Racial Profiling, False Arrests, Deportation -- The True Face of Federally Mandated "Secure Communities"
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
One man was selling ice cones on the streets of Queens, New York, without a vendor’s license. Another spit on the sidewalk. Then there was the man in Virginia who picked up a piece of firewood on national forest property, the woman in Arizona who made a wide right turn, and the pair who were fishing without a license in Florida.
Many of these people are gone, now, because the police hauled them into the precinct for these Kafkaesque offenses and then sent the suspects’ fingerprints to be cross-referenced with an immigration database. Soon, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) slapped the men and women with a hold and whisked them off to a detention center, where some are still imprisoned. Others have already boarded a plane headed someplace far away from their homes.
On May 15, 2012, the federal government mandated that Secure Communities—an immigration policy that allows for this type of highly mechanized and little scrutinized street-to-deportation channel—take effect in New York, Massachusetts and other holdout states. Advertised as a way to target and deport “criminal aliens,” the reality is that Secure Communities is itself the danger. Instead of deporting violent felons, it has overwhelmingly led to the racial profiling, arrest and deportation of hundreds of thousands of residents for either minor or sometimes even invented crimes. And it isn’t only a threat to migrants; the program has already detained thousands of U.S. citizens and is helping the feds amass a surveillance database that will affect us all.
Technically speaking, Secure Communities is no more than an automated forwarding system—like the out-of-town email response your boss enables in August. When a person is arrested, a local precinct fingerprints the suspect and sends the information to the FBI to check the criminal database for former arrests or pending warrants. Under Secure Communities, the FBI then sends the person’s information to the Department of Homeland Security to check the suspect’s immigration status in ICE’s database. If ICE deems the person deportable, the agency then requests that the local precinct keep the person in custody until ICE transfers them to a detention center.
“The chilling effect of S-comm is that everyone becomes an immigration agent,” said Sin Yen Ling, a lawyer with Queens Public Defenders.
The program’s considerable encroachment of the federal government is why local elected officials from across the country—including Chicago Mayor Robert Emmanuel, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman—are outspoken opponents of the program. It doesn’t help that the federal government does not allocate funds or reimburse the local jails and precincts for the costs of holding those arrested.
Moreover, data shows that those arrested and deported have rarely committed a serious offense.
“When you strip down the aggregated statistics and look at the reality of who gets deported, you learn—as a think tank at Syracuse University recently reported—that only about 14 percent of those deported by ICE actually are charged with criminal conduct,” former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau wrote in a recent Daily Beast article railing against the policy.
According to the Mexican Consulate General Carlos Sada, the reality is even worse: only 8 percent of those deported had allegedly committed a violent offense. Yet, the other 92 percent are oftenshackled at the ankles, wrists and waists during immigration court, as if those who had committed traffic violations were violent felons.
Inside the detention centers, women often struggle to access medical care, such as pap smears, mammograms and trauma counseling, as well as basic necessities such as sanitary pads.
A Racial Profiling Trifecta
In New York City, many view the policy as the third in the trifecta of targeted policing—Muslim surveillance, stop-and-frisk and S-comm—that creates a dual system of law and order based on one’s race and ethnicity.
“The combination of stop-and-frisk and S-comm creates SB 1070 in New York City,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, a minister at St. Jacobi Church in Brooklyn and a long-time immigration rights activist.
Stop-and-frisk already gives police officers the authority to stop and search anyone they choose based on some loosely defined claim of suspicion, a capricious form of policing whose racial bias has been well documented and whose constitutionality is now being challenged in court. Last year, 80 percent of the nearly 700,000 people stopped were either black or Latino. Once stopped, if a police officer can invent some pretext for arrest, the suspect’s immigration information is now only a click away.
Others are not convinced that Ray Kelly will suddenly deploy his 35,000 foot soldiers on a search mission for the city’s undocumented residents. But for those already targeted for arrest by the NYPD, such as the transgender community and black and brown youth, S-comm automatically completes the pipeline from street to deportation center. And because the database has a 1.6 percent error rate, U.S. citizens are also at risk. According to a study by the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, more than 3,600 U.S. citizens have been detained due to S-comm in California alone.
In New York City, lawyers have already seen a spike in immigration holds issued, often after arrests for things like biking on the sidewalk, carrying an open container or walking in between subway cars. Since May 15, 2012, an average of 10 New Yorkers have been deported every day.
From Terrorists to Felons
Perhaps one reason for the program’s failure is that Secure Communities wasn’t designed as a policy to find felons. Instead, under the Bush administration, S-comm emerged as one of the government’s many spying, policing and information-gathering anti-terrorism programs. In the post-9/11 world, streamlining and sharing information between government agencies was hard to argue against, especially after the Department of Homeland Security absorbed ICE into its fold in 2004.
However, there was no evidence that S-comm was effective at finding terrorists, and by 2008 when President Obama was elected, the tide of public opinion had changed. No longer was anti-terrorism enough to justify mass deportations and an Orwellian surveillance state, especially when the president was a savvy liberal rather than a guns-blazing conservative. S-comm needed a new enemy, a new target. Enter the "criminal alien.”
Simply being in the United States without legal documentation has never been a crime. However, in order to bypass the civil immigration courts, states and the federal government have increasingly leveraged local criminallaws to turn undocumented residents into criminals.
This change rests on the foundation of a 40-year prison-industrial complex that has grown into the largest in the world.
The construction of the "criminal" as the identity of the outcast in the United States dates back to the beginning of the drug war in the 1980s. After the civil rights movement, explicit exclusion of people based on race and ethnicity was no longer tolerated. Instead, the United States rewrote criminal laws to create, and then prosecute, the new outsiders. Former misdemeanors for drug offenses became felonies. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws doubled and tripled prison stays. “Three-strike” laws sent thousands and thousands of cornerboys—the least dangerous or important people in the drug trade—to prison for life.
All along, the new laws and their racially targeted enforcement was a thinly veiled and highly successful attempt to criminal African Americans and Latinos.
“The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to,” explained H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s chief of staff.
Now, with the rise of Secure Communities, the punishment for having been constructed as a criminal is not only incarceration in the world’s largest prison system—it is exile.
“Unjust drug policies are now a major factor in deportation,” said Mizue Aizeki, an activist and photographer who has spent years fighting Secure Communities in New York City. “How is it that we’ve gotten to this point where you get convicted and you have this punishment of exile that you have no way to fight?” She sighs. “Obama identified something that’s politically palatable but is really off the wall oppressive.”
Monday and Intel
Given Secure Communities’ failure to achieve its mission, many wonder why the federal government would push the program onto states and cities so aggressively in an election year, especially when it threatens to expose the hypocrisy and unfulfilled promises of Obama’s immigration policy.
Activists have different answers. First, there’s President Obama’s unprecedented deportation quota of 400,000 people per year, one so high that it all but necessitates taking mechanized shortcuts. Second, there’s the increasingly lucrative private detention center industry that was a major lobbying force behind Arizona’s anti-immigration laws. A recent investigation by NPR revealed, for example, that executives at Corrections Corporation of America—the largest private prison company in the country—have moved into deportation centers as “their next big market.”
And then there is the fact that the government is building a massive information database called Next Generation Identification (NGI), and Secure Communities is the pilot program.
“Ultimately, LEA [law enforcement agency] participation is inevitable because SC [Secure Communities] is simply the first of a number of biometric interoperatability systems being brought online by the FBI/CJIS 'Next Generation Identification' initiative," wrote an internal ICE guide.
Next Generation Identification will allow multiple branches of the government to track U.S. citizens and residents using facial recognition, iris scans, voice recordings and even information about tattoos, scars and gait length. The potential for this database raises concerns from civil liberty advocates about how and when this tracking system will be used, especially after the Department of Homeland Security’s widespread surveillance of peaceful Occupy Wall Street camps last fall was revealed.
“This is the first step in terms of gathering, culling and consolidating information. It allows the increase in the technological capacity to identify people very quickly at a high rate,” said Ling. “There are many folks, especially citizens, who think Secure Communities is benign. But the government has a larger reason to be collecting this data.”
Against the "Inevitable"
Unfortunately for the feds, full participation with Secure Communities is not inevitable.
For the last two years, DREAMers and other immigration activists have been staging direct actions against Secure Communities from Charlotte to Phoenix to San Bernardino, in which undocumented students blocked intersections and forced their own arrests to see if they can beat the deportation machine.
Under intense media scrutiny, time after time ICE has bowed to political pressure and let the protesters walk free.
“In North Carolina, everyone was put into deportation proceedings,” said Mohammad Abdollahi with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. “But then the ICE officers came to us and said, ‘This has never happened to us in five years,’ as they took our paperwork away and ripped it up right in front of us.”
Cities and states have been following suit, passing legislation and ordinances to allow local police to ignore ICE’s detention holds. California recently passed the Trust Act, which requires local jails to ignore ICE detention requests and instead release people whose charges are minor and who have no prior criminal convictions. Chicago Mayor Robert Emmanuel recently supported a similar ordinance that would release those without serious criminal convictions or outstanding warrants. The District of Columbia City Council has also passed similar legislation.
In New York City, some have proposed that expanding the narrow ICE Detainer Law, more commonly called the Riker’s Bill, is one possible way for the city to resist S-comm. Currently, the law states that Rikers prison will not turn over anyone to ICE as long as they don’t have a prior felony or misdemeanor, have no outstanding bench warrants, are not a gang member, have no final order of deportation and are not terrorists.
Yet many believe that drawing a line in the sand about who gets turned over and who doesn’t ultimately divides the community and ignores the larger context of the prison-industrial complex and mass criminalization.
“They’re trying to say, ‘We are using this program to identify the criminals,'" said Aizeki. “[We’re saying] that we aren’t going to undermine one group of people to advance the cause of the other.”
“Any deportation can be stopped as long as people organize around it,” he said.
“It’s about changing the narrative of what it means to be a good immigrant. We call everyone a good immigrant.”
Laura Gottesdiener is an organizer with Occupy Wall Street and a freelance journalist in New York City.