SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Attorney Mark Silverman pointed a finger toward a rapt audience of undocumented immigrants at Our Lady of Guadalupe Roman Catholic Church in Sacramento.
"If they knock on your door, don't open it. You don't have to answer their questions, either. You can say, no, politely," Silverman said in Spanish.
You might be illegal immigrants, the attorney told the crowd of some 200 people. But under the U.S. Constitution, he said, you have the right to keep your door closed and to tell agents to leave if they're searching for a different person, and have a warrant only for that person.
With the recent collapse of federal immigration reform in Washington — and no revival in sight — immigrant activists across the country are regrouping, training illegal immigrants on the nuances of the Bill of Rights and imploring Americans to rethink solutions to illegal immigration.
"We've got an immigration system that's broken. Everyone from the Minutemen to us agrees with that," said Silverman, a lead attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.
The pressures that create illegal migration are only going to get worse, Silverman said. Family-based visas are backlogged for years, encouraging people to trek to the United States without visas in order to reunite their families. U.S. businesses continue to complain that with virtually no visas available for most non-professional jobs, it's near impossible to legally hire foreigners even if they prove a labor shortage.
Next year, Silverman added, the desperation of legions of Mexican farmers — some of whom sat in the Sacramento audience — will increase when tariffs that limit corn and other U.S. farm exports to Mexico are abolished and they face head-to-head competition.
In the meantime, as long as illegal immigrants are stuck in shadow-status without legal options, Silverman said, he and others intend to advise them "to defend themselves."
"It's a short-term solution," the lawyer said. "But I think they should fight as long as they can. Who knows when we'll have a legalization?"
Some groups are distributing wallet-sized tip sheets so immigrants will know what rights they can invoke. Others are holding forums such as the one featuring Silverman, which a religious network, Sacramento Area Congregations Together, organized on a recent Monday night.
Silverman said he realizes immigration authorities and a good number of Americans consider his views provocative and plain wrong. But the Constitution, he said, has long provided limits on how agencies such as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, operate.
In addition to urging passive resistance to agents who appear at homes, Silverman said, attorneys are preparing new challenges to techniques ICE has used with greater frequency as part of its "fugitive operations."
Nationwide, ICE has tripled the numbers of teams that conduct these searches in the last two years to a total of 61 today.
To carry out searches, agents with administrative warrants are dispatched to homes to arrest immigrants who tried and failed to obtain legal status.
The agents are also looking for felons who should have been deported following their sentences.
The searches have won applause as a show of enforcement some Americans feel has been sorely lacking. But agents have also been criticized for taking illegal immigrants into custody while failing to hold all but a few employers accountable for offering those immigrants jobs.
"They have conveniently stayed away from agricultural areas," Silverman said of ICE.
During these searches, agents have also detained almost as many people — or more — who happened to be in the same house or in the same area as the specific person being sought.
Silverman said some Latinos complain that agents engage in "racial profiling" that lets some foreigners off the hook.
"When they go into an apartment building looking for a Russian they have a warrant for," he said, "do they ask everybody else who is Russian if they're legal?"
The Fourth Amendment, Silverman said, guarantees everyone, even illegal immigrants, a right to privacy in a home. The Fifth Amendment guarantees the right to refuse to give information that is self-incriminating.
California-based ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice dismissed Silverman's claims. "The bottom line," Kice said, "is that any non-citizen who is in the United States is required to have proof of a legal right to be in the United States with them at all time."
Agents can't force someone to talk, Kice agreed, but if agents have "reasonable suspicion" that someone might be here illegally — they're in the same house, or appear to be a family member — then agents are empowered to ask questions and to detain that person.
Kice said, too, that ICE attorneys argue that the Fifth Amendment does not apply to those questioned about their status during the course of a home search.
The Fifth Amendment, she said, applies to people seeking to avoid self-incrimination in criminal cases, not in cases of immigration violations, which are non-criminal.
Silverman argues that the Fifth Amendment's protection is broader than that.
Among those listening intently to Silverman's presentation in Sacramento on how the Constitution might protect her was Shazia Kaval, who has plenty to lose should agents knock on her door.
Kaval is a homeowner, parent of U.S.-citizen children, Girl Scout troop leader, PTA member, and illegal immigrant from Kenya of Indian descent.
Kaval couldn't understand Silverman when he spoke in Spanish, but she said she felt kinship with his mostly Latino audience.
Kaval originally entered on a tourist visa issued by U.S. authorities in Kenya, she said. She remained here after a relative who is a U.S. citizen petitioned for her to emigrate legally as a family member.
Her petition was approved in 2001, but she was told that visas are so backlogged she won't get one in hand until 2012. Until then, she's here illegally.
"When I see a police car behind me," Kaval said, "I start to perspire."
Also attending the forum was Saul Herrera, 37, who was given a temporary work permit 20 years ago when he applied for the 1986 amnesty.
The process was never completed, he said, because he couldn't find the farm labor contractor who had employed him to obtain supporting documents.
He now has two children who are U.S. citizens, Herrera said, and nothing to go back to in Mexico. He also said he hasn't stopped working since he got here, using the Social Security number he still has.
Veronica Matos, 22, who was also on hand to obtain legal advice, can't fathom being picked up and deported to Mexico.
She's been in the United States since she was three, and graduated from Sacramento's El Camino High School with a 4.2 grade point average. She just graduated from the University of California at Davis with degrees in psychology and Spanish.
Her parents and extended family paid her tuition, she said, because she couldn't qualify for loans. She hopes that Congress, even if it won't offer legal status to illegal immigrants in general, will consider the circumstances of people like her, who grew up in the United States and consider it home.
"There are still little bits and pieces of possible laws," Matos said, "that we are clinging to."
(c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
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