California fires: Immigrants living illegally in path of blazes told they won't be deported by ICE officials

Officials have reassured immigrants it's safe to go to shelters

Jeremy B. White
San Francisco
Friday 13 October 2017 22:12 BST

As fires continue to rage across Northern California, authorities are reassuring residents worried about being deported.

Thousands of people have been displaced by infernos that have charred over 200,000 acres and claimed 31 lives. As officials have implored residents to stay safe by promptly obeying mandatory evacuation orders and packing necessities ahead of time, they have confronted immigrants’ fear of exposing themselves to the immigration authorities.

There are more than 50,000 immigrants living illegally in Napa and Sonoma County, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, many of them agricultural labourers helping to harvest the grapes that cling to the rolling hills of California wine country.

Officials have sought to reassure those immigrants that they can flee the fires without running into deportation proceedings. Sonoma County has been issuing advisories emphasising that evacuation shelters are not asking for immigration status, batting down rumours to the contrary.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said they were suspending routine immigration operations in scorched areas, unless they were dealing with a “serious criminal presenting a public safety threat”, and would not visit food banks or shelters.

Spanish-language alerts and advisories have helped reassure people they can get assistance and not fear repercussions, said Suzy Becerra of Vital Immigrant Defense Advocacy and Services in Santa Rosa.

“Hearing the county saying those shelters are secure, go, it’s been a great help”, Ms Becerra said.

California has a fraught relationship with the federal government when it comes to immigration. State officials reacted to the election of Donald Trump, who vowed to step up deportations and seal off the border, by enacting a so-called “sanctuary state” law that sharply curtails cooperation between ICE and local jails and police officers. The state has repeatedly sued the Trump administration over its immigration proposals.

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In response, the federal government has warned of a crackdown. Acting ICE Director Tom Homan said it left the agency “no choice but to conduct at-large arrests in local neighbourhoods and at worksites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests, instead of focusing on arrests at jails and prisons”.

A series of late September raids targeted “sanctuary cities” in California and elsewhere, with Mr Homan saying policies limiting federal-local collaboration meant ICE was “forced to dedicate more resources to conduct at-large arrests in these communities”.

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