In advising her clients, immigration attorney Yesenia Polanco-Galdamez likens the chaos currently swirling around immigration enforcement to a natural disaster: Hurricane Trump. As with a hurricane, she says, immigrants need to have an emergency plan in place in case they or a loved one are detained. Polanco-Galdamez, thirty-four, is the principal attorney at Polanco Law, which has offices in Raleigh, Durham, and now Lumpkin, Georgia, near the Stewart Detention Center, where many Carolina detainees are sent. Polanco immigrated to the United States from El Salvador at age four.
Here, Polanco-Galdamez talks with the INDY about how undocumented immigrants can avoid Immigration and Customs Enforcement, what they should do (and not do) if they’re detained, and how citizens can help their friends and neighbors sin papeles.
What legal rights do undocumented immigrants have if approached by local law enforcement or immigration agents?
If you are in your home, do not open the doorto anyone. You don’t have to answer any questions. When police come, they need to have a warrant from the sheriff’s department or from a judge. They need to have a legal document to enter your house. Immigration also has to have a warrant; the problem is [ICE], it’s so unlikely that they will. They usually just carry a deportation order. That is just a civil document. Under the Constitution, that is not enough for them to just enter your house. If they do have a warrant, they’re going to throw your door down. Let them do that. Don’t volunteer to let them in your house. Be cooperative, be polite and patient, but do not volunteer. In your house, you have the most rights. In the street, your rights are more limited. Driving a car, you have the right not to be subject to unreasonable search and seizure, but you’re also driving a car, so you have to identify yourself.
What exactly should they say if an officer stops them and asks about their immigration status?
“Am I under arrest?” “Do I need to call my lawyer?” You don’t answer yes or no in between. You answer what you need to answer related to your traffic stop, or if you’re walking down the street.
What should they do if they are taken into custody?
You don’t have the right to a free, court-appointed lawyer, but you do have the right to retain counsel. You can remain silent, and that’s important because the Department of Homeland Security has the burden of proving what country they need to deport you to. So you want to make sure you’re silent and let them have the burden. We tell people, don’t sign any documents you can’t read even with an interpreter. ICE agents are generally the interpreters. They’re not unbiased.
Once you have clearly been detained or are under ICE’s custody or the state’s custody, let them know if you have small children at home or on their way home from school. Before being detained, you say nothing. After you’ve been detained, you ask to speak to your consulate, you ask to speak to a lawyer, and you try to figure out the best way you can what’s going to happen with your children.
What can citizens do to help?
There may be families whose children are left behind, and I’ve been asked the question, “Can I keep a child?” Anyone can have a power of attorney to keep a child. We can help children, we can pick them up from school. We can also give people rides so they aren’t driving around. And you can donate to organizations that support these causes.