DHS Is Using Immigration Crackdown to Suppress the Latino Vote, Critics Say

From expediting deportations to placing “wanted” billboard ads across Pennsylvania, rights advocates warn DHS is intimidating voters.

Maurizio Guerrero

People wait in line to vote in Georgia's Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

In the lead up to Elec­tion Day, the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty (DHS) is trum­pet­ing its raids of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, expe­dit­ing depor­ta­tions, and putting up want­ed” bill­board ads of crim­i­nal aliens” across Penn­syl­va­nia. Rights advo­cates say these tac­tics appear aimed at boost­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s reelec­tion chances by intim­i­dat­ing immi­grants, Lati­nos and oth­er Black and Brown vot­ers, who are more like­ly to favor Demo­c­ra­t­ic candidates.

We are walk­ing a fine line,” says Philip Wol­gin, man­ag­ing direc­tor of immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy at the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, a think tank that is influ­en­tial with the lead­er­ship of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. We want to make sure that peo­ple are aware of what’s going on and how to be pre­pared, par­tic­u­lar­ly local offi­cials who have the onus of pro­tect­ing elec­tions, while also not caus­ing fear in immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties and end­ing up doing the type of vot­er sup­pres­sion that we think the DHS and the gov­ern­ment are try­ing to do right now.” 

As vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion sets record num­bers, DHS may be seek­ing to damp­en this enthu­si­asm, crit­ics say. On Octo­ber 21, the Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment agency (ICE) — a DHS agency in charge of com­bat­ing unau­tho­rized” immi­gra­tion—announced the imple­men­ta­tion of its expe­dit­ed removal pol­i­cy, where­by it can arrest indi­vid­u­als any­where in the coun­try and deport them in a mat­ter of days with­out a court hear­ing if indi­vid­u­als can­not prove, to the sat­is­fac­tion of the offi­cials, that they have resided in the Unit­ed States for at least two years. The tim­ing of the announce­ment of this pol­i­cy, sug­gests Wol­gin, could damp­en vot­er participation. 

Most U.S. cit­i­zens prob­a­bly do not car­ry on them doc­u­ments that show that they’ve been in the coun­try for two years. I per­son­al­ly do not car­ry my pass­port with me at all times,” says Wol­gin. So, there’s a real con­cern that, giv­en the long his­to­ry of racial pro­fil­ing and using immi­gra­tion to go after Black and Brown peo­ple, we could end up with ICE detain­ing some folks based on this pro­vi­sion. That’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

False rumors have ampli­fied this pos­si­bil­i­ty. Accord­ing to an Octo­ber report by the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice — a non­par­ti­san law and pol­i­cy insti­tute at the New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law — groups that are inten­tion­al­ly try­ing to sup­press the vote among peo­ple of col­or have spread the false­hood that ICE agents will sure­ly patrol the vicin­i­ty of polling places. Some of these rumors appear to have come from groups that are inten­tion­al­ly try­ing to sup­press the vote among Lati­nos and oth­er peo­ple of col­or,” states the report. These rumors cre­ate real fear in com­mu­ni­ties ICE has tar­get­ed with increas­ing­ly aggres­sive tactics.”

On top of expe­dit­ed removals, DHS appears to be pub­licly cham­pi­oning its crack­down on immi­grants. Ear­li­er in Octo­ber, the Act­ing DHS sec­re­tary, Chad Wolf, tout­ed in two press releas­es the arrests of almost 300 immi­grants after week-long oper­a­tions in six cities and the whole state of Cal­i­for­nia. The oper­a­tions, how­ev­er, did not mark a shift in course but were con­sis­tent with the Trump administration’s high arrest rates.

Rights advo­cates say the tim­ing of these pub­lic state­ments about DHS arrests is no coin­ci­dence. The DHS is doing every­thing it can to pro­mote these polit­i­cal stunts two weeks before the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion,” says Sal­vador Sarmien­to, nation­al cam­paign direc­tor at the Nation­al Day Labor­er Orga­niz­ing Net­work (NDLON), a grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes immi­grant work­ers’ rights. Sarmien­to adds that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s objec­tive is to instill fear in immi­grants and peo­ple of col­or, who out of cau­tion may be dis­cour­aged from inter­act­ing with any kind of offi­cials, includ­ing at the polling stations. 

NDLON has denounced a promi­nent DHS ini­tia­tive to crim­i­nal­ize undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants. In ear­ly Octo­ber, ICE start­ed putting up in Penn­syl­va­nia six bill­boards with want­ed” ads show­ing the pic­tures of crim­i­nal aliens” — all of them peo­ple of col­or. ICE claims the indi­vid­u­als pose a safe­ty threat,” even though five of them have not been con­vict­ed. Accord­ing to a memo by the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, the want­ed” ads rep­re­sent a new gam­bit. Such race-bait­ing may espe­cial­ly lead to esca­lat­ed risks for Black and Brown cit­i­zens seek­ing to cast their vote, which in turn could have a chill­ing effect on their abil­i­ty to par­tic­i­pate ful­ly in the elec­tion,” states the document.

New tac­tics are paired with the old myth that undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants do vote and sway elec­tions. With no proof what­so­ev­er, Trump him­self repeat­ed as recent­ly as 2018 that mil­lions of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants vot­ed in Cal­i­for­nia in the 2016 elec­tion. He set up an inves­tiga­tive com­mis­sion led by Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and then-Kansas Sec­re­tary of State Kris Kobach, which failed to find any evi­dence of vot­er fraud.

Despite the com­mis­sion’s fail­ure, ICE did man­age to announce in August 2018 charges against 19 for­eign indi­vid­u­als for vot­ing ille­gal­ly in North Car­oli­na in 2016, although in sim­i­lar cas­es else­where peo­ple were just con­fused about their eli­gi­bil­i­ty to vote. Those votes were neg­li­gi­ble con­sid­ered the 4.8 mil­lions votes cast in 2016 in North Car­oli­na. These stunts could con­tribute to mobi­liza­tions across bat­tle­ground states for the Army for Trump’s elec­tion secu­ri­ty,” which was con­vened by Don­ald Trump Jr. and aims to estab­lish a 50,000-strong army of observers.”

Cli­mate of intimidation

There is already rea­son to be con­cerned that this cli­mate is encour­ag­ing vig­i­lante intim­i­da­tion of vot­ers. As of Octo­ber 23, there have been at least four doc­u­ment­ed instances of vot­er intim­i­da­tion dur­ing the ear­ly vot­ing process­es. In Sep­tem­ber, a group of Trump sup­port­ers wav­ing cam­paign flags in Fair­fax, Vir­ginia, stood in the way of vot­ers attempt­ing to reach the polling sta­tion. In Flori­da, a police offi­cer in uni­form was pho­tographed out­side a vot­ing site wear­ing a pro-Trump mask and a hol­stered firearm. In Philadel­phia, the Trump cam­paign video­taped cit­i­zens deposit­ing their mail-in-bal­lots, which local author­i­ties con­sid­ered improp­er con­duct. And in St. Peters­burg, Flori­da, two armed secu­ri­ty guards at a polling sta­tion prompt­ed offi­cials to sta­tion deputies at five vot­ing sites.

There have been ini­tia­tives to pre­vent fur­ther vot­er intim­i­da­tion. In Min­neso­ta, the Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Islam­ic Rela­tions sued the pri­vate secu­ri­ty com­pa­ny Atlas Aegis for recruit­ing ex‑U.S. mil­i­tary spe­cial oper­a­tions sol­diers to deploy to polling places, call­ing it a breach of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965. In Michi­gan, the Sec­re­tary of State ordered a ban on the open car­ry­ing of firearms with­in 100 feet of polling places.

In this atmos­phere, rights advo­cates wor­ry that the U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion Agency (CBP) — part of the DHS — could deploy its para­mil­i­tary unit Bor­tac (Bor­der Patrol Tac­ti­cal Unit) as it did in July dur­ing the protests against police bru­tal­i­ty in Port­land, Ore­gon, where the the force kid­napped pro­test­ers and threw them into unmarked vans. In the midterm elec­tions of 2018, CBP planned to con­duct a crowd con­trol exer­cise” near at least one polling loca­tion. Those plans were scrapped after an uproar. 

Our big fear is that we see a reprise of Port­land, with ICE and CBP being used to intim­i­date vot­ers on elec­tion day or around elec­tion day, whether by send­ing agents direct­ly into the polls as mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment have said or just by deploy­ing them around cities,” says Wolgin.

Although polling sta­tion dis­rup­tions could hap­pen on Novem­ber 3, they should not be over­stat­ed, says Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy direc­tor of vot­ing rights and elec­tions at the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice. Deploy­ing armed forces in polling sites is ille­gal. Ampli­fy­ing this pos­si­bil­i­ty could in itself dis­suade peo­ple from vot­ing. At the same time, acknowl­edg­ing that vot­er intim­i­da­tion attempts are real allows local offi­cials and activists to strate­gize on how to off­set them.

I do have some con­cerns that one of these inci­dents would get out of hand. Sim­i­lar­ly, I wor­ry that the police may be too quick to engage, or that some juris­dic­tions would be too quick to call law enforce­ment sort of pre­emp­tive­ly because of these fears,” says Morales-Doyle. I wor­ry that peo­ple are going to respond in these moments of height­ened ten­sion by esca­lat­ing rather than by de-escalating.”

This elec­tion will be less pro­tect­ed against vot­er intim­i­da­tion than the pre­vi­ous one. Dur­ing the 1981 New Jer­sey’s guber­na­to­r­i­al race, aggres­sive intim­i­da­tion tac­tics by off-duty law enforce­ment agents were so bla­tant that a decree adopt­ed a year lat­er sharply lim­it­ed the Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee’s poll mon­i­tor­ing activ­i­ties. That decree expired in 2017.

This would be the first pres­i­den­tial elec­tion where there has not been a fed­er­al judi­cial con­sent decree in place that pre­vents the Repub­li­can Par­ty from engag­ing in cer­tain types of bal­lot secu­ri­ty oper­a­tions and polling intim­i­da­tion efforts,” warns Morales-Doyle. With few­er legal pro­tec­tions, sev­er­al ini­tia­tives are plan­ning to ward off any endeav­ors to tam­per with the vot­ing process.

The Vot­er Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram, for exam­ple, was formed by lit­i­ga­tors with state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment expe­ri­ence in both Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tions, as well as nation­al experts on vot­ing rights and elec­tion pro­tec­tion, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sion­als. It also includes a bipar­ti­san board of for­mer gov­er­nors, attor­neys gen­er­al, and local, state and fed­er­al law enforce­ment leaders.

Advo­cates, mean­while, say the vot­ers tar­get­ed by the intim­i­da­tion tac­tics have a vital role to play in this elec­tion — and their par­tic­i­pa­tion is sore­ly need­ed. Immi­grants across the coun­try have demon­strat­ed the great­est exam­ples of courage that we can be inspired by when they show up to work in the mid­dle of the pan­dem­ic or when they walk thou­sands of miles to give their chil­dren a bet­ter life,” says Sarmien­to. We are all called today to show that same courage.”

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

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