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Michigan Truth Squad: Michigan Republican Tonya Schuitmaker attacks foe on DACA

Tonya Schuitmaker
Bridge Magazine
A DACA recipient and sanctuary city activist is at the center of a GOP immigration attack ad in the Republican race for Michigan attorney general.

With less than three months until its Lansing convention, the two Republican candidates for Michigan attorney general are pitching their message to a small, impassioned audience: the estimated 2,000 delegates who will choose between House Speaker Tom Leonard and state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker.

Many of these party insiders are also traditionally conservative – which makes a touchy issue like immigration a flash point for attacks as the candidates try to outflank each other on the right.

Schuitmaker has targeted Leonard online for “hiring” an “undocumented immigrant” and supporter of sanctuary cities as an intern for a short time in 2016. She suggests the deeply conservative Leonard is a liberal politician who supports President Obama’s DACA policy, and asks, “How can we trust him?”

GOP sparring over this issue sets up a bright contrast with the presumptive Democratic AG nominee Dana Nessel, an outspoken supporter of immigrant rights, including those brought illegally to the United States as children.

Truth Squad finds Schuitmaker’s statements mostly inaccurate because they are based on untrue or misleading claims, even if some aspects are accurate.

The claim:

"Liberal elected officials hired undocumented DACA immigrants to demonstrate their support for President Obama’s executive action. As reported in the Lansing State Journal, an undocumented immigrant ‘interned at the U.S. House of Representatives through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and worked for state House Representative Tom Leonard.’ That same individual worked as a liberal community organizer promoting sanctuary cities. Now that Tom Leonard is running for Attorney General, he claims to oppose President Obama’s DACA executive action. How can we trust him?"

The facts:

The broader policy raised by this attack is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), controversially invoked by executive order by President Obama in 2012. It allows individuals brought to the U.S. illegally as children to win a temporary, renewable permit to work or study in the U.S. It does not provide a path to citizenship. President Trump pulled the plug on the program in 2017, leaving the status of nearly 700,000 U.S. DACA recipients, including 5,400 in Michigan, in doubt.

According to an October 2016 article in the Lansing State Journal, Viviana Alamillo crossed the desert border with her family from Mexico into Texas at age 3. She eventually qualified as a DACA recipient while in Michigan, which meant she could receive a driver’s license and Social Security card, and was able to work, study and pay taxes in the U.S. While DACA allows recipients to lawfully remain in the U.S. for renewable periods, it does not confer legal status.

At one point in 2016, Alamillo interned in the U.S. House of Representatives through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and for Michigan House Speaker Leonard.

Contacted by Truth Squad, Alamillo, now 24, confirms she interned for about a month as a volunteer in Leonard’s office. She said she did not recall mentioning her DACA status during that time. She said she volunteered for the experience, rather than out of any affinity for Leonard or his policies. Those policies include opposition to DACA, sanctuary cities (which Leonard calls “one of the greatest threats to public safety in Michigan”) and benefits to undocumented immigrants. He also voted yes to making English the official language of Michigan.

Alamillo confirmed she volunteered for Action of Greater Lansing, a nonprofit organization that pushed for designation of Lansing as a sanctuary city – a status that would limit its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents in deporting undocumented immigrants for minor offenses. Lansing approved, then last year rescinded, that designation.

Alamillo took exception to the assertion she was an “undocumented immigrant” when she worked in Leonard’s office. She noted she had been a DACA recipient for years, giving her not only a work permit document but also the legal right to work and study in the U.S.

“That doesn’t make any sense. When you are undocumented, you don’t have the legal status to stay in school or work,” she said.

Joe Wicks, a spokesman for Schuitmaker told Truth Squad: “Sen. Schuitmaker finds it interesting that her opponent had a liberal community organizer working in his legislative office and that he speaks so strongly against DACA…”

Wicks did not directly answer whether Schuitmaker considers the hiring of DACA recipients wrong.

Asked if Schuitmaker supports the end of DACA, Wicks said: “Sen. Schuitmaker believes Congress and the President should resolve this issue. President Obama's unilateral executive action violated the rule of law."

Leonard spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said Leonard “was not aware” of Alamillo’s immigration status at the time she worked in his office. He said Alamillo filed paperwork with the independent House Business Office and was approved.

He added that Leonard also “was not aware” of her stand on sanctuary cities.

“They did not discuss her personal political beliefs during her three weeks in the position,” he said.

He added: “Right or wrong, Viviana had a legal right to live and work in the United States under President Obama's executive order. A ‘rule of law’ candidate for attorney general really ought to realize that.”

D’Assandro added, however, that Leonard believes DACA “should be repealed.”

In the meantime, the woman at the center of this back-and-forth on immigration awaits resolution of her legal status and says she is disappointed to be used as campaign fodder.

“I find it pointless of (Schuitmaker) to use me as something bad to look down on. It’s part of politics, but it’s hard to watch.”

If DACA is rescinded, Alamillo said, “We have to have a plan B. I have pondered the possibility of going back to a country that I never really lived in.”

There’s no dispute Alamillo worked briefly as a volunteer in Leonard’s office. As Schuitmaker alleges, Alamillo was a DACA recipient and also has advocated for Lansing’s status as a sanctuary city.

The statement that Alamillo was “undocumented” when she volunteered for Leonard is not strictly true in the sense that the government, through DACA, has acknowledged her temporary right to remain in the United States. On the other hand, the term “undocumented immigrant” is widely used to encompass those who enter the country illegally without proper authorization or documents; and DACA, which remains mired in federal court challenges, does not confer legal status to those who qualify.

That said, Schuitmaker presents no evidence Leonard is liberal in any sense of the word, or that he hired Alamillo to burnish Obama’s legacy on DACA. Indeed, there is nothing in Leonard’s record that indicates he has waffled in his firm views on immigration. Leonard says he did not know the intern’s views or legal status, which may or may not be beside the point. He was on better ground arguing that, whatever his personal views, he was obliged to follow the law regarding Alamillo’s work status at the time she volunteered.

Schuitmaker’s attack is mostly inaccurate.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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