L.A. Landlords Exploiting Immigration Fears to Threaten Tenants

Friday, April 7, 2017
Julia Wick

In immigrant-heavy neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, community groups have seen a marked uptick in landlords exploiting immigration fears to threaten tenants since the election. Unscrupulous landlords who threaten to call immigration authorities on undocumented tenants are not a new phenomenon, but, as first reported at CityLab, there appears to be a growing trend across California of landlords capitalizing on immigration fears to illegally raise rents or evict tenants.

"They use veiled threats and insinuations in many of these cases," Leonardo Vilchis, executive director of Boyle Heights community group Union de Vecinos, told LAist. "We've heard that from several families in several situations. [This type of harassment] has always been part of the situation with tenants—the problem is that now, with the Trump threats and everything else that is happening, people are very, very scared. And that has an impact on people reporting housing conditions, or complaining about problems in their apartments."

According to CityLab, landlords who threaten to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on tenants have usually done so in response to complaints about the rental unit, but since the election, the tactic has increasingly been used to carry out illegal rent hikes or evictions. Jith Meganathan, policy advocate at statewide organization Western Center on Law & Poverty, told LAist that his organization had been hearing more of these stories from their partner groups "since Election Day." A representative from the Los Angeles Tenants Union told LAist that members of the union, particularly in Boyle Heights, had seen this activity. Inner City Law Center, a legal nonprofit headquartered on Skid Row, also reported that they'd seen examples of landlords doing this.

"Two very horrible things are coming together right now: the increase in racism and discrimination, and a very intensified process of gentrification," Vilchis said. "The landlords now have a new tool in their arsenal to scare tenants into moving away. And they're using it."

Vilchis described a case involving a Boyle Heights tenant who had been living with her son in a rent-stabilized building for more than a decade, under a landlord who had tried many times to illegally raise her rent. "Three days ago, she called me and said, 'The landlord wants to increase the rent again, and she told me that if I don't do it she's going to call the police or get me deported,'" Vilchis said. "And because we've had a relationship with the landlord we immediately fired out a letter and they backed off, but this is a tenant who's [already] connected to us, and knows the situation. Just the fact that after years of having this battle, now she ups the ante and says 'We'll call immigration and get you deported,' it's bad," he continued, adding that his larger concern was for tenants in similar situations who might not know their rights or already be connected with community groups.

California landlords can't legally ask about a tenant's immigration status so, as Vilchis explained, "99% of time, [the threats are] based on appearances. The Latino last name, or the fact that they are brown, and so on. It's a form of discrimination."

"There are laws on the books that protect Californians from discrimination on the basis of immigration or citizenship status in business activities, including the rental of housing," Meganathan told LAist. "The problem is that it would be more helpful if we make the protections for tenants explicit in the law, because it's easier for tenant attorneys to use them to protect tenants." There is currently a bill making its way through the California State Assembly that would do just that, and more specifically, would not only strengthen renter protections by prohibiting a landlord from reporting a tenant's immigration status to authorities, but would also "make it illegal for landlords to threaten to report a tenant to ICE or otherwise compromise an undocumented tenant’s legal rights," according to CityLab.

"The goal is to get the bill passed by September 15th," Meganathan said, explaining that if that happens, AB 291 still wouldn't go into effect until January 1, 2018.

"There is a deep concern in the community regarding potential immigration actions," Rick Coca, a spokesman for City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Boyle Heights, told LAist in an email. "We definitely want to get the word out to our considerable RSO [rent stabilization ordinance] residents and let them know that, irregardless of immigration status, they have very specific rights that need to be adhered to." Huizar and several community groups will launch a door-to-door campaign on Saturday to inform local residents about their housing rights.

"The fact is that what our nonprofit legal partners see is just the tip of the iceberg," Meganathan said, because so many undocumented residents don't know their rights, or have access to the resources to fight back. "What we're hoping is that beefing up some of the penalties in the bill will have a deterrent effect on landlords."

Vilchis said that he hadn't yet seen any cases of ICE officials actually showing up in Boyle Heights after a landlord threatened a tenant, but unfortunately the same can't be said for the rest of the state. Meganathan said that a case had already been reported to his office of an East Bay landlord threatening to call immigration, and ICE officials arriving after.

As Vilchis explained, even if immigration officials don't show up, the "insinuation itself can freeze you over. Especially now."

"These kind of threats have been around for a long time, but I think it's a lot scarier today, especially with the guidance that existed under the Obama administration, in terms of who was to be prioritized for deportation," Meganathan said. It was less likely that a random call or complaint would have led to a situation. But right now, we just don't know what's going to happen.

According to Inner City Law Center's Greg Spiegel, the climate of fear under President Trump has created an atmosphere where even tenants who aren't directly threatened about their immigration status still fear retaliation for speaking up. "What we see is a before and after: there was a time when tenants wanted to be assertive and were [comfortable] asserting their rights, and since the election, many have become much more reluctant to step forward, to make a complaint, to even answer the door," Spiegel said.

And what happens when a landlord does place an anonymous call to an ICE office, reporting the name and residence of an undocumented tenant? Should a longtime undocumented Los Angeles resident with deep ties to the community and no criminal record fear that that call could put their life here in jeopardy? ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley responded to LAist's query with an emailed breakdown of the Department of Homeland Security's priorities for enforcement efforts, but, she added, "while criminal aliens and those who pose a threat to public safety will continue to be a focus, DHS will NOT exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States."

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