Two immigrants in the Midwest are riling emotions and attracting national attention. One is reviled, accused of killing two people, and the other is a beloved and respected member of his community. But they are virtually the same to the federal government.
They are deportable.
That is all they are to the bureaucrats of the Department of Homeland Security who decide which immigrants can be hauled off, literally dragged away from their families, handcuffed and flown or bussed back to their native countries.
The stories of these two men perfectly encapsulate what’s wrong with our policies, our attitudes and our president.
First let’s consider the case of Manuel Orrego-Savala, a Guatemalan immigrant who currently sits in jail in Marion County, Ind.
Hours after the nation flocked to their televisions to watch the Super Bowl, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson and his Uber driver were run over and killed by a drunk driver.
Police arrested Orrego-Savala, who allegedly fled the scene of the accident. He has been deported twice and is currently in the country illegally. His blood alcohol content at arrest was nearly three times the legal limit. He’s charged with four felonies.
President Donald Trump didn’t miss a beat. He pounced in a tweet to link the Jackson’s death with what he misinterprets as the Democrats’ reluctance to get tough on immigration and the border.
Prosecutor Terry Curry of Marion County, Ind., who vowed to try the case “vigorously,” pushed back. He chastised the “ghoulish and inappropriate” public commentary, including Trump’s politicizing of the deaths.
Curry spoke from the point of view of the justice system, which values placing blame where it belongs rather than vengeful scapegoating that casts all immigrants, legal or not, as enemies of the nation.
He also underlined where attention ought to be placed: with the grieving families of Jackson and his driver, Jeffrey Monroe.
Now consider the case of Syed Jamal, a Kansas chemist who has barely escaped deportation – for now – having come within days of being put on a plane and sent back to his native Bangladesh.
Jamal was handcuffed in late January by immigration agents as he prepared to take one of his U.S. citizen children to school in Lawrence, Kan. Jamal has been in the U.S. for 30 years, arriving legally, and has taught at several colleges. His story is the quintessential American dream.
But his immigration status became complicated as he tried to shift back and forth between holding a student or a work visa.
Many of his supporters were aghast to learn that Jamal had cooperated with immigration officials for years, reporting regularly under an order that gave him temporary reprieve from deportation.
The community flocked to social media, campaigning for his release. A Change.org petition drew 64,000 signatures as of Friday, a march was held, and the story was picked up by national media and by Hollywood celebrities like Alyssa Milano.
For many of Jamal’s supporters, it was a quick schooling in the topsy-turvey ways of immigration law and policy.
But as Jamal was being readied for a flight by immigration agents, he received a late stay on Thursday (Feb. 8). It’s temporary. He still sits in a Texas detention center. So his story is to be continued.
Jamal was scooped up because, rather than prioritizing the deportations of violent criminals, of the drunk drivers like Jackson’s and Monroe’s accused killer, the Trump administration is going after anyone who might possibly be deportable. No discretion is used.
It must be pointed out that some of Jamal’s supporters are inadvertently buying into Trump’s rhetoric that some immigrants are more desirable than others.
What happened to Jamal has also happened to countless other undocumented immigrants who live lawful, productive lives. Where is the outrage for the thousands of others who are also being rounded up and deported?
Previously, immigration officials made efforts to triage, to focus on the truly dangerous undocumented immigrants, distinguishing them from the roofers, the chicken plant workers, the landscapers.
Those people, too, have U.S.-born children. They’ve paid taxes and would legalize if they had a route to do so.
America needs to come to grips with the realities the two cases show. High- and low-skilled workers are needed in the U.S. Our demographics, with the aging baby boomer generation retiring from the workforce but in need of many services, will require it.
We need a comprehensive overhaul of our immigration policies so that they align with emerging labor needs and the necessity of keeping immigrant parents with their U.S.-born children. At the same time, we must return to prioritizing deportation cases for immigrants who are violent and not sweep up the beloved chemist or the person who cleans offices.
And that will only happen when we have a president backed by a Congress and a voting public that calmly and reasonably can understand the difference.
Reach Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.