Fearing for her safety during a fight with her husband on Christmas Eve in 2009, Maria Bolaños called the police in Prince George’s County, Maryland — but she said what happened after that call was far more dangerous.
“If I had known what was going to happen, I never would have called the police on December 24,”Bolaños said.
Nearly six months later, the police arrived at Bolaños’ door and arrested her for allegedly selling a $10 phone card.
“A police officer got out and told me, you’re being arrested. And my husband said ‘Why?’ They didn’t even known what they were accusing me of,”Bolaños said.
After five days in detention, Bolaños’ charges were dropped. She asked if she could return home to breastfeed her infant daughter, but she was told she was being deported.
“Then I asked them, can I go home? The clerk told me yes you can go. And then a police officer stopped him and said, no, you can’t go home, we have a deportation order and we are going to deport you back to your country,” Bolaños said. “They brought me back to the cell, with my hands and feet shackled, like a criminal.”
The 28-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador was released with a tracking bracelet. Unable to find work because of the court order, Bolaños continues to fight deportation today and has become an unlikely hero of the immigrants’ rights movement because of her courage to stand up to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Far from unique, Bolaños’ case is part of a program called Secure Communities. Billed as a program to remove dangerous criminals, federal statistics show that 29% of those actually arrested under the program had no prior criminal conviction and an additional 30% had minor offenses like traffic violations.
“They’re getting picked up by police who quite frankly know if they pick up some brown person in an old car that doesn’t have paper, they can get them deported,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “It’s ripping apart the families of the very people Barack Obama promised to legalize, who are being deported under a program he says is for serious criminals.”
Already active in 42 states, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has mandated that the program be implemented nationwide by 2013.
Critics like Enid Gonzalez of immigrant advocacy organization CASA de Maryland said the program is about filling a quota.
“Wherever there’s a problem, someone is making money,” Gonzalez said. “Congress has allotted funding for 400,000 beds for immigrants in proceedings, and there’s this pressure to keep those beds occupied. People who are in detention, they call us and say, ‘What can we do so they will send us home?'”
Gonzalez said rather than making communities more secure, the program breeds fear and prejudice.
“These nice white folks have got in their head: ‘These undocumented! These illegals!’ They’ve even got in their heads that there’s such a thing as an illegal person for God’s sake – when illegality is ascribed to conduct.”
President Obama has deported 1.4 million undocumented immigrants. But responding to immigrants rights groups last week, Obama agreed to review 300,000 pending deportations of “low priority” immigrants – including undocumented students like DREAM Gaby Pacheco.
“The president has totally failed the immigrant rights movement. Mainly, he has failed this community of young people who stood by him, who went out for him and registered people to vote for him,”
“If he’s going to ask the Latino vote, for the immigrant vote, in 2012 he’s going to have to deliver something.”
Sharry said it is still possible for Obama to deliver on his campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform.
“He, as president, has executive authority that could change things now,”
Sharry said. “
So why isn’t he doing it? Because, quite frankly, Obama is afraid of antagonizing white swing voters who are going to be criticinal in his next election.”
Immigrants rights advocates say Secure Communities encourages racial profiling as well.
“The police just look for people who look like us, latinos, and they’re always bothering us. They’re racist,”Bolaños said.
Bolaños said she wakes up every morning wondering if this will be the day she is deported. Her husband has already been sent back.
“I have my daughter, who was born here, who will have to go to a country she doesn’t know. She will lose many opportunities that she could have here that she won’t have there – but I can’t leave her. She’s my treasure.”