Most immigrants without legal status mistakenly believe they have no individual rights, are not entitled to fair treatment or are allowed to legally defend themselves. While it is true that having no valid visa or green card can lead to many serious problems with equally serious consequences, you should know that this does not mean that you cannot defend yourself or your family.
Many of you have been taken advantage of by business owners, neighbors and even attorneys because these unethical people know that you fear being noticed by ICE and fear being deported. Although this can be true sometimes, most of the time it is not. In many cases, there is no requirement to be a legal resident, visa holder or even a citizen to fight wrongs or injustices against you or your family (with some exceptions).
Two of the most common places to obtain help without the need to prove legal status are: small claims court and the police. I know it sounds risky to try to take your concerns to a judge or a police officer, but it is not the job of a local police officer (non-federal) or small claims court judge to enforce immigration. Immigration law falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government not local or state government.
Most problems in the United States lead to court or to the police. Sometimes, the same issue requires assistance from both. All civil issues (anything not criminal) dealing with money claims under $3,000 are handled by the small claims court. This applies to any situation where someone (or a business) does not perform their side of an agreement or service (called “breach of contract”).
In Michigan, you do not need any specific legal status to sue someone in small claims court (you do have to be a citizen to sue in federal court). Although it sounds very intimidating, small claims court is actually designed for individuals to fight for their own rights without the need for an attorney. It is a court of law, however, so there are very specific rules and responsibilities and there is a real judge presiding over the case. In western Michigan, most judges are very good people who are helpful and truly fight for those who have been wronged, regardless of legal status.
Problems that are of a more “physical” nature such as theft, threats to your body (or a family member’s body) or threats to your home or other property (i.e. car) are local police enforcement issues. It is the job of the police to enforce the laws of the state and local municipalities regardless of legal status. You should never feel too scared to call the police for help and should know that they have no enforcement authority regarding immigration matters.
When called for help, police will ask for your identification so they can establish your residency (i.e. where you live in Michigan) and for purposes of investigating crimes. It is important to know that they should never ask you to prove you legal status and have no authority to enforce immigration matters. They do have the right, however, to ask for your identification any time there is a traffic issue. You should know that they can only ask for the identification of the driver of the automobile that they just pulled over. If you are a passenger and they ask you for your identification, tell them that you do not have it with you. Even if you have a license, you have no legal obligation to provide it to them. If they have a legitimate concern about you, they have the right to arrest you, but they will not do so unless they have “probable cause.”
If you have problems similar to those above, please consult an attorney as they can help you understand your rights and can advise you. A good attorney will tell you if the issue is something that can be handled by yourself (small claims) or if it is advisable to have legal representation.