Some Juneau social workers are alarmed at the rate immigrants are arrested and their families split in the city.
Federal agents have counted 69 immigrant arrests in the past year, some for immigration violations and others for standard crimes.
Dan Austin, general manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, says some deportations have been hard on families here. He tells one story to illustrate an increasingly common scenario seen at the society's shelter.
Last summer, the Department of Homeland Security and the Juneau Police Department arrested several illegal immigrants in a downtown apartment building. One of the people arrested was immediately detained at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center.
"That afternoon, the Juneau Police Department dropped off on our doorstep a mother and her 2-year-old child," Austin said. The woman's husband had been rounded up in the sweep.
The husband soon was sent back to Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security filed separate immigration charges against the wife.
"She had no money, but the government didn't just say, 'Let's deport her too with her husband,'" Austin said. "They just left them here and told them they had to go to Anchorage for a trial."
The St. Vincent de Paul Society quickly raised money for the woman. But instead of sending the mother and child to the trial in Anchorage, where they most likely would have faced deportation, the organization flew them back to Mexico.
"I'm not saying they weren't within their rights to deport them," Austin said. "But why did they break the family up?"
When immigration-status violators are arrested, the Department of Homeland Security makes every effort to keep families together, said Kent Johansson, acting associate special agent in charge for the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch, or ICE.
"We're very careful," he said. "We wouldn't separate a family if we could avoid it. And it depends on their ties to the community. If someone has not committed any other crime, there are a number of things that come into play: they're allowed due process of law, they have a right to an attorney. ... We have discretion and our agents are savvy enough to exercise that."
Thirty-three of the 69 immigrants arrested in Juneau since last April are believed to have been involved in a drug-trafficking ring. The Southeast Alaska Narcotics Enforcement Team, the Juneau Police Department and ICE busted the ring last year and continued to arrest people related to the ring this spring, Johansson said.
The other 36 were arrested on noncriminal, administrative charges, Johansson said. These people had either entered the country without a visa, entered legally and let their visa expire or committed and served time for crimes that can lead to deportation.
Two of the 36 had committed sexual offenses and two had prior domestic violence convictions. Once the offenders have served time in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security has the authority to deport them, Johansson said.
Though the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch does not actively seek out status violators for deportation, in the course of criminal investigations like that of the drug trafficking ring, some illegal immigrants are found, Johansson said.
Several Juneau families, who declined newspaper interviews, have been split because of the arrests. Often an illegal husband is deported, leaving in Juneau a wife with legal documentation and children who are American citizens.
"It's a tough decision for families to make," said Joyanne Bloom, an English as a Second Language instructor with the Southeast Regional Resource Center. "If one spouse is legal and one isn't, do we all return to the country of origin?"
Attendance of immigrants of Mexican origin has dropped considerably in the last year in SERRC's citizenship and language classes, Bloom said. She doesn't inquire on the legal status of her students.
"We speculate just like everybody else," she said. "Is that good news? Does that mean they've got jobs? Or does that mean that they've gone underground, or does that mean they've been deported? We really have no way of knowing."
Robin Bronen, a public interest lawyer for the Division of Immigration and Refugee Services of Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, holds a legal advice clinic for immigrants four times per year in Juneau. Each time she visits Juneau, Bronen advises about 50 immigrants, she said.
The number of immigrants arrested by the Department of Homeland Security has gone up significantly in recent years, mostly due to tougher immigration laws enacted by the U.S. Congress, she said.
"Congress has implemented in the last several years some really harsh laws that impact families profoundly," Bronen said.
Once arrested, the immigrant can be detained or released. If detained, the immigrant will stay in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center or will be sent to a temporary Department of Homeland Security detention center in Cook Inlet. Within several months, detained or released immigrants will have to travel to Anchorage to appear before the only Department of Homeland Security court in the state.
The immigrants are not granted a court-appointed attorney. Instead, they must gather funds to hire a lawyer, or find a pro bono lawyer trained in immigration law, Bronen said.
In Johansson's memory, no immigrant has gone to trial in Alaska without legal representation, he said.
The lawyers who work with immigrants through Catholic Social Services in Anchorage can only take on a small portion of the immigration trials that take place in Alaska. Of the clients Bronen and her colleagues defend, 98 percent are acquitted and allowed to stay in the U.S.
The Catholic Diocese of Juneau will hold a workshop in May to inform immigrants of their rights, and many individuals are working to assist Juneau residents affected by the arrests.
The St. Vincent de Paul's Society will offer its services to all immigrants, legal or not, Austin said.
"Our policy is pretty clear," Austin said. "The Bible says - and we are instructed by Jesus - to welcome the strangers. It doesn't say anything about welcoming the legally documented strangers."
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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