Melinda Henneberger

Ahead of ICE raids, Kansas City immigrants in hiding, advocates ‘frickin’ tired’

In Kansas City’s Washington Square Park on Friday night, several hundred people held up homemade signs that said things like “Stop Child Torture,” and “Children Belong with Their Families.”

These should not be controvertible statements in the United States of America. Or under a “pro-life administration” that former pharmaceutical company executive and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar recently bragged stands “for protecting the sanctity of human life from conception until natural death.”

Unless, of course, the unsanctified life we’re talking about is that of an asylum seeker fleeing violence exacerbated by our own foreign policy in Central America. Or of a U.S.-based journalist hacked to death for criticizing our Saudi brothers in arms deals. Or of one of the thousands of undocumented migrants ICE hopes to round up and deport in raids set to start before dawn on Sunday.

No one knows for sure where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement roundups will occur, though immigrants in Houston and New Orleans will reportedly be spared for now, in a rain delay of sorts, as Tropical Storm Barry makes landfall.

So in Kansas City as elsewhere, even some undocumented immigrants who have lived here all their lives are in hiding. Dave Kratofil, a Marine veteran who teaches history at Cristo Rey High School, said he’s taught many DACA students over the years, and all of those he’s heard from — “college graduates, accountants and nurses” — are “leaving town, staying off social media this weekend. They’re living in fear.”

Just as the threat of an illegal citizenship question on next year’s census has doubtless had the intended effect of making some immigrants afraid to be counted, the threat of raids has already terrified immigrants and gladdened those who applaud President Donald Trump’s new (also staunchly “pro-life”) immigration czar Ken Cuccinelli’s support for draconian policies like denying citizenship to American-born children of undocumented immigrants and letting companies fire employees if they hear them speaking Spanish at work.

With detention facilities overcrowded, immigration officials overworked and immigration courts backed up, there’s no other-than-political reason that ICE should be out looking to round up more people who have committed no crime.

But voters who oppose separating families and jailing toddlers are energized for 2020, too. In a recent Gallup poll, almost a quarter of Americans named immigration as the top issue facing the country — the most since Gallup started asking that question. Two-thirds of those see immigration as good for the country, and a majority said it is good for the economy.

Meanwhile, immigrants are in danger and their advocates, at the border and across the country, are near burnout.

“I’ve gotta be honest; we’re frickin’ tired,” Kansas City immigration attorney Michael Sharma-Crawford told the crowd at Friday’s “Lights for Liberty” vigil.

He compared the civil infractions of immigrants with no papers to homeowners cited by city code inspectors for letting their grass grow too tall.

“If a code enforcement officer says your gutters are hanging off your house, that law is civil, not criminal,” as is overstaying a visa. “They don’t throw you in jail” for that overgrown grass. Instead, they try to bring you into compliance, just as he does for his clients.

It’s the Trump administration that is not following the law by failing to recognize that “you’re still lawfully entering the United States to seek asylum. You’re not ‘illegal.’ ’’

The administration has changed the rules on how the system is supposed to work 11 times since Trump took office, and is even scaling back protections for the families of active-duty military.

In just the latest assault, Sharma-Crawford said, “this weekend, an army of code enforcement officers is going to wander through our country, and we’re going to stand up to them” with “our own army, of attorneys.”

Most of those who sat in the twilight shouting “Close the camps now!” have no reason to fear for their own safety, but plenty of reason to worry that the army of attorneys will at least in the short term be no match for ICE agents. To win the war, an army of anti-cruelty voters would have to show up at the polls next November, when we’ll either ratify the caging of children or end it.