Don't deport the 'tamale lady'

Juana Reyes, a mother of two, faces possible deportation after an arrest for trespassing.

Story highlights

  • Juana Reyes was arrested after selling tamales near a Wal-Mart store in Sacramento
  • Ruben Navarrette says her potential deportation is a case study of policy gone wrong
  • He says Obama adminstration has used mass deportations as a tool to gain support
  • Navarrette: Administration should do as it says, focus on deporting hardened criminals

Juana Reyes didn't think that selling chicken, pork and chili cheese tamales would buy her a one-way ticket out of the country. But it just might.

Reyes is a Sacramento, California, woman who the media is calling "the tamale lady." A 46-year-old single mother of two and illegal immigrant, Reyes faces deportation by the Obama administration.

So what's the problem? Aren't illegal immigrants supposed to be deported?

Sure. But there are rules to the game, and the administration keeps breaking them. This case undermines the claim that the immigration crackdown is targeting hardened criminals.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Reyes' trouble started on June 28 when she was arrested outside a Walmart by Sacramento County Sheriff's deputies and charged with trespassing and interfering with a business.

What exactly was the interference? Reyes is unemployed. She was selling tamales so she could buy food and clothes for her two children -- 10-year-old Cesar and 7-year-old Montserrat, both of whom were born in the United States.

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Think about it. This woman wasn't holding a handmade sign that read: "Will work for food." She was working by making food and selling it.

Reyes says that she was a familiar presence in the parking lot, and that her customers included Walmart employees. On this day, she was asked to leave, by a security guard and a sheriff's deputy. She did leave, but she returned when she saw other vendors outside the store. She was arrested.

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Suspecting Reyes was in the country illegally, the sheriff's deputies handcuffed the mother and placed her children in a squad car and drove them to the sheriff's station. Then they called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which put a "hold" on her that resulted in her being locked up in the county jail for nearly two weeks without a lawyer. When ICE agents finally visited the jail, they determined she was in fact in the country illegally and took her into custody and put her children in foster care while she was being detained. Now Reyes is awaiting deportation.

Really? Handcuffing her for trespassing? Holding a woman for nearly two weeks without a lawyer? What were these people thinking?

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All for selling tamales. Some will insist that Reyes is actually being punished for coming into the United States illegally. But this woman only came to the attention of federal authorities because local law enforcement officers arrested her for an infraction that would have normally resulted in a slap on the wrist. And the reason that she was arrested was because she was selling tamales.

Judging from media reports, some people in Sacramento agree that the feds are overdoing it, and say that local cops ought not be accomplices. But, for many others, the conversation stopped when they heard Reyes was living in the country illegally -- perhaps for as long as 20 years. They think she got what she deserved.

What kind of immigration policy does America deserve? The presidential candidates offer a choice: Hands off, or all thumbs.

Democrats mock Mitt Romney's claim that, if jobs dry up, illegal immigrants will "self deport" and take their children with them.

The Obama administration likes to give the impression that it has a more humane approach. Instead of illegal immigrants voluntarily taking their children to their home countries with them, the kids are seized by authorities and given to other people through the foster care system.

When it comes to immigration, Obama is a bully. He's trying to build support with conservatives and organized labor by deporting as many illegal immigrants as possible, nearly 1.5 million since taking office.

The administration accomplished this feat by arm-twisting localities and states into participating in a dreadful program called Secure Communities. It requires that local law enforcement submit to federal authorities the fingerprints of people they arrest who they suspect are in the country illegally.

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Guess whom those local cops, many of whom have no training in the enforcement of immigration law, often suspect? Latinos. That's ethnic profiling. In fact, last year, a report by U.C. Berkeley's Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy confirmed that Secure Communities disproportionately targets Latinos.

The law enforcement partnership was initially marketed as voluntary -- until states like New York and Massachusetts tried to opt out, and then suddenly it became mandatory. It was also supposed to concentrate only on violent criminals -- until we learned that it also ensnared scores of folks without criminal records such as gardeners, housekeepers, nannies, traffic violators -- and yes, tamale vendors.

Recently, a group of three national immigration advocacy groups claimed to have found evidence that, in California, Secure Communities isn't just reserved for violent criminals. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the groups obtained e-mails between the FBI and the state of California that allegedly show that the program has resulted in the deportation of people who have never been arrested.

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This being an election year, President Obama is trying to downplay the deportations and convince Latino voters that his administration has become more lenient. In June, Obama himself announced what was billed as a major policy change at the Department of Homeland Security where so-called DREAM'ers who met certain qualifications would be spared deportation and issued work permits. To qualify, candidates had to be under age 31, have come to the United States before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, have no criminal record, and either be in school, a high school graduate, or a military veteran.

Reyes doesn't meet all those qualifications.

Obama's Latino defenders buy the line that this is a kinder and gentler administration. They'll buy anything to keep from admitting that they made a mistake in 2008 and helped put in office the most anti-immigrant president in a half century.

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But on the ground, in immigrant communities, they know better. They know that it is business as usual. And they can point to the miscarriages of justice that prove it.

Just ask the tamale lady.

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