Workshop Aims to Avert Deportations

July 2, 2007

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Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Sunday scolded the Senate for failing to pass an immigration bill. He pledged, though, that his department would continue enforcing the law as it exists.
 
That prospect isn't soothing immigrant advocates. In Chicago, they're planning to spend more time training undocumented workers what to do -- and what not to do -- during encounters with the authorities. Chicago Public Radio's Chip Mitchell reports.

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Lis Conde huddled some volunteers this weekend outside a gathering of about 50 immigrants in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

CONDE: “OK, so the beginning, I'm going to go in there. I'm going to introduce myself in the workshop...”

She tells them to act like agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency known as ICE.

CONDE: “Do your thing. Be like, ‘Grrr.' And that's it...”

Conde enters the workshop and lets everyone know there's going to be a role-play exercise.

Then the mock officers burst in.

CONDE: “Y llega (knocking). ‘ICE agents!' Abrimos? No. Por qué? Una orden de qué? De cateo, una orden de cateo o de allanamiento, verdad?...”

Conde tells the immigrants not to open the door unless an officer shows a warrant. She tells them not to provide any information until they're allowed to reach a lawyer. And don't sign any document, she says, because it might be what's known as a voluntary deportation order.

VEGA: “We're fighting for the rights of undocumented people to be treated as equals in this society.”

That's Raquel Vega. She earned an architecture degree this spring from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She helped organize the workshop for a group of mostly young Latino activists called the Emergency Response Network.

VEGA: “We can't allow another second-class citizenship to form. In the 1960s, we went to the streets to stop segregation. And, today, it's another form of segregation.”

Vega's network is among several Chicago groups planning to prepare immigrants for any brushes with the law. There'll be more workshops. A group of Catholic priests is planning to help hand out 100,000 wallet-size prayer cards with immigrant rights printed on the back.

And a committee that's led huge immigrant marches through Chicago's Loop is giving its advice through a cartoon series in its weekly newspaper. The drawings show immigrants sweating in fear before gun-toting officers in dark sunglasses.

ICE spokesperson Tim Counts declines to comment on those images specifically. But he says immigration authorities are professional in all situations.

COUNTS: “Our agents are scrupulous about following the law and about following widely accepted law-enforcement practices.”

ICE has carried out more than 144,000 deportations nationwide since the fiscal year began last October. That's a record pace. Counts says the defeat of the federal reform legislation won't change the agency's approach.

COUNTS: “ICE's job is to enforce the nation's immigration laws. That's what we have been doing since ICE was formed as part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. And we will continue to enforce the nation's immigration laws.”

That's what the workshop participants want to be prepared for.

CONTE: “Muchas gracias (applause).”

A 26-year-old mother of three traveled to the event from Cicero. She and her husband, a construction worker, have been in the United States without proper papers since migrating from Mexico more than a dozen years ago.

MOTHER: “A toda la gente que conozco a tratar de orientarla y de hablarlas lo que deben hacer...”

She says she's going to tell friends and neighbors -- everyone she knows -- what she learned at the workshop.

I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.