Grassroots organization hosts legal workshops to prevent expected deportations

Emma Lozano
Rev. Emma Lozano, founder of Centro Sin Fronteras, speaks to a crowd of undocumented immigrants at the Lincoln United Methodist Church at a legal workshop (Hannah Rank MEDILL)

By Hannah Rank

As families filed into the chilly main auditorium of Pilsen’s Lincoln United Methodist Church last Saturday afternoon, signs reading “Holy Ground,” and “ICE Free Zone” lined the walls next to the pews.

“They’re frightened,” Reverend Emma Lozano, founder of Centro Sin Fronteras, said. “A lot of people didn’t want to come today because they’re frightened to come out because we’re all there and maybe immigration [Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE] will show up.”

But around 90 people did come on Saturday for a workshop held by Centro titled ¡Defienden Su Derechos!/Know Your Rights!

Lozano hoped that holding the legal workshop, one of two held that weekend, would help inform undocumented community members of their legal protections. This workshop comes less than a week after Department of Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson’s announcement to increase raids targeting Central American immigrants who have come to the US since May 2014, been arrested after crossing the border, have been issued deportation orders, but have still managed to move elsewhere in the U.S.

Attorney Chris Bergin of Shiller Preyar law offices, who works closely with Centro Sin Fronteras, noted in an email that ICE is using this directive to enforce prior orders, and has seen an increase in ICE action since the start of the new year.

“ICE has shown up at people’s houses to enforce prior removal orders,” Bergin said. “ICE Officers are using the president’s new policy directive as an excuse to become more aggressive in their enforcement operations on cases unrelated to the Central American cases his policy was meant to deal with.”

“We need to prepare our community to what’s happening with the ongoing raids going on in 2016,” John Antia, another attorney from Shiller Preyar, said in a video message on the event’s Facebook Page. “They’re going to be ramping it up, we know that they are, they’ve said that they are, so let’s get prepared.”

Before the workshops, Lincoln United Methodist Church Pastor Walter Coleman addressed the audience, emphasizing the need for caution.

“If ICE comes and knocks on your door, we want you to be prepared,” he said. “There is a way to defend yourself.”

One of the ways Centro hoped to arm the participants is through the use of personalized identification cards, and had set up a booth to take photos for the ID in the main entrance of the church.

Centro is encouraging people to present the card to ICE in an attempt to dissuade the officers and to plead for them to use their individual discretion. The cards will have a photo of the individual as well as information about any minor children they may have, and a condensed version of ICE’s prosecutorial discretion on the back.

Lozano explained the IDs were important because they are more personalized than a form letter, and appeared a more official document to present to officials.

“We felt this was something that they could take out and refer to and it would be taken more seriously especially with the policy of Barack Obama on the back,” Lozano said. “Many do not have any ID’s whatsoever.”

Other organizations have produced similar cards, called “Rights Cards” to present to ICE officials. These rights cards do not have individual information about the person confronted by ICE, but explain in English the confronted person’s desire to remain silent.

Bergin explained the main thing he emphasizes to his clients is that they are never obliged to speak to an ICE official.

“We tell them not to let ICE into their home.  Even if ICE has a warrant, which is vey unlikely, do not open your door,” Bergin said.  “Make them break your door down and we will fight it out in court.  Never tell ICE anything.  Ask to speak to your lawyer.”

Centro Sin Fronteras began in 1987 by Lozano in an attempt to bridge the gap between Latinos born in the US and those immigrating from Latin American countries.

On the policy side, one of the first major initiatives of Centro was their help in drafting the Immigrant Fairness Act (H.R. 1015) in concert with U.S. Rep. Luiz Gutierrez of Illinois.

Gutierrez, who also addressed the crowd before the workshop, spoke passionately and emphasized that the people he’s talked with facing deportation aren’t necessarily illegal immigrants, but rather refugees looking for a better life.

“This is not a question of immigrants, it’s a question of refugees,” Gutierrez said in Spanish. “They [migrants] came here fleeing for security and the lives of their sons and daughters and themselves.”

Sara Walker, a volunteer at the workshop, reiterated Gutierrez’ point about the refugee status of the majority of Latin American immigrants she encounters.

“Latin America is overrun with gang violence and corruption and that’s why they’re here to begin with,” Walker said.

“So to send them back after all these years of being here just seems cruel.”

Photo at top: Rev. Emma Lozano, founder of Centro Sin Fronteras, speaks to a crowd of undocumented immigrants at the Lincoln United Methodist Church at a legal workshop. (Hannah Rank MEDILL)