Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents conduct an operation in Atlanta
Norsk Telegrambyra AS/Reuters

Housing lawyers are reporting a troubling trend: Landlords exploiting the growing fear of immigration authorities to evict tenants, raise rents, and clear residents from gentrifying neighborhoods.

Shirley Gibson’s client was in jeopardy. A mother of three living in San Mateo County in California, the woman had obtained a restraining order against her children’s father for domestic abuse. Her landlord took the opportunity to demand that she sign a new, higher lease. She pleaded with him to let her take the document to an attorney.

“Legally, a victim of domestic violence isn’t required to agree to new lease terms or agree to pay more rent, just because they’re a victim,” says Gibson, directing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.  

The landlord wasn’t having it. Gibson says that he made a clear threat: If you don’t sign this right now, I’m going to call immigration, and you will be taken to Mexico, away from your children.

In that moment, the woman was a single mother, with no father in the picture, looking at choosing between losing her home or losing her children and her country.

“She believed this manager, because when he was making the threat he was wearing the red hat—the ‘Make America Great Again’ hat—and to her mind that meant, ‘This is a person who really hates me,’” Gibson says.

Emboldened by President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies, landlords across California are threatening to report undocumented tenants to immigration authorities. Landlords looking to evict their tenants, raise their rents, or stifle their complaints about their living conditions are exploiting undocumented tenants’ fears about being deported, according to housing advocates and attorneys.

While undocumented renters and members of mixed-immigration-status households have always been vulnerable to abuse and intimidation, California legal-aid experts say that reports of explicit deportation threats are pouring in from every part of the state.

“The scale at which it’s happening has increased dramatically since the November election,” says Jith Meganathan, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “We have somewhere between two-and-a-half million and three million undocumented individuals living in California, most of whom are renters. Unscrupulous landlords are taking advantage of their knowledge of that fact to deprive tenants of their legal rights.”

Most often, landlords who threaten to report a tenant to Immigration and Customs Enforcement do so in response to complaints about the rental unit: plumbing leaks, mold, exposed electrical wiring, and so on. In the past, legal-aid advocates might occasionally field calls from a building when a slumlord threatened to dial up an ICE raid in order to get out of fixing a problem.

In rent-controlled jurisdictions where housing prices are skyrocketing, however, some landlords are now threatening to report undocumented tenants or mixed-status households to ICE in order to raise their rents. Or to evict tenants seen as undesirable, in the hopes of drawing a more affluent renter class in gentrifying neighborhoods.

“We have stories of this happening in every part of California,” Meganathan says. “The Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, rural areas like the Central Valley and the Central Coast.”

Under California state law, landlords can’t ask a tenant or family about their immigration status. A bill before the state legislature, Assembly Bill 291—the Immigrant Tenant Protection Act of 2017—would strengthen renter protections by prohibiting landlords from disclosing a tenant’s immigration status to authorities. It would also make it illegal for landlords to threaten to report a tenant to ICE or otherwise compromise an undocumented tenant’s legal rights.

Legal-aid advocates could not attach a specific figure to the rise in immigration-related eviction threats, but all registered a growing sense of alarm. Bad landlords exacerbate an already bleak housing situation for Latino families in California: Just 43 percent of Latino households owned their homes in 2014, compared with 63 percent of white households. Almost 12 percent of Hispanic households in California live in crowded housing conditions, more than twice the average for Hispanic households nationwide. And 57 percent of the state’s Hispanic households are rent burdened, meaning they pay more than one third of their income toward rent.

Navneet Grewal, senior attorney at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, says that threats about immigration status are not just increasing in number—they’re also growing more intimidating. A landlord’s attorney asking for a tenant’s immigration status during a deposition hearing in a rent dispute, for example, in which immigration status should have no bearing. Nonprofit legal-aid agencies throughout the state are reporting eviction threats from landlords who cite President Trump by name, she says.

“What we used to see is, when there was a building of folks who had habitability concerns, you’d see things like a landlord threatening to report the building to ICE,” Grewal says. “What I hear from people now, there is an attitude of, ‘Why go through the eviction process when I can just call ICE to do the sheriff’s job?’”

Rental fears in California extends beyond the lease. Households who receive federal housing assistance worry that receiving or even applying for federal housing aid, such as vouchers, could make them vulnerable to deportation. Mixed-status families may receive pro-rated assistance based on the different immigration statuses of members of the household.

“That’s perfectly legal under the law,” says Karlo Ng, supervising attorney for the National Housing Law Project. “But the fear is that if you have anyone in the family who’s not a citizen, does that put you at risk? Does that put you on ICE’s radar?”

Ng adds, “Then there are folks who have not yet received federal housing benefits, but they’re afraid if they get any benefits, not just housing benefits, they are at risk of getting in trouble or getting their information forwarded to immigration enforcement.”

Immigrant families appear to be eschewing all kinds of interactions with the government, not just aid. Reports of domestic abuse among Latinos in Los Angeles in 2017 have dropped by 25 percent. (On the other coast, police in Philadelphia also reported a significant drop in violent crimes reported by Latinos.) Gibson says that many clients who come to her with a strong case are too fearful to pursue their legal rights in court. Efforts at intimidation that would have been unimaginable to someone living in the Bay Area before now feel more pressing.

“Previously, when we were counseling people, we would say, ‘Look, the likelihood that, even if your landlord did call immigration authorities, that they would pick up the phone and listen to some random landlord, and that would inspire them to go pick someone up, [is] slim to none,’” Gibson says. “Now, who knows? I can’t say to people that won’t happen.”

She describes another client whose landlord was pushing her to vacate her apartment. He had not taken any formal steps to evict the woman; he was just warning her that paperwork would have consequences. If she forced him to serve her with court papers, she would be found at the courthouse and deported.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye shares that concern. “Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” she told Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly last month.

Even renters who know their rights worry about their lawful interactions with the government, given the White House tilt on immigration. Gibson says that state law needs to be enhanced in order to address fears specific to the Trump era.

“That same client called us back at one point and said, ‘My kids are home and are telling me that there are two men at the door,’” she says. “Her teenager was texting her and saying, ‘Mom, there’s some men at the door, and I think they might be here to take you.’”

The woman ended up sending her neighbor out to check. The two men in suits, to her relief, were Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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