Immigrant Advocates Coach on Avoiding Arrest

Hispanic activists protested against a series of immigration raids last year.

hide captionHispanic activists protest against immigration raids across the country at a rally in Los Angeles in December.

David McNew/Getty

In the past two years, the immigration agency has dramatically stepped up arrests of illegal immigrants in workplaces and in their homes.

In response, immigrant rights advocates have been holding "know your rights" seminars that coach people on how to avoid arrest.

Gloria Contreras-Edin of Centro Legal has held nearly two dozen of these seminars since an immigration raid in a Minnesota prairie town last spring.

She says she wants people to be prepared if immigration agents come to their homes.

Legal Affairs 101

"They're going to knock very loudly," she says, banging on a chair. "An ugly knock. But don't open the door. The only way immigration can force their way into your home is with a search warrant."

One man can't believe this. He asks if the authorities can enter with a deportation order?

"No," Contreras-Edin says. "They still need your permission."

She tells the group the immigration agency has a tip line and warns them not to talk about their immigration status at work if they are undocumented.

And if agents do show up, they need probable cause to arrest you, she says. So, don't give them any!

Contreras-Edin leans into the face of a woman in the front row and asks, "Where are you from?"

The woman is silent, and Contreras-Edin says that is the right response.

She warns immigration agents will even try to get information from children. She looks at two boys in the front row and clasps her hands over her mouth. They giggle, and then they do the same.

A number of people in this group are legal residents or citizens, but they are worried about unauthorized relatives.

Contreras-Edin sees her role as helping these families avoid separation. She says even legal residents often don't know they don't have to answer a federal agent's questions.

"They have the right to remain silent. They don't have to prove that they're citizens. I couldn't prove that I'm a citizen, and most people can't," she says.

Odds of Arrest Are Slim

Critics contend these sessions are aiding a crime by helping illegal immigrants stay in the country.

In Washington, D.C., Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not make that charge, but officials do see an impact.

John Torres, who heads the office of Detention and Removal, says his agents are finding more people who refuse to open their doors to agents.

"What that means for us is it makes our job a little bit harder. We have to expend more time, effort and taxpayer money to get the job done," Torres says. "But what we'll do is, in some instances, we may wait until the person comes out. Or, we may do more significant surveillance and arrest them at a location outside their residence."

At the Saint Paul, Minn., meeting, a woman who gave her name as Selenia says she is a legal resident, but her husband and two children are not.

She is so worried about the increase in arrests that she kept the children inside on Halloween this year, and she says many people now go out only for essential errands.

As the meeting winds down, Contreras-Edin hands out a packet of forms. In case of arrest, families can delegate the care of a child and sign over their power of attorney for financial matters.

Some Latino advocates note that, despite ramped up enforcement, the odds of being arrested still remain slim.

Contreras-Edin says 200,000 immigrants were deported from the interior of the country last year.

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