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When It Comes to Immigration Detention and Enforcement, Georgia Sets a Terrible Example

Guest blogger: Azadeh N. Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director, ACLU Foundation of Georgia

On Monday, the ACLU of Georgia submitted testimony to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on conditions at Stewart and Irwin County Detention Centers as well as racial profiling in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. IACHR has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and is authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations in all member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) including the United States.

The IACHR hearing came less than a week after the body released its report critical of the U.S. immigration enforcement and detention system. The report was based on visits to six detention centers in the U.S. and interviews with detainees and their family members as well as human rights defenders.

In its report, the IACHR voiced concern for the increasing reliance on detention of immigrants, where in fact detention should be the exception. In addition, the IACHR expressed its concern with “lack of a genuinely civil detention system with general conditions that are commensurate with human dignity and humane treatment” and the increasing privatization of the immigration detention system in the U.S., with little oversight provided for the contracting prison corporations.

In Georgia, we know firsthand that private immigration detention facilities are particularly ripe for abuse. The ACLU of Georgia and Georgia Detention Watch have documented conditions at the largest corporate-run facility in the U.S., the Stewart Detention Center located in Lumpkin, Georgia. In April 2009, Georgia Detention Watch released a report on conditions at Stewart based on interviews with 16 detainees conducted in December 2008. As the report details, complaints at Stewart have ranged from inadequate medical care, arbitrary transfers, prolonged detention, and inadequate access to interpreters and counsel, to verbal and physical abuse.

In March 2009, the situation at this facility took a tragic turn when Roberto Martinez Medina, a 39-year-old immigrant held at Stewart, died of a treatable heart infection. To this day, many unanswered questions surround his death.

And if the past is any indication, we may always remain in the dark about why Mr. Medina perished in detention. The local ICE office has refused to meet with us to discuss the findings of the Stewart report or the death of Roberto Martinez Medina. It was only in November 2010, at instigation of the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, that ICE finally granted us a meeting. ICE assured us then that they will look into complaints about the conditions faced by detainees and take such issues very seriously. However, the local ICE office has since refused to convey to us a mechanism for timely and effective communication of complaints for fear of “clogging up their system.”

In its report, the IACHR also expressed concern about local-federal partnerships for enforcement of immigration laws, such as 287(g) and “Secure Communities,” which have led to racial profiling. The IACHR specifically called for termination of the failed 287(g) program.

The ACLU of Georgia submission to the IACHR included testimony of racial profiling and human rights abuses related to implementation of 287(g) in two Georgia counties, namely, Cobb and Gwinnett.

As documented in the ACLU of Georgia reports, many Latino community members in Gwinnett and Cobb counties have been stopped without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. The 287(g) program lacks the proper oversight mechanisms for the state or local levels, and allows for abuse of power by police officers who are not well trained.

What happened to “Gabriel,” detailed in the Cobb report, is illustrative. On May 19, 2009, on his way to completing a construction job, Gabriel’s car was stopped around a residential neighborhood close to Rocky Mountain Road, an area known to be targeted by Cobb police. Approaching a stop sign, Gabriel was extra careful to make a complete stop. But he was nonetheless pulled over by two Cobb County policemen on motorcycles. The officers did not tell him why they were stopping him, but later issued him a ticket for an improper stop.

Gabriel was asked to exit his car and the officers searched his car without seeking his consent. Gabriel was then arrested because he had no driver’s license.

Gabriel said: “The officer in the patrol car who arrested me was really nice. He took off my handcuffs to transport me to the jail. Upon arrival, a sheriff deputy at the jail asked the Cobb Police officer why he didn’t have me in handcuffs. The officer replied that he didn’t feel it was necessary. The two officers began to argue about this. I heard the sheriff deputy say really insulting things about me. The Cobb officer told the sheriff deputy to be quiet because I spoke English. The sheriff deputy then felt embarrassed and reacted by turning to me and telling me not to try anything because he’d ‘kick [my] teeth out.’”

Following his arrest, Gabriel’s wife paid his bond in the amount of $2,000 and he was released. When we talked to him, he was scheduled to be deported, but still living in Cobb. He avoided certain areas due to police harassment. Asked whether he would be reluctant to call the police in the future, he said, “Yes. I fear the police more than the criminals that might rob me.”

Gabriel is not alone. Many victims of racial profiling we spoke to in Cobb and Gwinnett also expressed fear of further contact with the police.

In addition to yesterday’s hearing, the ACLU has brought these issues to the attention of the U.S. government in several different human rights forums. In February, the ACLU’s Human Rights Program delivered a statement as part of the U.S. government’s Universal Periodic Review cataloging the numerous documented civil and human rights abuses associated with programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities.

The U.S. government and Georgia should heed recommendations of the IACHR and put an immediate stop to programs such as 287(g) that lead to racial profiling and abuse of power by the police. The government should also end the unnecessary and inhumane detention of immigrants and instead, as urged by the IACHR, rely on effective alternatives to detention.

Photo courtesy of thenewstribune.com.

ICE’s Misplaced Priorities: The Numbers Speak for Themselves and the Stories Cry out for Justice


Guest Blogger: Azadeh Shahshahani from ACLU of Georgia reposted from The Huffington Post.

This past Wednesday, Jessica Colotl was released from the Etowah Detention Center in Alabama and allowed to reunite with her family back in Cobb County, Georgia. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has granted Jessica deferred action on her deportation case.

Jessica is a 21-year-old smart hard working student at Kennesaw State who has worked nights in order to pay her tuition. She hopes to become a lawyer after graduating in the fall.

So why was Jessica at a detention center all the way in Alabama in the first place? A few weeks ago, as Jessica pulled into her university parking lot, a campus police officer pulled her over, telling her that she was “impeding the flow of traffic.” She could not produce a driver’s license due to her undocumented status and eventually ended up at the Cobb County jail. This is when 287(g) kicked in. Per an agreement between Cobb County and ICE, some Cobb sheriff deputies have been granted certain enforcement powers of an immigration officer. Jessica was placed in deportation proceedings. Before long, she found herself behind bars at the Alabama detention center, awaiting deportation to Mexico, a country she has not lived in for over ten years and which she hardly remembers. Jessica was only released after strongly voiced and sustained demands by the community, including her sorority sisters, and after the ACLU contacted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Headquarters on her behalf.

Is it unusual for ICE and the localities to waste limited resources meant for targeting perpetrators of the most dangerous crimes by going after individuals with great potential like Jessica?

Unfortunately not. Jessica is just one of the untold numbers of hard-working people who get caught up in the local immigration enforcement programs, including 287(g). In a sense, Jessica’s case is very unusual, as she actually won respite (albeit temporary) from deportation. Most people in her situation, faced with prolonged detention at a jail, oftentimes isolated and hours away from their families, opt to give up their immigration case and are subsequently deported.

An ACLU of Georgia report released in October 2009 recounted stories of 10 community members in Cobb and their families impacted by 287(g). As documented by the report entitled, “Terror and Isolation in Cobb: How Unchecked Police Power under 287(g) had Torn Families Apart and Threatened Public Safety,” mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters are torn apart from their families every day in Cobb County, many with little recourse.

In one case, a husband and father was pulled over for “an incomplete stop” on the way to the bank. Angel subsequently ended up at the Stewart Detention Center. He left behind his wife Sharon, an American citizen who is physically disabled and who “depended on [her] husband for everything.” Sharon and Angel had to “celebrate” their 7-year wedding anniversary apart; their only means of contact was a phone call by Angel from the Stewart Detention Center.

In Cobb, immigrants disappear into detention for violations such as a broken tail light or tinted windows on their car. In 2008, Cobb County turned over 3,180 detainees to ICE for deportation. Of those, 2,180, about 69 percent, were arrested for traffic violations.

But you don’t only have to rely on the ACLU of Georgia report to believe there is something wrong with this picture. A Government Accountability Office investigation of 287(g) released in January 2009 found that ICE was not exercising proper oversight over local or state agencies. And a report released in March 2010 by the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) documents significant lapses in 287(g) priorities and oversight. ICE claims that 287(g)’s mandate is to focus on non-citizens who pose a threat to national security or are dangers to the community. But less than 10 percent of those sampled by OIG were ICE “Level 1″ offenders. Almost half had no involvement in crimes of violence, drug offenses, or property crimes.

This trend of misplaced priorities is shared by other ICE local enforcement programs.

Last week, a piece appeared by John Morton, the head of ICE, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution as well as other papers around the country defending the “Secure Communities” initiative through which arrestees’ fingerprints are checked against DHS databases with information about civil immigration history, rather than just against FBI criminal databases. Morton claims that his agency is prioritizing perpetrators of dangerous crimes for deportation.

Morton’s strongest rebuttal is his own numbers. According to the data ICE released in November 2009, out of 113,000 non-citizen individuals identified in the program during its first year of operation, more than 101,000, or close to 90%, were never charged with or convicted of dangerous crimes. “Secure Communities” is in fact designed to sweep up any foreign-born individual who is arrested by local law enforcement for any reason whatsoever, including traffic infractions, even if that person is never charged with, or convicted of, any crime at all. An alarming 5% of the total number of individuals identified were actually U.S. citizens, testifying to the inaccuracy and incompleteness of the federal agency databases against which fingerprints are matched.

Meanwhile, precious resources are diverted from identifying and removing perpetrators of the most dangerous crimes.

Contrary to Morton’s assertion, the program is also profoundly susceptible to abuse and racial profiling, similar to the misguided 287(g) program. Any police officer or sheriff’s deputy can arrest individuals simply to bring them to the attention of immigration officials. Without federal standards or oversight, this creates an unacceptably high risk of unlawful racial profiling.

The risk of racial profiling through local enforcement programs is compounded in Georgia, as there is no state legislation banning racial profiling and mandating accountability and transparency for law enforcement.

It is past time for ICE to match their rhetoric regarding priorities with action and put an immediate end to the unaccountable outsourcing of immigration enforcement functions. If the numbers weren’t enough proof, Jessica’s story and other accounts cry out for justice.

Photo courtesy of acluga.org

Racial profiling in Georgia a microscosm of whats happening all over the U.S.

As the dust settles around the 200,000 March for America in D.C. this weekend, it is important to remind ourselves why we need immigration reform. A new report by the ACLU is one such reminder of racial profiling that is alive and kicking in the United States. As one of the most unconstitutional implications of our broken immigration system, racial profiling takes place when police stop, interrogate, and detain people on the basis of their appearance, accent or general perceived ethnicity, rather than on the basis of concrete evidence of criminal activity.

Called “The Persistence of Racial Profiling in Gwinnett: Time for Accountability, Transparency, and an End to 287(g),” the report uses individual testimonies from the community to examine the persistence of racial profiling in Gwinnett County, Georgia, before and after the introduction of the 287(g) program that partners local law enforcement with federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to enforce immigration law. Dedicated to the brave undocumented students walking the Trail of Dreams who marched into this “risky” 287(g) county, the report focuses on Sheriff Conway known as the “Joe Arpaio of the South”, who claimed that November 16th, 2009 or the day that the 287(g) program officially took off in Gwinnett County “was a great day for Gwinnett County citizens.”

Racial profiling has always been prevalent in Gwinnett County. In a case that took place before the implementation of 287(g), a woman named Mary Babington witnessed two police officers stop a white Sedan and pull out two Latino men at gun-point, shouting at them the entire time. They were then cuffed and made to lie on the ground, shirtless. One of the men was crying and asked the officer for his shirt, saying he felt cold. The officer then kicked him on his back and yelled at him not to move. Mary then heard one officer boast to the other -

They wouldn’t come out when I pulled my gun, so I sprayed the whole can of pepper spray. I emptied the whole can on them…Dude, I emptied the can in his face. I love my job.

According to the witness, Mary, the officers did not tell the men why they had been stopped, and did not read the men their rights at any point. Finally the officers administered a breathalyzer test and gave one of them a ticket for driving under the influence.

The implementation of the 287 (g) program has only exacerbated racial profiling. Many people of color have been stopped, interrogated, detained and even abused based on minor traffic violations even though 287(g) is supposed to be implemented to catch serious criminals. Some were stopped without any probable cause and never given an explanation.

A case in point is the testimony of Juan, a 48-year maintenance technician who is a legal permanent resident, entitled to live and work in the U.S. In the last year he has been stopped by local police on two different occasions, both times without any legal basis. On the most recent occasion, a Gwinnett police officer asked Juan to pull over as he was driving home from work. Despite him asking the officer five times why he was being stopped, he was given no answer. Instead the officer continuously screamed at him for asking questions and asked him for his driver’s license, which he handed over. Juan was eventually released without a citation but never found out why he had been pulled over and detained. He is now constantly worried about such an event recurring and avoids driving in certain areas of Gwinnett County.

In a podcast interview, Azadeh Shahshahani from the ACLU talks about the ways in which the 287(g) program has been extremely harmful for the 70 jurisdictions in which it operates. Local profiling has threatened public safety so that instead of trusting the local police, people are increasingly afraid to approach them, creating a dangerous communication barrier between local law enforcement and the community. In addition to diverting resources, the 287(g) program employs local police officers who are not trained in making immigration and status determinations, resulting in them restoring to their perceived notions about people’s race, ethnicity and accent.

While 50% of U.S. states have enacted legislation against racial profiling, legislation is still pending for Georgia. According to Azadeh -

In Georgia the problem is compounded because not only is there not any meaningful federal oversight, but there is also no oversight at the local or county level that we have seen…One of our main recommendations would be for law enforcement to revert to a policy of having federal immigration laws enforced only by federal immigration officials, and leave police to the job of protecting our communities.

So what’s the best outcome? Lacking training and oversight, stop 287(g) program all over the country. Document all the stops that are being made in the name of the program to check for patterns of racial profiling. And pass anti-racial profiling legislation so everyone is protected.

Photo courtesy of acluga.org

POLL: Do you feel the 287(g) program increases racial profiling?

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It’s that time again to talk about racial profiling

There can be victories in the fight to stop racial profiling. But we need communities to come together and speak out against it.

For starters, you can have a conversation along with thousands of others on February 22 and Face the Truth about racial profiling.

While traditionally thought of as targeting the African American community, profiling affects a broad range of communities, including Native American, African American, Latino, Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities. More and more, it is being practiced in the name of national security. Not only is racial and religious profiling humiliating and degrading for the people subjected to it, it is unconstitutional, it is an ineffective law enforcement practice, and it continues largely unchecked, violating the human and civil rights of those targeted.

That’s why some of these latest victories are that much more exciting.

In East Haven, Connecticut, stories abound of police abuse against racial minorities, particularly against the Latino community that now comprises 6% of the town’s population. This is only an extension of long history of violence that began with the African American community. So everyone welcomed the decision of of the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the East Haven Police Department after concerned citizens filed complaints about the Department’s profiling and harassment of Latinos.

In a similar victory, a Maryland court ordered the Maryland State Police to turn over records on how they responded to complaints of racial profiling, scoring a victory for the NAACP and ACLU. The ruling has been a long time coming in the battle against the racial profiling practices of the Maryland State Police, often referred to as the “Driving while Black” litigation. Triggered by a phonecall from Robert Wilkins, an African-American attorney who had been stopped, searched and detained by the Maryland police for no specific reason, the NAACP and ACLU filed a complaint which was finally settled in 2003, where they were assured greater training of officers, an easier system to report racial profiling,  and greater transparency. Five years later, with very little improvement on the ground, the groups filed a request to see records of investigations conducted around the complains of racial profiling. The state police refused to make some of the records public, a refusal finally overruled this month by the States second highest court.

Last but not least is a bill introduced in the Georgia Senate prohibiting racial profiling introduced by Senator Gloria Butler. 26 states currently prevent racial profiling of motorists. The bill has come on the heels of extensive advocacy by local organizations like the ACLU of Georgia and their partners who have held town halls and released reports calling attention to the pervasive problem of racial profiling in their state. The story of how Mark Bell, an African American man, was continually harassed by a police car during a simple trip to the grocery store one evening, is but one in a number of cases in which communities of color are harassed and detained by the Cobb County police, resulting in a mistrust of local law enforcement within the community.

So what are you waiting for. These may be success stories but much more needs to be done. Tune in to host a conversation now.

Photo courtesy of NewBlackMan Blog

POLL: Does racial profiling exist in your community?

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