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In California, Landlords Threaten Immigrant Tenants with Deportations

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.

Legal-aid agencies throughout California are reporting eviction threats by landlords who cite President Trump by name.
“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?’”

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