KAHULUI - Maui's Hispanic community and local churches are organizing a "know your rights" campaign in the face of a crackdown by federal immigration officials on undocumented immigrants.
Community leaders said there has been a significant increase in raids on businesses and searches of private homes by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents looking for undocumented immigrants. They said the stepped-up enforcement began in the last six to nine months.
The Rev. Gary Colton of Maria Lanakila Catholic Church in Lahaina, which has a substantial number of Hispanic parishioners, said enforcement was "minimal" before last year.
Gilberto Sanchez and the Rev. Tasha Kama meet Friday in Kahului. Kama and Sanchez are helping organize a “know your rights” campaign for both legal and undocumented immigrants being affected by an increase in enforcement actions by federal immigration authorities. Kama said local churches and leaders in the Hispanic community were concerned that the surge of immigration raids was breaking up families and making immigrants more afraid to report crimes or seek medical care. They said enforcement should be handled more humanely.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Advocates are distributing “rights cards,” like the one shown in this photo illustration, which people can show to police or immigration officials if they don’t wish to speak.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo illustration
"They may have been here a long time, which means they have a family," he said. "There have been incidents where fathers are suddenly gone. What does mama do with the kids? Or mom and dad are gone, and the kids go to foster care."
Church organizers with Faith Action for Community Equity, an interfaith alliance formed to address social issues, said they were concerned about how the surge in deportations was splitting up families, and how the aggressive, in-your-face approach of federal officers was terrorizing young children who might be in a home during a raid.
They said immigration enforcement should be handled more humanely.
"While (the raids) may be necessary for Homeland Security, we believe there needs to be some methodology that does not separate families, does not cause trauma," said the Rev. Tasha Kama of Christian Ministry Church, who serves on FACE's immigration committee.
The crackdown has also left some immigrants living legally on Maui feeling unfairly targeted, said FACE State Director Drew Astolfi.
"Some of the people being checked have legal status, but they're not being treated that way," he said.
Federal officers may come to a home looking for one individual, but once they're inside, they ask everyone in the home to show immigration papers, he said.
"They don't have to answer that question, but most of them don't know that," he said.
Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an e-mail that ICE agents were simply enforcing U.S. laws.
"We do so professionally, humanely, and with an acute awareness of the impact enforcement has on the individuals we encounter," she said. "ICE expects its officers to uphold the highest standards of professional conduct and personal integrity."
Anyone who believes they were mistreated by an immigration agent should report the incident so it can be investigated, she added.
Fear of deportation is making some undocumented immigrants reluctant to report crimes, ask for help, or even seek medical care, where they weren't afraid to do so before, said Gilberto Sanchez, a leader in Maui's Hispanic community.
Kihei resident Jose Luna said Maui police asked him to come with them when his car was totaled by a drunk driver in an accident earlier this year.
"They said, 'We're just going to take you to the police station to make the report, then we'll let you go,'" he said, speaking through a translator.
The 23-year-old Mexican national, who was living in the U.S. illegally, was nervous, but agreed to go with the police. Once at the station, he said the officers asked for his immigration documents, then told him they were contacting ICE. Luna was fingerprinted, arrested and taken to Kahului Airport, where he was transported to a federal detention center in Honolulu. Family members said it was two days before they knew what had happened to him.
Luna, who had been working on Maui as a dishwasher, agreed to voluntary deportation, and must return to Mexico next month.
Stories like Luna's are widely circulated in the community and only make people more reluctant to come forward when they need help, Sanchez said.
"This guy gets hit, and in the end, the responsible person is free, and he loses the car, his freedom, everything," Sanchez said. "They are really afraid."
Deputy Chief Gary Yabuta said Maui police officers will contact immigration officials if they learn during the course of an investigation that a suspect is in the country illegally.
But he said Maui police are trained to protect and help victims no matter what their immigration status.
"Whether a person is an illegal immigrant or a natural-born citizen or a visitor or a tourist, our job is to protect their constitutional rights," he said.
Yabuta said the Maui Police Department recognized the importance of reaching out to the island's growing Latino population.
"We have officers that speak Spanish, and they've been trained to go into the communities to find out what they're concerned about," he said. "It's not enough, but we do need to dialogue more with the Hispanic community, and any communities where English is a second language."
As part of its response to the crackdown, FACE and community leaders are holding informational sessions at churches around the island to help immigrants prepare for possible encounters with enforcement agents.
Families should have a plan in place for what to do if a relative is detained or deported, Sanchez said. The plan should include information on how to contact a lawyer, and who should care for children, he said.
Immigrants should also save money in an emergency fund, and take steps to give limited powers of attorney to a close friend or relative who can access the account and deal with personal affairs.
"It depends what they need to do," Sanchez said. "Some people need to sell the car, other people need to take care of the credit card, or close a bank account."
Parents should also make sure children can come with them if they end up being deported, said Honolulu immigration attorney Maile Hirota.
Children who were born in the U.S. can sometimes be separated from their parents if they don't have a passport to leave the country when their parents are deported. Getting a passport for a child when even one parent is in a detention center or out of the country becomes much more difficult, Hirota said.
"If you have minor children who are U.S. citizens, you should get the passport now," she said.
Haley, the ICE spokeswoman, said it was up to parents, not the government, to decide what to do with children when they are deported.
"Some parents choose to leave their child with a relative or responsible adult in the United States," she said. "Others choose to take the child with them to their home country."
Hirota participated in a "Know Your Rights" presentation for immigrants organized by FACE last year.
"It's true, there's increased enforcement on Maui," she said.
Many immigrants aren't aware of their basic legal rights, including the right to remain silent and not answer questions from police or ICE agents, she said.
Individuals also don't have to allow officers into their homes without a warrant, but many immigrants don't know that, and let them in when they don't have to, she said. Hirota said she advises people to ask the immigration agent to slide the warrant under the door, and not to open the door if the agent doesn't show a warrant.
Friends and family members also don't have to comply if an agent asks everyone in the home for their immigration papers or identification.
"They can ask, but the people who are there don't have to show anything," she said.
But Hirota said people should never lie to officers or show falsified documents.
"I think it's just important for people to know their rights before they get into the really bad situation of being detained, and then it becomes a crisis," she said.
In addition to the informational meetings, FACE has been handing out "rights cards" in English and Spanish that people can hand to officers if they don't want to speak.
"I choose to exercise my right to remain silent and to refuse to answer your questions," the cards say. They also have space where the person can write the name and phone number of a lawyer they wish to contact.
Kama said FACE recognized the role of immigration enforcement, but wanted to help families get through the experience with as little trauma as possible.
"If you're undocumented, we can't help you," Kama said. "But we want to let you know that you have rights if you get into this situation."
Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.