On June 17, President Donald J. Trump vowed to deport “millions of illegal aliens” in an effort to strengthen the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws within the country.
Since taking office, Trump has maintained an aggressive, hardline position on immigration, but alongside his efforts to deport undocumented residents, his administration has quietly expanded its ability to crack down on civil liberties of all U.S. residents, including citizens.
The case of Enrique Perez-Orozco highlights this disturbing trend.
On May 5, Colorado’s Durango Police Department arrested 34-year-old Perez-Orozco at a local soccer field on charges of a years-old minor probation violation stemming from Georgia. The arrest wouldn’t be newsworthy if it weren’t for the fact that it appears to have been triggered by a background check initiated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is charged with upholding the nation’s immigration laws.
The only problem? Perez-Orozco is not a foreigner, he’s a U.S.-born citizen.
Perez-Orozco is the son of Colombian migrants and a respected Latino activist in La Plata County, Colorado where he has tirelessly advocated for the rights of immigrants over the last two years. In the weeks leading up to his arrest, Perez-Orozco helped organized a handful of peaceful protests in front of ICE’s local field office.
Following these demonstrations, Perez-Orozco and fellow activists began receiving intimidating calls from individuals who identified themselves as “federal agents.” During this same time, Perez-Orozco noticed that unidentified men in government vehicles were following him throughout the day. Shortly after that, he was arrested.
Perez-Orozco’s arrest exemplifies how ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are bending the law to discourage social activism within immigrant communities. His story is part of a troubling trend in which agents from DHS and ICE have begun to infringe on the rights of U.S. citizens.
Homeland Security Act
“This landmark legislation, the most extensive reorganization of the federal government since the 1940s, will help our nation meet the emerging threats of terrorism in the 21st century.”
Among the 9 out of 100 Senators who voted against the bill was Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who argued that the Act would undermine “protections against unwarranted government intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans.”
Today, Feingold’s warning has become reality.
Last year, Matthew T. Albence, who serves as ICE’s Deputy Director, informed the Washington Post that the agency “does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make.” He called any suggestions to the contrary irresponsible, speculative, and inaccurate.
Since then, Albence has worked alongside ICE’s Acting Director Mark A. Morgan, encouraging the detention of children, and facilitating the separation of families. In 2018 during a visit to Capitol Hill, Albence compared immigrant detention centers to “summer camps.” Under Albence and Morgan’s leadership, ICE has expanded its mission to unofficially include the intimidation of journalists and activists working with immigrant communities.
Today, the U.S. government employs more than 20,000 ICE agents and supports personnel who operate across 400 offices in the U.S. and around the world. And as of 2019, over 50,000 undocumented immigrants were being held in jails around the country, which is the most immigrants held in detention simultaneously since 2001.
To fund its expansion, ICE has scraped together funds from other federal agencies, including $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva told the Daily Beast in 2018, the rise in detentions – and subsequent deportations – reflects the fact “that the Trump administration has weaponized ICE into an entity that far exceeds the agency’s original mandate and fits with the anti-immigrant actions of this administration.”
Cracking Down on Social Activism
The Trump administration has employed ICE as a tool to crack down on social activism within communities that are critical of the administration’s anti-immigrant agenda.
The depth of this trend became clear on March 7, 2019, when news emerged of an inter-agency list kept by DHS detailing information on journalists and social activists operating along the U.S.-Mexican border. This list was used to single out people working within immigrant communities as they crossed back into the United States. Blacklisted individuals were run through secondary checkpoints as a means of intimidation. The list was also used to deny immigrant attorneys and reporters entry into Mexico.
However, as Perez’s Orozco’s arrest reveals, ICE’s efforts to silence activists and journalists is not limited to the U.S. border.
Homeland Security’s Mission Creep
Although the Durango Police Department could have arrested Perez-Orozco at any time, they chose to arrest him on Sunday, May 5 – el Cinco de Mayo – after a soccer match at Fort Lewis College. It is hard to imagine a more public space within the local community, and in this regard, it seems quite clear that Perez-Orozco’s arrest was intended to send a message of intimidation to others who might consider speaking out about ICE’s presence in the community.
According to Durango Police Department Commander Rita Warfield, in the early hours of May 5, her office received an anonymous call regarding Perez-Orozco:
“We were notified and I don’t know how we found out, it could have been a citizen that said that Mr. Perez was up at the college playing soccer, but the police went up there and they were able to identify that there was a warrant for his arrest out of Georgia and so they arrested him,” she told me over the phone. “We are routinely not involved in immigration issues, however.”
According to Perez-Orozco, his lawyer was able to confirm that DHS facilitated his client’s arrest by opening a federal investigation into his background following his participation in protests against ICE. Although Perez-Orozco’s arrest technically stems from a probation violation, the case was fast-tracked due to DHS’s involvement.
“There was a case in Kansas that wasn’t even on anyone’s radar,” Perez-Orozco told me over the phone from La Plata County jail. “It was a misdemeanor offense. And they [DHS] notified Georgia of this thing in Kansas, and [then] Georgia served the warrant.”
After multiple failed attempts to contact DHS’s agents in Durango’s field office, I reached out to the agency’s public relations office in Denver to confirm whether DHS ran a background check on Perez-Orozco. While DHS did not deny participating in the case, they suggested I contact the arresting police department. However, several hours after our initial phone conversation, I received an e-mail from DHS: “ICE doesn’t discuss or otherwise disclose investigative methods, tactics, techniques or procedures.”
The message was both clear and eerily troubling.
Five days after his arrest, Perez-Orozco appeared before Judge William Herringer in a crowded courtroom, where his lawyer asked that his client be released so that he could return to Georgia to stand trial on his own volition. Judge Herringer responded, “This is something between Mr. Perez and the state of Georgia. I have no discretion here.”
Perez-Orozco’s arrest exemplifies how DHS and ICE are bending the law to discourage immigrant communities’ social activism. In this sense, his arrest, and the intimidation of immigrant activists elsewhere in the country, represents an attack on civil liberties everywhere.
My work, which is grounded in more than a decade of research within immigrant communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, reveals a troubling trend in which ICE agents, often working far away from the United States’ borders, have begun to encroach on the rights of U.S. citizens. These infringements include stripping U.S.-born citizens of their U.S. passports upon reentry into the country.
There are currently four full-time ICE agents living in Durango, which, with a population of just over 18,000 people, is the largest city in La Plata County. Their work reflects a growing presence of ICE in the region, where immigrant detentions have reached all-time highs.
In La Plata County, ICE has targeted immigrants in public places, including at La Plata County Courthouse. Their work in the community mirrors trends at the national level and has the unfortunate effect of deterring members of the immigrant community from participating in the judicial system.
According to Matt Karkut, Executive Director of immigrant rights NGO Compañeros: Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center, ICE agents have been particularly aggressive in recent months.
“ICE agents here have been preying on people by lurking outside the courthouse, at elementary schools, and even outside of people’s homes,” he told me. “All of this has combined to make members of the immigrant community much more fearful of appearing in public or using public services and more afraid of police and other emergency personnel in general.”
According to Karkut, this has had far-reaching effects. “This results in many problems such as children missing school because their parents are too afraid to drop them off, individuals not being able to attend their court dates or pay traffic tickets, people not seeking medical care even if they need it, and a reluctance among the community to contact emergency personnel such as police or paramedics even if they require help with an urgent and serious issue.”
ICE has employed various forms of intimidation to coerce immigrants into providing them with information about friends and relatives.
As one immigrant, whose identify I conceal for reasons of personal safety, recently told me, “they’ve [ICE agents] been pulling people over outside their homes and places of work. Then they show them photos of friends and tell them that these people have ratted them out but that if they provide information on their whereabouts, they can help them stay in the country. Of course, these are lies, and once they take them in for questioning, they process them for deportation.”
And like elsewhere in the country, activists in Durango are being targeted by ICE agents for protesting and speaking out against the agency’s extralegal practices.
Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in. Mexico, using their strong immigration laws, is doing a very good job of stopping people…….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2019
In at least one case, a Durango resident’s activism led to the detention and near deportation of their father. Before their father’s detention, the individual in question had granted an interview to a local reporter in the fall of 2016 at a protest against Mike Pence, who was holding a campaign rally at the local fairgrounds.
After the event, the individual’s statement was shared online via a Facebook feed maintained by the Durango Herald. Within days of the video’s release, the individual’s home was being watched by federal agents, and shortly thereafter, their father was detained by ICE and sent to a deportation facility in Aurora, Colorado, where they were arbitrarily held for six months. Eventually, the charges were dropped, but the scare tactic worked. Since their father’s release, the individual in question, despite residing legally in the country, has refrained from protesting in public.
Chilling New Reality
Less than a week after Perez-Orozco’s arrest, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sat down with State Representative Barbara McLaughlin, 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne, and La Plata County Sherriff Sean Smith. During their public discussion of Durango’s most vulnerable populations – including undocumented immigrants – Champagne said ICE’s policies undermine the justice system. However, he also noted that ICE’s orders are coming from national directives. “Local [ICE] agents are good people,” Champagne said. “They’re just following orders.”
As families are divided along the border, children are held in cages in concentration camps around the country, and social activists and journalists are intimidated by DHS’ immensely powerful networks, one is left to wonder, is this what the unfolding of democracy looks like?
Democratic decline in the U.S. is already well documented. As inequality has grown and the political clout of the economic elite has expanded, the quality of democratic practices has slipped, investigative journalism has withered, and the voice of dissenting Americans has been muffled.
However, the encroachment of DHS and ICE on the civil liberties of all Americans under the guise of “protecting the nation against external threats” represents a frightening new chapter in U.S. history. What is certain is that if there is going to be a democratic renewal in this country, it will require good people to begin questioning orders from above.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.