Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Don't deport the 'tamale lady'

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Thu August 2, 2012
Juana Reyes, a mother of two, faces possible deportation after an arrest for trespassing.
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

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- 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?

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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.

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.

News: Young immigrants prepare for new U.S. deportation policy

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.

Mixed messages on immigration?
Obama plans to relax deportation policy
'Deportation a humanitarian crisis'

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.

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?

News: Breaking down the Supreme Court decision on Arizona's immigration law

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.

Navarrette: 'Illegal immigrant' is the uncomfortable truth

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.

Navarrette: How Arizona law hurts Hispanic citizens

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.

Navarrette: For immigrants and opponents, court's ruling hits their real lives

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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT