaking up his family without attention to any of the details of his case. Since the 1996 immigration reforms, anyone who is convicted of a certain class of crimes loses the right to stay in the U.S., almost entirely without regard to his subsequent behavior or to the circumstances of his life. Advocates want more discretion for immigration judges.
Opponents of immigration reform support the deportation of immigrants who have committed crimes, whether or not family members are left behind. They say the Obama administration is doing too little to enforce immigration laws.
Obama administration officials are pushing for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, as well as more discretion in cases involving families. But they have said that, in order to enact that kind of reform, the federal government has to step up enforcement of existing laws. Meanwhile, immigrant advocates say the Department of Homeland Security is deporting the very immigrants President Obama has said he wants to allow to stay here with increasing speed. And they see Eligio Valerio as the perfect example.
One possible remedy for Valerio would be for New York Governor Paterson to pardon his conviction. Earlier this year, Paterson initiated a pardon panel with the aim of pardoning immigrants whose crimes were minor and who have otherwise been upstanding citizens. The New York Immigration Coalition is contacting the state about Valerio's case.
Public officials are also using Valerio's case to warn against what they see as the dangers of the federal Secure Communities program, which New York is signed up for but is not yet using. Secure Communities allows police to submit the fingerprints of anyone they arrest to immigration officials. The Department of Homeland Security says this will allow them to identify and detain immigrants who commit crimes, with the goal of deporting them.
Officials have said the goal of the program is to deport immigrants -- who are here illegally or with green cards -- who commit serious crimes. But advocates say Secure Communities will also result in the deportation of thousands of immigrants with no criminal convictions, or minor ones that are decades old. Current deportation statistics show that despite the government's stated priority of deporting violent criminals or those who threaten the security of Americans, about half of those deported over the past year have no criminal conviction and among those with convictions, many of the crimes do not rise to the level the administration says it is prioritizing.