Immigrants get training on rights amid deportation fear
On a recent morning, a dozen immigrant families gathered in a southwest Detroit school gym to learn more about their rights in the United States.
They formed a circle around their trainer, Diego Bonesatti, director of legal services for Michigan United, a human rights organization with offices in Detroit and Kalamazoo.
Addressing the group of legal and undocumented immigrants, Bonesatti went over a guide in Spanish that discussed laws that protected them, and suggested a plan of action should they be approached by police.
Among the topics covered: What to do if police approach you or come to your home, and advance steps to take to protect your children in case of a raid by federal immigration agents.
Many immigrants are worried their families could be separated if a relative gets deported.
“You have a lot of permanent residents who are afraid,” Bonesatti said. “I mean, they have green cards and they’re worried that they are going to have their green cards taken away. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty.”
For some, it was a meeting they say they never imagined they’d have to attend after moving to the U.S. for freedom and opportunities.
One participant, a mother of four, said she came to this country from Mexico in 2006 to gain a better life for herself and her children and is afraid she will be deported.
The event at Matrix Head Start was part of a series of “Know Your Rights” training sessions being hosted by groups across the state and nationwide to teach immigrants their rights amid efforts by the Trump administration to curb immigration and deport more undocumented residents.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have stepped up raids against undocumented immigrants since the government announced last month it would target people charged with or even suspected of crimes — a change from the Obama administration’s policy, which focused on those convicted of serious crimes.
President Donald Trump also issued a revised travel ban March 6, barring new visas for citizens in six predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya. That ban is on hold after rulings against it issued by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland.
Immigration attorneys say Trump has caused chaos and confusion with his executive orders and left immigrants terrified to leave their homes — and the country, for fear of not being able to get back in.
The training sessions have been centered around schools, community centers and places of worship that serve large numbers of immigrant families.
Michigan United teaches its “Know Your Rights” trainers who lead sessions with immigrants in both English and Spanish.
Matrix Head Start is in southwest Detroit, where more than half of the population is Hispanic. The school, for children ages 2-5, is 70 percent immigrant families.
The literature Bonesatti distributed outlined tips such as the fact that undocumented immigrants have the right to ask to speak their attorneys before answering questions from police.
Other advice: ask to see a warrant before opening your door to police; carry contact information for your immigration attorney; ask for a bond if placed in immigration custody; and develop a safety plan with co-workers and family in case there is a raid or you are detained.
The staff at Matrix Head Start was particularly concerned about parents designating a guardian or family member to care for their children in the event of deportation.
Director Maria Garcia said she advised parents to write notarized letters identifying where their children should go.
Officials say that if a parent is detained and there is no plan for the child, schools are legally obligated to call Child Protective Services.
“I had a parent who said, ‘I’m just afraid that every time the door bell rings that someone’s gonna be at the door and they are going to take my kids,’ ” Garcia said. “They hear about different situations that happen in the neighborhood, so they are scared and they try to stay in as much as possible.”
The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center also has been working to help immigrant families understand their rights since Trump took office.
Ruby Robinson, supervising attorney for MIRC, said he’s concerned that Trump is issuing orders without seeking input from the affected communities.
“It seems like it’s a much more centralized effort,” Robinson said.
It’s also altering the perception of the United States as a “welcoming, inclusive country,” Robinson said.
“The actions that have come out over the past several weeks have put immigrant communities in fear, anxiety has increased greatly and it seems to be inconsistent with the intent of the laws that we currently have,” Robinson said.
Odilia Olmedo, 24, attended Bonesatti’s session to help her boyfriend, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico two years ago. He works as a restaurant dishwasher and is looking to gain citizenship, Olmedo said.
Through a translator, Olmedo said she “felt bad” for her boyfriend when she saw that Trump was enforcing his executive orders.
However, she said the “Know Your Rights” session was very helpful because she learned not to open the door for police without a warrant.
“I liked it, it was very interesting,” Olmedo said.