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Law That Led To Trump’s Family Separation Crisis Has A Racist History


Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney who wrote a brief supporting the challenge to illegal entry and reentry, represented immigrants facing reentry charges when he was a federal public defender in the border city of El Paso, Texas. Most of them were people who had families after having lived in the US for years and were deported after being convicted of a crime. Some tried to live in the Mexican city of Juárez, which is right across from El Paso, but couldn’t bear being separated from their families and returned to the US, he said.

But they had serious problems if they came back and encountered Border Patrol or other law enforcement agents who learned they had been previously deported, said Arulanantham, who is now codirector of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law. The center has been helping to lead a public awareness campaign around illegal reentry.

“They would go to jail for years sometimes,” he said. “The impact of that is going to go on for years for having come back to see family.”

Efrain Leonides-Seguria, a 46-year-old Mexican man, is one of the thousands of undocumented immigrants who have been charged with illegal entry. Leonides-Seguria said he came to the US chasing the “American dream” he’d often heard about while growing up in the state of Guerrero. In 1997, Leonides-Seguria crossed the border in Arizona and started planting roots.

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“I wanted to find out for myself if it was true,” Leonides-Seguria told BuzzFeed News. “But with time, you realize that, yes, you live a bit more comfortably here, but it’s also stressful.”

In the years that followed, Leonides-Seguria had four daughters, a son, and a granddaughter. He made a living working in a paper factory in the suburbs of Chicago and continued practicing martial arts for a few years, a sport he had picked up in Mexico. That was until he was deported in December 2009 after being convicted of driving while intoxicated, according to court records. It was the first of five times he’d be deported, one additional time following another DUI conviction, and the others after being caught by Border Patrol.

Leonides-Seguria was also convicted of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon and sentenced to 18 months’ probation in October 2001, according to court records. In May 2021, he was convicted of aggravated driving under the influence and violating his electronic monitoring. He was sentenced to three years and three months in prison.

He has also been convicted of illegal reentry two times and was sentenced to 10 months for each one, court records show. An illegal-reentry conviction, however, can result in an immigrant being sentenced to up to two years and even as high as 20 years, depending on their criminal record.

Leonides-Seguria said he didn’t know that he could be charged with reentry until he was caught trying to enter the US after his first deportation. Yet despite the prison time, he kept trying his luck at returning after each deportation because he said his children needed him. The first time he was deported, his son and daughter were still in elementary school.

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“They truly needed me,” he said. “I wanted to give them a regular life, not a bad life, not an outstanding life, but a normal, regular life.”

He never expected to spend so much time behind bars; nor did the men detained alongside him.

“You lose a great deal of your time locked up,” Leonides-Seguria said. “It’s not worth it.”

In September, he lost his bid to get his latest illegal-reentry charge dismissed when a federal judge in Illinois ruled that the DOJ had met the burden of showing the 1929 law would have passed regardless of the racial bias.

If the federal defenders prevail in the 9th Circuit, the government would be prevented from prosecuting immigrants for entering the US without authorization in regions under its purview. It wouldn’t stop the deportations, though. And if it happens, the Justice Department will almost certainly appeal to the Supreme Court.

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Studies have shown that punishing immigrants for the act of entering the country without authorization rarely deters them from trying and merely pushes them to take more dangerous routes to enter the US.

Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a nonprofit based on both sides of the Arizona border, said she has seen immigrants increasingly attempt to cross the desert because they want to reunite with their US-citizen children — despite the dangers.

Because a majority of immigrants and asylum-seekers are being quickly expelled back to Mexico or their home countries under the Trump-era pandemic policy, those parents will most likely not be criminally charged, but they’ll almost certainly be blocked from entering the US if caught, Williams said.

And even when immigrants know they could face federal prison time for crossing, they still weigh the risks against being separated from their children, she added.

“How do you weigh being separated from your kids for the rest of your life between going to jail?” ●

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Adolfo Flores

Published: 2022-12-05 18:56:14

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