Mayor Mitch Landrieu's Feb. 1 address at First Grace United Methodist Church touched on familiar themes from his tenure. He reminded the crowd of the city's multinational history as it approaches its 300th anniversary. He acknowledged the city's "diversity as a strength." In his remarks to a meeting of the Congress of Day Laborers, the immigrant rights group under the wing of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, Landrieu said the city couldn't have rebuilt following Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods without its immigrant population.
The group's weekly meeting was its first following a series of executive orders from President Donald Trump ending travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, freezing refugee entry and expanding efforts to deport people living in the country without permission. Landrieu assured the crowd — mostly immigrants and their advocates — that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) "will not be used as a deportation force for the federal government." Landrieu said NOPD's role is to keep people safe "irrespective of their immigration status."
"Do not let the opposition get you in the trap of thinking this is about safety as it relates to the 11 million folks living the U.S. that wish to stay here," he said.
There are roughly 11 million people living in the country without government approval, according to the Pew Research Center. That includes 70,000 people in Louisiana, a figure that has risen steadily since 2005, when the number was 30,000. Approximately 30,000 people now living in the New Orleans area are here without permission.
According to Pew, 66 percent of people living in the country illegally have done so for at least a decade. Many of them are children. In 2014, U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained more than 47,000 unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border who were fleeing violence, abuse, neglect and poverty in Central America, mainly El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Landrieu's address was one of several statements from city officials in the wake of Trump's executive orders. Immigrants and allies rallied outside City Hall on Jan. 29 and 30 and demanded action from state and local government. Though courts struck down Trump's travel ban, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security outlined its plans to enforce the president's crackdown on illegal immigration, emboldening the department's enforcement arm, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and other law enforcement as cities like New Orleans try to repair the trust between vulnerable communities and the people charged with protecting them. Meanwhile, advocacy organizations brace for another immigration order.
"What all these do, in a certain sense, is strike fear in the immigrant community," said Tulane Law School's Laila Hlass, former director of Boston University School of Law's Immigrant Rights Clinic. "It's partly about signaling to immigrant communities, 'You now have a target on your back.'"
"There are so many people who are afraid of what's to come," said Kathleen Gasparian, a New Orleans attorney whose firm deals solely with immigration issues. "I don't just mean undocumented people who have come without permission. People who for many years lived here, have lawful status, on work visas, on student visas, on green cards — people are afraid. They're afraid of traveling in and out of the U.S., not just what happens to them but to their neighbor, brother, uncle, kids, kids their kids go to school with."
Nearly 2,000 refugees were able to resettle in the U.S. following a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit Feb. 9, which upheld a decision to lift Trump's travel ban and refugee freeze. Within Trump's first month in office, 6,095 refugees entered the U.S. Among them were 2,778 Muslims and 2,610 Christians; 45 percent arrived from countries targeted by the ban (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen).
Though the court's ruling effectively reversed the order, the administration still aims to reduce the number of people admitted into the U.S. as refugees in 2017 from 110,000 to 50,000. In 2016, the U.S. admitted nearly 100,000 refugees; only 162 resettled in Louisiana.
As Trump signed the order, a family with three children under 5 years old was expected to arrive in Louisiana from Syria, where the death toll of a six-year-old civil war has reached nearly 500,000. The family was one of 80 refugee families Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO) expected to resettle into Louisiana this year.
The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration approves whether people can enter the U.S. as refugees after applications are screened by the State Department and DHS's U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services, among other agencies, before refugees make contact with resettlement agencies like CCANO, part of a network of half a dozen similar organizations in the country. CCANO operates through the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.
"Even if they are in a safe location, a refugee camp, to wait two and a half years — they go through a long, rigorous vetting process before they come here — to get to this point where a few days before your departure they tell you, 'You can't leave,'" CCANO's Division Director Martin Gutierrez told Gambit following the ban. "Imagine how disheartening that would be."
More than 800,000 people born in those countries are living in the U.S., and more than one-third — nearly 300,000 people — aren't citizens yet, according to The Marshall Project. Trump's order turned his campaign trail promise of a "total and complete ban" of Muslim entry into the U.S. into "extreme vetting" against "radical Islamic terrorism."
"Oftentimes these refugees already have contacts, family members, friends in the country," said Gutierrez, who sought political asylum in the U.S. from Nicaragua. People entering the U.S. as refugees often are reunited with families or friends or a network of support on which families depend once they're in the country. CCANO's job is to "start doing the groundwork to make sure the family or individual has the basic needs to make this their new home," where they "hope to one day be reunited with other family members," Gutierrez said.
Immigrants without documentation — including people who did have legal status through a visa that expired — often are put into removal proceedings in immigration courts after coming in contact with law enforcement, Gasparian said, whether through running a stop sign or as "collateral damage," in which ICE officers make arrests in a home or community while in search of another person.
According to the nonprofit data collection project Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), 80 percent of deportation orders sought in fiscal year 2017 (and 84 percent in 2016) were for entry without approval or other immigration-only-related charges. Felonies accounted for less than 4 percent of deportations sought.
Roughly 2.5 million people were deported from the U.S. under President Barack Obama's administration. Obama's "prioritized" removals sought people living in the U.S. illegally who had been convicted of serious crimes. In Louisiana, there were 3,572 removal orders granted in 2016.
Under the latest DHS policies, however, federal agencies could deport anyone charged with any crime, "or who could be charged with any crime," Hlass said.
"If you entered without inspection, that potentially could be an unlawful entry," she said. "Or anyone that's designated by an immigration officer as a potential security threat. So literally anyone. That's how it's written, it's written so broadly. It's not just criminal contact. It's any suspicion you could be charged or individual immigration officer deciding a threat."
A February statement from DHS reported ICE officers arrested nearly 700 people in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, New York and San Antonio. Later that month, ICE officers arrested 55 people in Mississippi.
A broader scope of prioritized deportations could add significant caseloads to a court system already experiencing a backlog of thousands of cases nationwide. More than 500,000 cases are pending in immigration courts, including 7,000 in Louisiana, according to TRAC.
Louisiana is a federal detention hub, with several detention centers and holding areas throughout the state. If people in custody in immigration courts don't have representation, the dockets move quickly.
There's one judge in New Orleans' immigration court.
"It's what we see in the criminal defense world on steroids," Hlass said. "You don't have a right to appointed counsel. People were being deported by the roomful in some courtrooms. People lose hope when they're in detention. They're really distressing circumstances."
The Trump administration also is mulling "expedited removal," which could speed up deportations without representation or hearings, and immigrants stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border could be sent back to Mexico, even if it's not their country of origin, putting them in limbo in a nation that doesn't have the infrastructure to support them.
Much of the immigration enforcement debate at the federal level echoes what has played out in the Louisiana Legislature and in NOPD over the last decade. While Trump has threatened to cut certain federal funding to cities with so-called "sanctuary" policies harboring immigrants living in the country illegally, New Orleans already had defended its policies in Baton Rouge, where Attorney General Jeff Landry and state Reps. Valarie Hodges and Mike Johnson targeted NOPD and Jefferson Parish authorities. Hodges authored a bill to strip funding from cities with "sanctuary" policies
At a legislative committee hearing last year, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand testified against the measure. "You want to cure the problem? Fund it," Normand said. "Don't come down here with some bullshit Republican philosophy from Washington D.C. ... and tell me how to do my business."
Landry also testified before Congress last fall, blaming New Orleans following a fatal bus crash in St. John the Baptist Parish involving a driver living in the country illegally — but not in Orleans Parish. Following Landry's testimony, Tyronne Walker, Landrieu's director of communications, said, "We are just confused why Landry had to waste taxpayer money and time by flying all the way to Washington, D.C. to admit the truth."
"Landry's continued politicization of the unfortunate traffic accident that killed three people, including St. John the Baptist Parish district fire chief Spence Chauvin, is sad and defies logic," Walker said.
Under NOPD's consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, NOPD policy is not to interfere with federal immigration enforcement, which Landrieu says does not constitute "sanctuary" status. Orleans Parish Prison also has not changed its policy that prohibits holding people who are suspected of living in the country illegally.
"The NOPD is focused on arresting those who commit violent crimes, not enforcing civil immigration laws," Landrieu said in a statement. "Those who commit a crime will be arrested. Political theatrics have no bearing on the serious work at hand."
Trump, however, wants to expand use of a controversial "Delegation of Immigration Authority," or 287(g) program, which effectively deputizes local cops to perform ICE duties, which critics fear encourages racial discrimination. The DOJ suspended use of the program in Arizona in 2011, when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio unlawfully stopped and detained people through profiling. Tennessee Davidson County halted its 287(g) program in 2012 after similar profiling.
"What we've seen is, in a lot of cities, there's a growing sentiment that you alienate immigrant communities when you're trying to serve a dual purpose, and people are less likely to report crime," Hlass said.
Local groups have demanded protections for immigrant communities before the orders' impacts are felt here. The orders have a "profoundly negative impact on people of the greater New Orleans area and the state of Louisiana," said Saira Mehmood with the New Orleans Palestine Solidarity Committee. The group presented a list of demands calling for increased civil rights protections for vulnerable immigrant communities and an end to discriminatory police behavior. The letter — addressed to U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, Gov. John Bel Edwards, U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, as well as the Louisiana Legislature and city officials — urged a response by noon Feb. 1. The offices of New Orleans City Council members LaToya Cantrell, James Gray and Jason Williams met with the group within a week of its press conference Jan. 30. In a statement to Gambit, the group says it did not receive any response from Landrieu or council members Susan Guidry and Stacy Head. On Feb. 9, the City Council passed a resolution from District C Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey condemning the orders, which Ramsey said were "contrary to American ideals and values [and] poses a security risk to Americans at home and abroad."
"While symbolic gestures are heartwarming, they do very little to make the City of New Orleans a human rights city dedicated to preserving the dignity and humanity of all its residents," the group wrote in a statement to Gambit.
The letter demands city and state officials refuse to engage in immigration enforcement, enforce anti-bias measures within NOPD and other law enforcement agencies, and prevent local police from working with ICE to hold undocumented people in local jails.
It also asks the city to "refuse to put immigrants and Muslims at risk of discrimination and harm through increased surveillance" — as the Landrieu administration begins to roll out a sweeping surveillance measure with hundreds of cameras. In addition, the letter said police shouldn't collect information on immigration or religious status or give the feds a list of crimes alleged to have been committed by immigrants, as mandated by Trump's order.
The groups oppose new construction or expansion of local jails and ask the city to consider expanding the practice of issuing citations for municipal offenses.
The groups also demand the city and state "commit to only promoting and enforcing local policies that uphold all community members' human rights" through the creation of "human rights investment screens" ensuring local funds don't support human rights violations locally or abroad.
Trump's orders and DHS memos providing the framework for them also detail plans to add thousands of ICE officers and border control agents — expensive prospects and hires that likely would require Congressional approval for the millions of dollars required to fund them, as well as a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their implementation, meanwhile, is unclear at the local level.
"My advice over the past month started off essentially with, 'Try not to panic, and don't travel, and let's see what happens,'" Gasparian said. "For the first few weeks, especially with the travel ban, there was so much fear. There were rumors of expansion of the program ... and [it] being expanded to include additional countries. ... My No. 1 advice has been 'Maintain your status.' ... Because we don't know exactly what changes and policies are coming, it's always good to be prepared."
Fernando Lopez with the Congress of Day Laborers told Gambit that misinformation often stirs fear. Advocates and attorneys believe the orders — for now, at least — are more effective as rumor and speculation, which, coupled with more latitude given to law enforcement, endangers immigrants and their families.
"The more you can convince yourself that the foreign national or the person coming from another country is somehow less than human because of that," Gasparian said, "then the easier it is to not do what's fair."