Immigration

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.

ICE’s claim that it is looking for immigrants with criminal records appears increasingly toothless the more one digs. “Really what they’re doing is redefining ‘criminal,’” Gonzalez said. “If someone missed a court date from the border 15 years ago...they have a deportation order that follows them the rest of their lives.” “Criminal record” can mean anything from felonies to misdemeanors to not complying with a Notice to Appear in immigration court.

The report was released nearly a month after a huge pro-immigration rally in protest of ICE’s racial profiling campaign, organized in downtown New Orleans, during which police arrested 18 immigrants and 4 activists. The rally was organized by NOWCRJ, and Saket Soni, the executive director of the group was among those arrested.

According to Gonzalez, CARI began well before the rally, sometime in late 2011 or early 2012, though the earliest documented reports of such incidents only go back through February 2013. “Pressure was on local field agents to implement strategies that would help them fulfill their quota,” Gonzalez explained. The NOWCRJ report states that Louisiana has the highest deportation rate per capita of illegal immigrants in the country. It has the highest per capita rate of immigration arrests of any non-border state.

Since CARI has come to light, the story has garnered a good amount of attention from the media—the New York Times and Al Jazeera both ran long, reported stories; the refrain that CARI is the "stop-and-frisk of New Orleans” has begun to catch on. Gonzalez says communities throughout New Orleans have rallied around the cause, including the Catholic Church, law schools such as Loyola, and the Jesuit community.

Just days ago Trey Lund, the director of the New Orleans Field Office (which is responsible for the detention and deportation of immigrants in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee), the man who launched CARI in the first place, “was taken out of New Orleans and given a new position in DC,” according to Gonzalez. “We [at NOWCRJ] were told it was because of what happened with CARI,” Gonzalez said.

Michael Meade, who’s been the director of Miami Field Office since 1990, will temporarily succeed Lund as the acting head of the New Orleans office. NOWCRJ plans to continue to put pressure on the local field office, stand in solidarity with local advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Deportations, Raids and Enforcement (MADRE), and support the Not One More Deportation movement. 

Gonzalez believes it is important to connect what's happening in New Orleans to the larger national struggle for immigration reform. Brazen abuses of authority are simply, “what happens when you have deportation quotas,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what happens when you have a president who hasn’t used his power to end the suffering of millions of families.”

Hannah K. Gold is a journalist, creative writer and former intern at the Nation. She lives in Brooklyn and blogs here and on Twitter @togglecoat

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