Claudia Nuñez is in hell.
Claudia Nuñez is in hell.
This 26-year-old mother of two has been sitting in the Williamson County Jail for two weeks. She’s waiting for a hearing before a federal judge in Memphis. Chances are that the judge won’t give her good news but will instead order that Nuñez be removed from the U.S. immediately.
In that case, she will be separated from her husband and two little girls, ages 4 and 8. Christina, the 4-year-old, is developmentally disabled and does not understand why her mother can’t come home. Christina and her sister are U.S. citizens. Nuñez’s husband is also here legally. Claudia is not. She arrived in the U.S. legally from her native El Salvador on July 4, 2001, and was issued a six-month tourist visa. That was five years ago. She never left and didn’t apply for protective status, which she probably would have qualified for.
What separates Claudia Nuñez from other undocumented immigrants who find themselves in the belly of the deportation beast is the way that she got there.
She wasn’t picked up in a raid on a construction site. She wasn’t busted trying to pass a fake Social Security number. She’s never committed a violent crime and certainly isn’t a felon. Claudia Nuñez is sitting in jail and separated from her family because she was caught driving without a license. Though just a misdemeanor, the citation led—through a complex series of bureaucratic channels, involving three separate law enforcement agencies—to the discovery that Nuñez had overstayed her visa.
Nuñez went to court for a routine hearing about the misdemeanor a few weeks after being pulled over. Once there, she was shown a piece of paper that said that her visa had expired.
“Is this true?” she recalls a sheriff’s officer asking her.
“Yes,” she replied. She was immediately handcuffed, placed under arrest and transferred to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE had earlier granted permission to hold Nuñez for deportation. Because of an agreement with federal law enforcement agencies, ICE uses the Williamson County Jail as a local holding facility. What’s murky is why some, like Nuñez, who committed no aggravated crime, are flagged by the federal agency while other, dangerous aliens receive no attention from immigration officials when they are charged with misdemeanors or worse. Attorneys speculate that local law enforcement is inconsistent about how often it consults with ICE. Whether ICE is equally random about what criteria it uses to give the go-ahead to hold someone is unclear.
At the moment she entered the ICE system, Nuñez became part of a growing number of undocumented immigrants whose ultimate punishment for minor offenses is deportation. They are the crest of a wave that soon will assume monstrous proportions. Early next year, the sheriff’s office is expected to have a program in place that will make it even easier to verify an arrestee’s immigration status. It also will essentially give the sheriff’s office the same powers as federal immigration cops. The result could be a dramatic uptick in the number of non-aggravated criminals snared for deportation.
On Wednesday, Sheriff Daron Hall and Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas are meeting with a group of local immigration lawyers who are gravely concerned. They have questions about who will be targeted and how street level enforcement of immigration violations will be carried out. Some already have a pretty good idea.
“Everybody’s going to be under the gun,” says Nashville immigration attorney Ana Escobar. “Every charge, from an open container to trespassing.”
Though this would improve enforcement of the literal interpretation of immigration law, it is very different from recent federal enforcement practice.
Temple Black, spokesman for ICE in the Southeast, seems puzzled that Metro law enforcement would expend resources on busting undocumented workers who aren’t dangerous criminals. “What we are focused on is aggravated felons…. We don’t go down to the Shell Station and pick up [undocumented workers].”
Black, who lives and works in New Orleans, says that the average undocumented worker is not a threat. In fact, he cites them as a necessary part of the local economy. “All the illegal aliens that we have here in town putting sheet rock in housing…we don’t want to arrest them,” he says.
Black expresses surprise when told of Claudia Nuñez’s case. “But this is like, nothing,” he says of her situation.
Many will applaud Metro’s strict policy for its absolute and indiscriminate punishment of any and all undocumented lawbreakers, but attorneys say that, as of now, what’s happening is actually tragically arbitrary. As hysteria over an imagined alien scourge mounts, stoked by politicians and talk radio pundits, the media spotlight has been trained on anecdotal examples of undocumented workers committing serious crimes. Jose Reyes and “The Closet Killer” have become shorthand for what is wrong with the way officials have handled the immigration issue.
But it seems that while the Metro sheriff’s office policy adheres to the letter of U.S immigration laws, in practice the spirit of those laws are evaded. Sometimes those who are allowed to stay are not people we would like as neighbors. Sometimes those who are forced to leave have deep roots in the community.
One Nashville immigration attorney—who did not want his name used for fear of jeopardizing his client’s cases—tells a tale of two immigrants. One has been arrested on a number of drunk driving charges and another, like Claudia Nuñez, has an American family and strong ties to Middle Tennessee. The repeat drunk driver is here legally as a refugee and may never be deported. The other immigrant, a working mother who overstayed her visa and recently received a misdemeanor license charge, is sitting in jail and may soon be forcibly removed from the country.
This unfairness is not lost on the immigrant community. Many local immigration attorneys are concerned that undocumented immigrants may not show up for hearings or voluntary misdemeanor booking procedures out of fear that it may lead to their deportation. This could result in more serious charges or mounting unpaid fines. It would also widen the gap between local authorities and a demographically significant population. Also, when combined with the antipathy that El Protector cop Juan Borges has expressed for the undocumented community, this policy is sure to keep some immigrants from reporting crimes.
“We really don’t know or realize the impact of what’s to come,” says attorney Escobar.
Meanwhile, Claudia Nuñez remains in hell. She weeps as she tells of family visits when she can’t hold her daughters because of the bulletproof glass between them. The guards won’t let her buy anything from the prison commissary. When she asks why, they tell her, “INS won’t let you have that.”
As a result, she’s had to rely on the kindness of other prisoners, borrowing clean socks and even underwear.
Nuñez says that the prisoners have taken pity on her. “They say to me, we know why we’re here, we did bad things,” she says. “We don’t understand why you’re in here.”