Thursday, October 26, 2006

Young Hispanic mother taken from family because of drivers license

Nashville immigration policy requires jailing and deporting for misdemeanors

After she arrived at the Metro General Sessions traffic court for driving without a license, Claudia Nunez was jailed and told she would be deported for an immigration violation, according to this report in the Nashville Scene two weeks ago. At the time of the story in the Scene, Nunez had already spent two weeks in jail, separated from her husband and her two daughters, 4 and 8, one of whom is developmentally disabled.

Nunez's presence in the U.S. is not authorized by the federal government, but it's not because she is a danger to anyone around her or because she has committed a crime. It's because after she entered the country legally over five years ago, she stayed past her visa date. Staying past one's visa date is not a crime; it is a civil matter under federal law. The massive immigrant marches in the spring of this year (including one in Nashville) were sparked in part by a House bill to change federal law so that current civil immigration infractions would become not only crimes but felony crimes (all part of the recent wave of immigration-related changes in various laws, including this 2004 Tennessee law and this 2006 executive decision, the likely reasons Ms. Nunez doesn't have a drivers license). The felony criminalization proposal has not been made into law, so Ms. Nunez is still not in criminal violation of any immigration statute. Still, she was jailed for the purpose of being deported - expelled by force.

Federal officials disagree with the way Nashville is treating people like Ms. Nunez.

"Temple Black, spokesman for ICE [formerly known as INS] 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].'”

By seizing Ms. Nunez and people like her, Nashville implements a policy that stands in contrast to ICE's view that resources should be prioritized in a manner to best address the greatest threats to the community. Even so, the Metro Police Department is currently asking for greater integration with ICE databases and personnel so that all foreign citizens in Davidson County without immigration authorization will be jailed and deported (story here).

"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." (See also this August 2006 Hispanic Nashville Notebook commentary about the lack of American values in the dead-end approach of immigration laws.)

"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.'"

Update October 29, 2006: WKRN Channel 2 reports here that Nunez has been released from jail but is still awaiting possible deportation. The video report includes more information about the family's dilemma.

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