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Shocking Tales of Racial Profiling in The Big Easy

ICE agents are employing high-tech biometric devices in New Orleans, first used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last August, New Orleans resident Julio Gallego was driving his friends Karen Sandoval and Enrique Morales Sosa to pick up school supplies for the couple’s young daughters when an unmarked car flashed its lights at him. He pulled over and was swiftly surrounded by several more cars containing plainclothes officers and five Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The ICE officials handcuffed the two men, told them they had been speeding (a lie), and began to question them.

They started by making fun of Gallego’s car and his unkempt appearance. Gallego is a construction worker who had just got off work. “These Latinos are dirty,” one of the agents said. The other agents signaled their approval with a round of laughter. “So basically you stopped me because I’m Latino?” asked Gallego. “Basically, yes,” responded another officer. “And because your car is old.”

Stories like Gallego’s have become increasingly commonplace in New Orleans’ Latino communities.

On Dec. 19, 2013, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice published a scathing report that unmasked an outrageous new tactic of ICE, in which field officers stop and fingerprint those they suspect of being illegal immigrants with criminal records. These suspicions are based purely on racial profiling, and such practices amount to unnecessary and unwarranted harassment of Latinos in New Orleans.

Gallego’s testimonial and many others were included in the report; a sampling confirms the patterns:

Raul Rios, his four-year-old son, and family friend, Byron Rocael de Leon, were walking toward their local grocery store when they were stopped and handcuffed by an ICE agent who was waiting on a street corner in a black SUV. The two men were not asked for identification, but were immediately fingerprinted. Rios was told by the agent, in front of his son to, "shut the fuck up, or you'll make it worse for yourself." Rios and his son are U.S. citizens, but de Leon was later deported.

When a "mobile fingerprinting unit" confirmed that Irma Esperanza Lemus had previously received a deportation order, four ICE agents removed her from her home, where she had been stopped, cuffed, and scanned, unexpectedly, in front of her husband and three small children.

The Criminal Alien Removal Initiative (CARI), as it has come to be known, has dramatically ramped up ICE’s aggressive deportation tactics. “New Orleans ICE arrests people who appear Latino,” the report states. “[They] use high-tech mobile biometric devices, first created for U.S. military use in Iraq and Afghanistan, to conduct immediate biometric record checks.” ICE officers in other parts of the country have access to such technology, but its use in public places is unprecedented. In New Orleans, most people who are stopped are handcuffed prior to being subjected to the military-grade biometric devices, as Gallego was.

ICE, which has been predictably close-lipped about the affair, released a statement through its public affairs officer Bryan Cox back in August, claiming that "ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States," and that, "ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately."

AlterNet spoke with Jacinta Gonzalez, lead organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers (a project of NOWCRJ), and co-author of the December report. Gonzalez claims that ICE’s stop-and-fingerprint policy is “having a terrifying effect on the community.” “We have accounts from people who were literally just walking out of their apartment. We’ve had U.S. citizens who are Latino stopped and fingerprinted getting groceries, picking their kids up at school,” Gonzalez said.

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