Monday, April 17, 2017

Extortion in the Name of Donald Trump

Let’s combine a couple of concepts here before I drill down on what is increasingly happening all across the land: landlords threatening undocumented tenants with deportation if they do not pay a new exorbitant rent (even where there is a signed lease). This also applies families with a mix of documented and undocumented in the same household. Since too many such landlords are invoking Donald Trump in their threats against tenants, I’d like to look at his responsibility for people taking it upon themselves to follow what they perceive to be his lead.
“Did candidate Donald Trump incite violence at a rally last year? A federal judge in Kentucky has allowed a lawsuit to proceed against Trump's campaign and two of his supporters, arising from an alleged assault against three protesters at a Kentucky rally last year… Trump said, ‘Get 'em out of here,’ and then several members of the audience physically attacked them. They allege incitement to riot, vicarious liability, and negligence on the part of Trump and his campaign. The Trump defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, arguing plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against them…US District Judge David Hale denied most of the Trump defendants' motions to dismiss…” CNN, April 3rd. But the court rejected an attempt to impose possible vicarious liability on Donald Trump himself, dismissing that cause of action.
Nevertheless, presidential rhetoric – and his implementing policies – is/are wreaking havoc among those least able to defend themselves. Here in California, for an undocumented person reporting a crime, enforcing legal rights and just going to a courthouse or police station for any reason pretty much insures a run-in with U.S. Customs and Immigrations Enforcement (ICE) agents hell-bent on punishing “sanctuary” California by stepping up their deportation activities in that state. They are particularly fond of hanging around California courthouses looking for opportunities to detain and deport.
In March, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye wrote Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly: “Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws.” Unfortunately, the response she received suggested that ICE is not going to change that policy anytime soon. That reality has become a welcome boost to unscrupulous California (and other) landlords to force impoverished but undocumented aliens to fork over huge additional funds to stay in their apartments, even where there are leases with set rental rates to the contrary.
Here’s how it works: “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… Legal-aid agencies throughout California are reporting eviction threats by landlords who cite President Trump by name…
“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…
“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…
“‘Why go through the eviction process when I can just call ICE to do the sheriff’s job?’ [a common landlord position, notes Navneet Grewal, senior attorney at the Western Center on Law & Poverty].”, April 5th. In addition to the California statutes and bills noted above, which have parallel provisions in other states, there is the reality that threatening someone with government prosecution/enforcement action unless they pay up is actually a felony: the crime of extortion.
Most states define extortion as the gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force, or threat of 1) violence, 2) property damage, 3) harm to reputation, or 4) unfavorable government action. While usually viewed as a form of theft/larceny, extortion differs from robbery in that the threat in question does not pose an imminent physical danger to the victim.
Extortion is a felony in all states. Blackmail is a form of extortion in which the threat is to expose embarrassing and damaging information to family, friends, or the public. Inherent in this common form of extortion is the threat to expose the details of someone's private lives to the public unless money is exchanged.” (Emphasis added). Certainly the case here in California (Section 518 of the Penal Code).
Most certainly, these landlords would be convicted if they were properly charged with a crime, but their hapless victims literally have no recourse. So since ICE now a willing partner in making these extortion threats real, are they guilty of criminal conspiracy? We know they won’t be prosecuted, but they have suborned a level of lawlessness for which there is absolutely no excuse.
I’m Peter Dekom, but I am deeply ashamed at a federal government that seems to be aware that it is creating opportunities for extortion… and just doesn’t care.

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