Conversations about immigration have an irritating tendency to devolve into black-and-white absolutism.
But there’s one fact we should all be able to agree on: the fear being felt by a large portion of the Napa Valley’s immigrant population is unfounded and not supported by current reality.
A 3-year-old girl recently went missing from her St. Helena apartment complex and her father wouldn’t call the police. With all the talk about new federal immigration policies he didn’t want to get mixed up with the authorities, even with the safety of his daughter at stake.
Ideally the father would have been a legal resident and this scenario wouldn’t have presented itself. But thankfully someone at the complex did call the police and the child was found. That caller realized that public safety, not immigration enforcement, is the top priority of local police.
A group of advocates has been trying to spread that message throughout the Upvalley immigrant community, inviting St. Helena and Calistoga police to “Know Your Rights” workshops and handing out little red cards that teach people what to say if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) comes knocking. (The next seminar will be at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 4, at Grace Episcopal Church.)
A few members of the UpValley Community Leaders and Citizenship Legal Services met with us on Friday: Jenny Ocon and Indira Lopez of the UpValley Family Centers, vintner Manfred Esser, and Daniel Villaseñor, owner of Villa Corona restaurant on Main Street.
They all described a pervasive fear that’s sadly far out of proportion with what’s actually happening. The UpValley Family Centers know of 10 Napa County residents who’ve been picked up by ICE this year. Four lived UpValley — three in Calistoga and one in St. Helena. At least two of those four had extensive criminal records, and a third was detained for failing to appear in immigration court for a hearing he says he never got notice of.
Those 10 arrests are an extremely small percentage of the approximately 12,000 illegal immigrants estimated to live in Napa County (out of a total population of 141,667), according to the Migration Policy Institute. Targeted deportations are nothing new, and they increased sharply under President Barack Obama. The focus, then and now, has been on deporting serious criminals.
Our guests said the widespread fear derives not from statistics, but from President Donald Trump’s blustering, incendiary rhetoric – which, it’s worth noting again, hasn’t resulted in mass deportations or major changes in immigration enforcement at the local level.
Immigration-related inquiries to the UpValley Family Centers increased by 250 percent in the first four months of 2017, compared with the entire 2016 calendar year. The Family Center and its partners have helped 612 residents become U.S. citizens in the last three years, and that number should increase sharply in 2017.
While we’re glad to hear of renewed interest in citizenship, we’re not happy that it’s been motivated by fear. We applaud the UpValley Community Leaders for spreading accurate information, educating immigrants about their rights, and trying to soothe their fears.
We have a few pieces of advice for them. First, keep working with the Napa Valley Vintners, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and other industry groups to reach out to local farmworkers. False rumors about immigration raids can lead to hysteria, so as many people as possible need to be informed about the facts. Reaching out to the industries that rely on immigrant workers makes a lot of sense.
Second, approach local law firms about providing pro bono work on behalf of people facing deportation proceedings. They might not all be willing to help, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
Third, concede the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, and acknowledge that violent criminals who are here illegally should be deported, in the name of safety and security for the entire population, legal and not.
A nuanced, realistic position like that is more likely to win broad support than an absolutist stance that deportation is never warranted under any circumstances.
We also encourage restaurateurs and merchants in St. Helena and Calistoga to follow the example of Villaseñor, who’s done a fantastic job educating his employees and mobilizing his colleagues in the business community to do the same. Contact him at the restaurant if you need tips.
However our country sorts out its immigration problems, solutions need to be based on facts and current laws, not fear.