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Immigration evolution

As legislative reforms stall, those on the front lines are hammering out workable compromises.

April 03, 2008

Before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took 144 men and women into custody at Micro Solutions Enterprises in Van Nuys a few weeks ago, the agency sent advance notice to civil rights groups. It put social service agencies on standby in case children whose parents were detained needed help. Once the suspected illegal immigrants were identified, ICE agents asked if they had chronic health conditions, child-care issues or other urgent personal situations. Those who did were released and given an order to appear in court at a later date. Lastly, ICE handed out a list of attorneys who would take cases pro bono.

It should have been the perfect immigration raid -- considerate, humanitarian, efficient, the agency's standard since the debacle in New Bedford, Mass., last year when children, including a breast-feeding baby, suffered when their parents were taken away for days. But the Van Nuys action still resulted in a lawsuit -- which led to progress. Lawyers waiting to assist the immigrants filed an injunction against ICE after they were stopped from accompanying the immigrants to interviews, a clear violation of the constitutional right to representation. ICE settled the suit several days ago, and since then attorney access has been smoother.

This is the reform of immigration enforcement far from the halls of Congress. It is being cobbled together bit by bit, with compromises, cooperation and confrontation by naturally opposing forces -- those charged with enforcing the law and deporting illegal immigrants and those who advocate on their behalf.

Tuesday afternoon, outraged immigration activists picketed ICE's downtown intake station, protesting the detention of about 30 suspected illegal immigrants taken in what they believed were "raids" on warehouses. Even a well-conducted raid is a hypocrisy, they said, illustrating contradictions between immigration enforcement policies and immigration law: A humane raid would not separate mothers from their young children for a long time, but the law allows the harsher separation of deportation.

It turns out, however, that the people picked up Tuesday were taken in routine port customs security inspections of freight warehouses. Those businesses have to comply with a lengthy list of security requirements, one of which is to not hire illegal immigrants, who are particular security risks because their status makes them vulnerable to coercion. All reasonable. So Wednesday morning, immigration advocates and ICE officials were on the phone together, examining and clarifying Tuesday's events -- and preparing for the next time.

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