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These Lives Matter: “Detainee Not Found”

Port Isabel Detention Center

Guestblogger:Claudia Valenzuela, Associate Director of Litigation for Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center

This post is the second in a new series titled “These Lives Matter,” in which NIJC staff, clients, and volunteers will share their unique perspectives on immigration stories that do not always make the news.

I began my legal career working with Guatemalan asylum seekers looking to become lawful permanent residents of the United States. In working with this community, I heard stories time and again about loved ones who had been disappeared and saw firsthand how having a husband, son, or daughter disappeared can create a special kind of guilt, fear and grief. Working with detained immigrants many years later, I cannot help but notice parallels between individuals who were purposely disappeared in 1980s Guatemala and individuals who disappear when taken into ICE custody – mainly in the ways that family members left behind are affected by not knowing the immediate fate of their loved ones.

When an individual is detained by ICE, he or she can in fact be disappeared. It can take family members days, or in some cases weeks or even months, to locate loved ones arrested by ICE. Sometimes, a family does not learn of a loved one’s whereabouts until that person calls home after they are deported.

Locating a loved one relatively quickly does not necessarily lessen the trauma of witnessing the arrest in the first place. Take the case of Viviana and Martin*—mother and son. ICE officers came to their home and misled Viviana into believing that they were local police officers who only wanted to talk to Martin. They convinced Viviana to call her son home. She was devastated after witnessing the officers take her son into custody without further explanation. Martin—who had just turned 18,had diagnosed learning disabilities, had no previous encounters with the immigration authorities, and had engaged in no wrongdoing—was taken away, surrounded by armed men, while Viviana watched helplessly. The hours following Martin’s arrest were harrowing. Viviana spent that night calling every police station in town, only to be told there was no one by her son’s name in custody. Throughout the ordeal, Viviana was overcome with grief at the thought that she had turned in her own son.

There are countless stories like Viviana and Martin’s—sometimes it’s mothers, sometimes fathers, sons or daughters, taken away while loved ones, including children, stand by helplessly. In the aftermath, there usually are frantic calls to numbers that lead nowhere. It takes luck to reach an ICE officer who will answer any questions. The ICE Online Detainee Locator System—a public relations initiative ICE instituted following a series of wide-scale raids that resulted in mass “disappearances” —is hit or miss, more often a miss. If loved ones can get online—and most of the family members we encounter every day do not have access to the internet—they must either have the person’s “alien number” or the exact spelling of their name, date of birth and country of nationality. Then they must pass a “captcha” security check by typing in a word that appears in a box. Even lawyers have a difficult time getting the system to work. Despite having the necessary, accurate information, we still frequently get the message “detainee not found” if it is less than 24 hours since the arrest. It also takes the system a while to be updated following a transfer to a new detention center. This delay makes the first 24 hours or so following a person’s arrest all the more distressing for loved ones who realize a family member has gone missing.

Martin eventually reached his mother, after a collect call finally made it through to Viviana. He was later released from ICE custody after posting a bond. But months later, Viviana lives with the fear and guilt of those critical hours after Martin was taken away, when she believed her son to be missing and felt that she was responsible.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Picture Courtesy of http://www.texasobserver.org

Immigration Detention Conditions in Georgia Run Afoul of Human Rights Standards

Guestblogger: Azadeh ShahshahaniDirector, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project, ACLU of Georgia

In late June, the ACLU delivered a statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in response to the United Nations Special Rapporteur’s report on detention of migrants. The report sets out the international and regional human rights legal framework applicable to the detention of migrants, including in regards to vulnerable groups with special protection needs, and discusses alternatives to detention. While the report does not discuss country-specific immigration detention policies and practices, it offers useful recommendations and urges governments to adopt a human rights-based approach.

The ACLU stated in its remarks before the Human Rights Council that,

The U.S. immigration detention system locks up tens of thousands of immigrants unnecessarily every year, exposing detainees — including vulnerable populations such as persons with mental disabilities, asylum-seekers, women, children and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals — to brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement at massive costs to American taxpayers… This system of mass detention persists despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acknowledges that most immigration detainees ‘have a low propensity for violence.’
The ACLU statement also highlighted the May 2012 ACLU of Georgia report titled “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia.” The report covers the four immigration detention centers in Georgia including the largest immigration detention facility in the United States, the Stewart Detention Center. Three of the four facilities are operated by corporations, including Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention facilities in the U.S.

Findings raise serious concerns about violations of detainees’ due process rights, inadequate living conditions, inadequate medical and mental health care, and abuse of power by those in charge.

Among due process concerns documented are that ICE officers have coerced detainees to sign voluntary orders of removal, non-citizens are detained in excess of a presumptively reasonable time, and there is inadequate information about available pro bono legal services at the facilities. Conditions for attorney visits also raise attorney/client confidentiality issues.

Numerous concerns about cell conditions exist, including overcrowding and temperature extremes. When facilities run out of hygienic items, detainees have to go without. At Irwin, detainees are given used underwear. In at least one case, a female detainee was given soiled underwear, leading to a serious infection.

Food concerns include insufficient quantity and poor quality of food. Additionally, Stewart and NGDC both have “voluntary” work programs where detainees have been coerced to work at wages far below minimum wage and threatened with retaliation if they stop working.

Medical and mental health units are understaffed and initial intake examinations are insufficient. Detainees with mental health disabilities are put in segregation units as a punishment and in lieu of receiving treatment.

Detainees reported that guards yelled threats and racist slurs at them. This verbal abuse was also sometimes accompanied by physical violence. Detainees also relayed personal accounts of guards threatening to or actually placing detainees in segregation as a means of retaliation.

ICE should discontinue detaining immigrants at the corporate-run Stewart and Irwin County Detention Centers given the extent of the documented violations as well as the distance to family and communities of support. Detention center officials should improve food quality and living conditions and supply on-site, full-time medical and mental health care staff. The federal government should also make greater use of cost-effective alternatives to detention instead of continuing to rely on the for-profit prison industry to keep more and more people imprisoned in substandard conditions.

As the ACLU statement to the Human Rights Council concluded,

U.S. immigration authorities should use detention only as a last resort, in those circumstances where no alternative conditions of release would be sufficient to address the government’s concerns about danger or flight risk… The U.S. government should heed the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation to establish a presumption in favor of liberty, first consider alternative non-custodial measures, proceed to an individual assessment and choose the least intrusive or restrictive measure.

Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU Human Rights Program drafted the ACLU statement to the Human Rights Council and contributed to this blog.

Cross posted from Huffington Post

Picture Courtesy of http://www.stewartcountyga.gov/

A Wish for the Holidays- Let’s Keep Families Together

Guestblogger: Chris Harley, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum

Do you have a wish for this holiday season? I do. I wish that all families can stay together. That’s why I’m participating in A Wish for the Holidays, a campaign to gather 5,000 letters from kids asking our nation’s leaders to ensure that families stay together.

For me, holidays all boil down to spending time with my large extended family. Honestly, I don’t know how we all crowd into my Gramma’s 2-bedroom, one-story home, but most holidays, we manage to all squeeze in and enjoy a crazy day full of laughter, teasing, eating, and sharing. Like that one Christmas, when an innocent game of White Elephant gift exchanging turned into a chase around the house as my Aunt attempted to reclaim a new movie from her nephew.

In total, there are roughly 60 of us, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, kids, and great-grandkids. We come from all different backgrounds, religions, political views, and walks of life. We’re also a uniquely mixed-race family full of boisterous personalities. And every time we get together, despite all of our differences, I know that we embody the value of what it means to be a family.

This is why it breaks my heart to think of families and children who will spend this holiday season missing those who aren’t there with them. Recently, the We Belong Together effort led a delegation of women leaders to Atlanta, Georgia. Our goal was to listen to the experiences of women and children in Atlanta who have been impacted by Georgia’s new “papers please” law. This law makes it a state crime for an undocumented immigrant to live in the state and allows law enforcement to ask for documentation of anyone they “suspect” of being undocumented. The overarching fear from this, and similar state laws, is the risk of widespread racial profiling and abuse. So we went to Georgia to hear what was happening, and the stories we heard were heartbreaking.

Alicia spoke about her daughter, who suffers from a condition that causes her to have convulsions since she was one years old. Since Alicia doesn’t have a driver’s license, she only risks driving when she must rush her daughter to the hospital. Can you imagine what it means to be a mother whose only thought is to make sure her child is safe, and the most dangerous thing she can do is to risk driving to the hospital because if she were to be stopped by the police, she could be arrested and separated from her child?

Another woman, Claudia told us about the extreme abuse that her husband subjected her and her son to. Once he even chased them around their neighborhood with a knife until a neighbor called the police. Yet, because Claudia doesn’t have the right documents, she was deported and forced to leave her son with his abusive father until she could make her way back into this country and reclaim him. Can you imagine her terror and her son’s fear during that year of separation?

Unfortunately, we now know that those stories are no longer isolated incidents. The recently released “Shattered Families”, report documents just how devastating the impacts of enforcement-only immigration policies have on families. There are now at least 5,000 children in the American foster care system who are being prevented from being reunited with their detained or deported parents and this number is expected to exceed 15,000 in just five (5) years. Moreover, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention obstructs the ability for parents to participate in Child Protective Services’ family unification plans, and can result in detained parents actually losing their parental rights.

Are these the “family values” that we want this country to embody? What happened to caring about the children, who are our future?

We need to tell our country’s leaders that these policies, that tear families apart and leave children alone, isolated, and separated from their parents – who only wanted them to have a brighter future -  that these policies don’t work. That’s why We Belong Together, has launched the “A Wish for the Holidays,”  campaign where we are asking our kids, our future, to tell today’s leaders to keep families together! Our goal is to collect 5,000 letters that can be delivered on Human Rights Day, to elected leaders in DC and remind them that it’s the holidays, and families belong together.

Please help us collect letters from children and youth.  Go to WeBelongTogether.org/wish, pledge to write letters, and then get started using the tools available online.  Remember that letters need to be mailed in by November 30.

Thank you and happy holidays!

 

Communities speaking out against injustice targeted by ICE

On Saturday, September 17, early in the morning, a man in Shelbyville, Tennessee, woke up to find Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in his bedroom. They had entered his home through an unlocked door and and took him into custody. The residents of Shelbyville are facing an unexpected, alleged, government backlash after a hearing held on September 12 by several nonprofits, where Latino residents testified against federal, state and local law enforcement authorities, accusing them of racial profiling and illegal detention. Representative from the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were present at the hearings.

ICE also raided the homes and businesses of at least two people that had organized the hearing, sparking immigrant rights advocates to call for a federal investigation into the misconduct of the local authorities and ICE agents. While ICE denies that the raids were conducted in response to the hearings, Shelbyville residents and community advocates refuse to believe that there is no connection between their speaking out against the authorities and these ICE raids just five days later.

The community has reacted strongly to these developments, claiming that ICE’s goal is to intimidate the residents, especially the undocumented immigrants that live there. Bill Geissler, longtime Shelbyville resident and business owner, commented:

The real problem with these sorts of violations is that everyone needs to follow the law.  If ICE is going after immigrants who they suspect have broken laws, why aren’t they following guidelines that are intended to protect the civil liberties of Shelbyville residents?

Furthermore, the Rights Working Group and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition have joined forces in sending a formal letter to the Office for Civil Rights and Liberties (OCRL) as well as the DOJ in Washington DC to protest these actions by ICE, and encourage national leaders to do something. In their letter to the OCRL (see PDF here), the advocacy groups state:

..These actions have spread fear throughout the Latino community, which feels targeted and increasingly under siege by law enforcement – whether it be ICE, state or local police. The result has been a severe chilling of speech in the community and increased fear of government agents. The Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties was in attendance at this forum for the purpose of listening to community concerns about civil rights abuses by state and local police and ICE. Days later, this same community was targeted by an immigration enforcement action leading to the chilling of free speech and further civil rights abuses.

The town of Shelbyville has been in the spotlight for some time especially because of director Kim A. Snyder’s compelling documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville. The film looked at the community at a crossroads, as the longtime African-American and White populations adapted to the rapidly growing Latino and Somali immigrant communities moving in. While exploring immigrant integration, the film unravels the interplay between race, religion and identity. As the film’s website states, “Ultimately, the story is an intimate portrayal of a community’s struggle to understand what it means to be American.”

This question of being American and the integration of immigrants is also the theme of Breakthrough’s latest video, Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders that sheds a light on post-9/11 racial profiling that has been mandated by laws such as Arizona’s SB1070. In particular, it tells the story of Maria, nine months pregnant, who was stopped along with her family by police for no discernable reason. What followed was a nightmarish situation as Maria went into labor and found herself giving birth to her son with immigration agents – and not her husband – by her side.

The video has been highlighted in a Huffington Post feature titled Undocumented Women Forced To Give Birth While Shackled And In Police Custody which looks at the stories of women who have been in similar situations to Maria and the ongoing climate of fear and inhumane conditions that is being perpetuated by law enforcement authorities. Mallika Dutt, president and founder of Breakthrough, said about the issue:

We talk about cops in other parts of the world, and we say ‘Oh, they don’t respect human rights,’ but where are we now? If something as important and sacred as someone giving birth can no longer be treated as human, where are we?

While law enforcement authorities must change their policies to end the unjust treatment of immigrants in communities across the country, some communities are taking their own steps to work towards unity and end discriminatory violence. In 2008, a series of attacks against Latino residents of Patchogue, New York and the murder of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, shattered the community of the small town.

For two years after the murder, the town’s Mayor Paul Pontieri, the victim’s brother, Joselo Lucero, and Patchogue residents worked to heal the community and move forward as a unified and diverse group. This story is told in a poignant documentary, Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness, that follows the healing process of the community to work towards a a community that respects its own diversity and doesn’t give way to divisive politics. The film premiered on PBS on September 21 and is also available for local screenings.

Comprehensive immigration reform is of utmost importance in our nation now so unjust and discriminatory actions like those committed by ICE and other authorities in Shelbyville and other communities are stopped. We must, as a nation, find a solution that works with immigrants in a dignified and humane way to mend a system that has been broken for a long time.

Join Restore Fairness today and lend your voice to the struggle for dignity, equality and justice.

Photo courtesy of standing-firm.com

Watch the new Restore Fairness documentary, “Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders”

Early one morning, Maria—then nine months pregnant—and her family were stopped by the police for no discernible reason. A special breakfast outing became a nightmare—and at one of the most intimate moments of her life, Maria found a team of immigration agents—not her husband—by her side.

Maria’s chilling story, which Breakthrough captured on a trip to the Mexico/Arizona border, is the centerpiece of “Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders,” a powerful new documentary that depicts the reality of post-9/11 racial profiling — as mandated by laws such as SB 1070 in Arizona, which are now being imitated and implemented nationwide — along with the new and strengthening alliances of diverse groups committed to racial justice.

Set in the U.S./Mexico border area near Tucson, Arizona, a region that sees more and more migrant deaths every year, the video explores the idea that the way to move forward is to find connections and build coalitions among between diverse groups of allies — including Muslim-, South Asian-, African-, and Latino-Americans; civil rights lawyers and media activists — that have identified with each other’s histories and united in the common goals of justice, equality, and respect for all.

“Checkpoint Nation?” was produced to complement the release of  a new report and Week of Action around the 10th anniversary of September 11th spearheaded by Rights Working Group, a  national coalition of more than 300 civil liberties, national security, immigrant rights and human rights organizations committed to restoring due process and human rights protections that have been eroded in the name of national security. The report, “Reclaiming Our Rights: Reflections on Racial Profiling in a Post-9/11 America,” will be released September 14th.

The groups that are featured in the video are ACLU of ArizonaAlliance for Educational JusticeBlack Alliance for Just ImmigrationDerechos HumanosDRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving)Funding ExchangeVAMOS Unidos

Denying fairness and justice to some puts all of our freedoms at risk. Ten years after September 11th, we must challenge ourselves to unite across our differences and reaffirm the real American values of pluralism, democracy, and dignity for all.

Watch the video and take action to stop racial profiling in your community.

Temporary bandage or a real step towards reform and reprieve for DREAMers?

In a desperately needed positive move, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on August 18 some significant administrative repairs to the country’s broken immigration system. Responding to the tsunami of criticism over their increasingly harsh and unjust immigration policies, including blindly deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants without due process, the DHS announced a few changes to their policy.

Under the new policy, the DHS and ICE will review and suspend the low-priority deportation cases – around 300,000 of them – that primarily involve younger immigrants and those who are not deemed a threat to public security. This new move especially benefits the DREAMers, who have been fighting tirelessly for their right to remain in the country. The main stipulations of the DHS policy shift, as highlighted by Campus Progress, are the following:

The DHS will create a joint-commission with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review 300,000 existing deportation cases to identify immigrants that are not high priority cases for removal;

Those that are not high priority individuals for removal —DREAMers, primary caregivers, veterans or relatives of persons in armed services, among others identified in an agency memo (PDF) — will have their cases closed. These individuals should then become eligible to apply for work permits.

This initiative does not provide individuals with an earned path to Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status or U.S. Citizenship. Work authorization is not guaranteed, either.

These measures have been generally praised by immigration reform activists, DREAMers, organizations and officials that have been fighting for major changes in the immigration system. Representative Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, a long time champion for immigration reform – who was also heavily involved in the case with Tony and Janina Wasilewski – reacted positively to the DHS announcement, stating:

This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for, that Latino and immigrant voters helped put in office to fight for sensible immigration policies.

While the DHS, especially Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, has been guarded about their own policy shift so as not appear to be making a complete turnaround, immigration reform groups have also reacted with some trepidation. Napolitano, during a press conference after the DHS announcement made it clear that “Nobody’s getting a free pass. Nobody’s getting free admission to citizenship or anything like that under this system. Nobody is getting exempted.” Meanwhile, immigration reform groups have commented on the very small percentage of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants that will actually benefit from this policy change.

Furthering this stance, Michelle Fei of the Immigrant Defense Project, wrote an op-ed on behalf of the New York State Working Group Against Deportation (NYSGAD) arguing that immigration reform should include new measures for all undocumented immigrants and not just those deemed innocent or harmless. Pointing to a wider flaw in the current immigration policy of the country, Fei writes:

…we cannot accept that people with criminal convictions should be so easily tossed out of our country. They’ve already paid their price in a criminal justice system that seldomly lives up to its promise of fairness and equality – particularly for those from low-income, of color, and immigrant communities. They don’t deserve a harsh second punishment of permanent exile through a deportation system we all know is patently unjust and broken. And no matter what, they still belong with our families and communities.

Fei’s stance on the extents of the the deportation machinery highlight that much more needs to be done until we have a fair and just immigration system in the country. These moves by the DHS are definitely positive and will bring relief to hundreds of thousands of immigrants – many of them young people with a real chance at a great future – who will get another chance to stay in this country. However, the DHS and President Obama must keep this momentum going and really work towards a positive, lasting and effective overhaul of the immigration system. For more information about this policy, read this fact sheet put together by the National Immigrant Justice Center. Add your voice to the immigration reform movement today. Join Restore Fairness.

Photo courtesy of immigrationimpact.com

New report tells us how S-Comm makes the American Dream a “criminal proposition”

President Obama holds the unflattering distinction of having overseen the most deportations under any American president in history. Since the deeply flawed Secure Communities program (S-Comm) was launched by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2008, around 100,000 people have been deported through its unjust policies and enforcement. Furthermore, in fiscal year 2010, almost 400,000 people were deported under various stipulations (including S-Comm), making it one of the worst years for deportation in our country’s history.  The program’s design and implementation flaws have encouraged racial profiling by law enforcement officials and also victimized those convicted of lesser crimes such as traffic violations, etc. Contrary to its name, Secure Communities is a program that makes people feel less safe, hurting the trust that is a cornerstone of an effective law enforcement system in a diverse country such as this.

In a post-9/11 scenario where state paranoia has amplified and hurriedly turned into ineffective and damaging law enforcement policies, the moves made by ICE are not only alienating an aspiring new generation of immigrants, but also gravely affecting the bedrock of this country. Instead of reacting productively to the widespread criticism, ICE has hardened their stance even more. In a shocking development last week, ICE eliminated the Memoranda of Agreement (MOA) that it had signed with some states, thereby enforcing S-Comm without any state or federal agreement at all. It has also vowed to keep extending S-Comm nationally by 2013, regardless of whether individual states disapprove.

On August 16, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), in partnership with Detention Watch Network (DWN) and several other human rights organizations, released a comprehensive report titled ‘RESTORING COMMUNITY: A National Community Advisory Report on ICE’s Failed “Secure Communities” Program.’ (PDF). The report maps out details of how S-Comm has failed as an immigration policy, doing much more irreversible damage than actually fixing the problem at hand. It includes testimony from law enforcement officials, scholars and academics, and organizers and advocates. Criticizing the ineffective program, the report summarizes S-Comm, stating that:

It multiplies laws and enforcement policies that, in effect, make the pursuit of the American Dream a criminal proposition for current generations of immigrants. That such a program should be the showcase policy of an Administration that presents itself asa champion of immigration reform is a betrayal. Multiplying the force of misguided policy and unjust laws is not reform—it is a step backwards.

The report criticizes the entangling of local police in civil immigration law enforcement, and warns agains the “Arizonification” of the country. While highlighting the flaws of S-Comm, the report also stresses on the way forward, strongly pushing for a clear separation of ICE from local police forces. Based on the various testimonies, studies and developments, the report calls for the following:

1. The immediate end, not mending, of the S-Comm program.

2. The completion of the ongoing audit of S-Comm by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. Additionally, the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General should begin an investigation into the FBI’s role in Secure Communities.

3. The criticism of S-Comm should be used to amend other ICE programs, and local law enforcement must be untangled from federal civil immigration processes, removing immigration powers from police.

4. States and local jurisdictions should be given the option to participate in or opt out of immigration enforcement programs, including the forwarding of fingerprints and other biometric information to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The report also highlights the stories of several individuals from across the country who have been victims of S-Comm, facing deportation as a result of simply calling 911 for an emergency, being pulled over while driving or any other arbitrary reason. One of the anecdotes is told by Mercedes, an 18-year old young woman in Nashville, Tennessee. On a normal Sunday afternoon in May, Mercedes was pulled over “for driving less than 10 miles over the speed limit.” After questioning her immigration status, the police officer put her in handcuffs and began filling out the paperwork for the 287(g) program to begin the process of her deportation. When Mercedes asked te officer what would happen to her and if she would make it to her high school graduation the following weekend, the officer ”answered me with a smile on his face and told me that I was never going back to school and I would never see my family ever again, I started to cry.”

Mercedes spent 3 days in jail and is now facing deportation. She came to the U.S when she was 11 and qualifies to benefit from the DREAM Act. With aspirations to become a doctor, Mercedes sees herself as American – her life established in Nashville and plans for a future in this country. Reflecting on her experience, Mercedes said,

When this happened to me I realized how sad it is that families have been destroyed just for not having an ID or because of racial profiling. When I was in jail, I felt my dreams were destroyed,that my family was very far from me and I felt afraid that if we don’t stop this now, it will continue to happen.
The release of the ‘Restoring Community’ report coincided with a ‘National Day of Action’ called by various immigration reform activists to protest against the worsening immigration policies of the federal government. Protestors gathered outside President Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago on August 16 calling for an end to S-Comm. Several organizations worked together to call for the multi-city protests and delivered petitions to various Democratic party offices in Miami, Atlanta, Houston and Charlotte, demanding that the program be terminated. Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, spoke to the New York Times about how the practices of ICE have brought “a flood” of people booked under minor offenses to the immigration attorneys in the organization, calling it “the tip of the iceberg.” Chen added:
Fundamentally, D.H.S. is saying one thing but doing another…[It is] distorting its own mission of focusing on public safety and national security risks.

As the campaigning for the 2012 election ramps up and various candidates are assessing their policies, it is imperative that urgent and comprehensive action be taken by the government to address the violations to human rights and due process that are being enacted due to harsh anti-immigrant laws such as this. S-Comm is a deeply flawed program that has done more damage than good. It encourages racial profiling, separates families, and is enforcing a message that the thousands of immigrants that are working hard and aspiring to the American dream are no longer welcome.

Join the campaign to put an end to Secure Communities at Turn the Tide. You can also add your voice to the Restore Fairness campaign. Become an ally and take action now.

Photo courtesy of vivirlatino.com

DHS Decision to Rescind MOAs Lacks Legal Authority and Violates Principles of Democratic Government

From the Rights Working Group-

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has demonstrated that it has gone completely rogue.  Since rolling out the Secure Communities program in 2008, ICE has signed Memoranda of Agreement (MOAs) with various states and over 1500 jurisdictions have been activated with the program.

On Friday afternoon, ICE announced, shockingly, that it will unilaterally rescind the MOAs and proceed with Secure Communities without the agreement of state and local jurisdictions.

Contrary to the announcement of John Sandweg, Counselor to the DHS Secretary and Deputy Secretary, the federal statute that Sandweg cites as mandating participation in Secure Communities does nothing of the kind. It requires information sharing but does not require states to participate in this initiative, nor does it require the deportation of migrants who have been arrested but not yet convicted of crimes.

ICE insists that Secure Communities is mandatory and will become fully operational in every jurisdiction of the country by 2013.  Rights Working Group denounces ICE’s actions.

“Across the country, local jurisdictions and states have publicly rejected the Secure Communities program and have told the federal government that they do not want Secure Communities destroying their communities, separating families, and encouraging discriminatory police practices such as racial profiling.  For ICE to thumb their nose at the decisions of elected officials to withdraw from the program is without legal basis and offensive,” said Margaret Huang, Executive Director of Rights Working Group.

Due to the public outcry about the program and the dangers it poses to community policing and safety, as well as the program’s violations of long-held principles of due process and fairness, several states and localities have demanded to opt out of Secure Communities.  Most recently, governors of New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts have informed ICE that their states will no longer participate in the program.

Rights Working Group has long denounced the lack of transparency and accountability in the implementation of Secure Communities. Investigative reporters and documents received through a Federal of Information Act lawsuit unraveled ICE’s inaccurate statements and reversals of opinion on these MOAs—leading Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to call for an investigation of the initiative.The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has urged the Obama Administration to place an immediate moratorium on Secure Communities.

Said Huang: “Secure Communities keeps local police from fulfilling their core mission of protecting our communities because when local police target people to enforce immigration law, it increases the level of fear and makes it far more difficult to gain community trust.”  The vast majority of undocumented battered women are already reluctant to report their abuse to police for fear of detention and deportation.  Secure Communities and similar programs make it even less likely that migrant witnesses and victims will come forward. “This Administration can no longer continue to stand by Secure Communities,” said Huang. “By continuing to support this program they are sanctioning racial profiling, eroding the trust local law enforcement agencies have built with communities of color and showing the international community that our immigration system does not respect the basic human rights of all persons in our country.”

Rights Working Group urges DHS to:

•    Immediately stop the implementation of Secure Communities and similar programs unless and until meaningful civil rights and civil liberties safeguards are put in place to ensure that racial profiling and other human rights violations are not occurring, including collecting data on the perceived race or ethnicity of the people arrested, the charges that are lodged and the ultimate disposition of the case.

•    Terminate Secure Communities in jurisdictions that have chosen to opt out of the program.

•    Immediately suspend Secure Communities in jurisdictions with a documented record of racial profiling or where DOJ is actively investigating a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing.

Photo courtesy of detentionwatchnetwork.com

Two fathers face deportation and separation from their families

Rogelio and Maribel Melgar came to the United States from Guatemala in 1999 with their family. Their son Brayan, then aged 4, had been diagnosed with throat cancer. The Melgars brought him to the U.S., legally, in the hopes of getting him the treatment that was not available in Guatemala. Their initial six-month stay was extended repeatedly as their son’s treatment required more time. The parents couldn’t bear the thought of taking him back to Guatemala to let him die or leaving him in the U.S. while they returned. On May 5, this year, after 12 years of treatment, Brayan passed away, leaving behind his devastated parents and four siblings. Following that tragedy, just over two months later, on July 11, Brayan’s father Rogelio was arrested and is now facing deportation.

The Melgar family is in a particularly complicated situation regarding their status. The parents – Rogelio and Maribel – as well as their older son Hans (16) are all undocumented. Hans is a clear candidate for the DREAM Act. The Melgars’ three youngest children – twin girls (8) and a son (4) – are U.S. citizens by birth. Because of their son Brayan’s prolonged treatment, a family sponsored the Melgars’ stay in the U.S. and arranged for a job at a restaurant for Rogelio. When the restaurant closed in 2004, Rogelio worked as a cook at a care facility until his arrest some weeks ago.

The case of the Melgar family is not unique. There have been countless families that have been fractured as a result of a broken and unfair immigration system that simply doesn’t account for the complexities in each case. The government is denying due process and fairness to communities by enforcing laws that do not allow immigration judges to rule on a case-by-case basis. Laws passed in 1996 eliminate important legal rights that previously enabled immigrants to challenge their detention and deportation. And in a post 9/11 world, these legal rights have been reduced even more dramatically, taking away immigration judges’ ability to consider the circumstances of each individual’s case, leading to mandatory detention and deportation for many.

Over 11% of the population of the U.S is foreign-born (Census Bureau PDF), with a significant number of them being undocumented. According to data released by the Pew Hispanic Center (PDF), undocumented immigrants comprise just over 4% of the adult population of the U.S., while their children make up 8% of the total newborn population and 7% of children (defined as under the age of 18) in this country. Cases of families torn apart, coupled with the numbers demonstrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform that supports basic human rights and ensures due process and fairness for all.

In the meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to maintain that the goal of the controversial Secure Communities program is to remove dangerous criminals who don’t have legal status. However, in practice, they have consistently shown otherwise. Numerous immigrants are stopped and checked on minor allegations by local enforcement authorities and their details shared with ICE’s database. This puts these immigrants, in most cases with no criminal record or with minor traffic violations, on the fast track to deportation. And in most cases, their deportation is shattering for the families involved.

Another case of this happening is the story of Salvador Licea of Texas. Licea is a father of two young girls who has lived in Texas for most of his life. He was recently pulled over for a minor traffic violation and then arrested for having an expired license. In a case of blatant racial profiling, he was then told that he was pulled over because his age and skin color matched the description of a ‘drug lord’ or ‘gang banger.’ The authorities took his fingerprints under the jurisdiction of SComm and he is now facing deportation.

Watch the video by The Nation about Licea’s story:

Separation of families is one of the most unfortunate and unjust consequences of our broken immigration system. To learn about the story of yet another family affected by this, watch our Skype interview with Tony Wasilewski, a Polish immigrant whose wife Janina was deported four years ago.

It has now become a widely known fact that the Obama administration has deported more immigrants than the Bush administration, with numbers steadily climbing each year. However, even as President Obama has redirected his immigration efforts to deporting those immigrants who are deemed dangerous and have criminal records, ICE continues to round up people on minor charges. Furthermore, many undocumented immigrants who are trying to live an honest and hardworking life in the U.S. are in complex family situations which are not helped by blanket policies from the authorities. This applies to another set of cases where immigrants are married to U.S. citizens and still face deportation under a harsh 1996 immigration law that deems such immigrants deportable.

In the case of the Melgar family, Rogelio faced a hearing on July 19 in Provo, Utah, where him and his wife met for the first time since he was arrested. In a strange turn of events, the prosecutor, Deputy Utah County Attorney Chard Grunander, admitted that the state wasn’t ready to file charges against Melgar. The judge then released Rogelio’s $5,000 bond and told him he was free to go. However, immediately following this, Rogelio was taken back to Utah County Jail and is now being kept by ICE for a federal investigation.

Rogelio’s wife, Maribel, is still grappling with multiple blows to her family. She is trying to hold on to the memories of a time when her family was together and firmly believes staying in the U.S was the right thing to do:

If we had stayed in Guatemala, my son would’ve been dead at 6 years old…But God gave us a chance to have our son for another 12 years in this country.

It is important to work together to push for comprehensive immigration reform that won’t separate such families and will ensure dignity, respect, and due process for all. Become an ally of Restore Fairness and get involved today. For more information on the separation of families due to deportation and what you can do, go to familiesforfreedom.org

Photo courtesy of Families for Freedom

Small victory as Sheriff Arpaio penalized, but piecemeal changes to SComm fail to address problems

Ever since its launch, the Secure Communities program (SComm) has whipped up one storm of controversy after another, continually being criticized by advocates, officials and local law enforcement for its lack of transparency and accountability, the threat to public safety, due process and justice that it poses, and its indirect but obvious encouragement of racial profiling. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have denied these implications, the reality on the ground shows otherwise. Already in effect in several counties across the United States, SComm, combined with the draconian anti-immigrant laws that have been passed in several states, has contributed to the record-breaking deportation of people who were often stopped for minor violations and traffic offenses, and the separation of thousands of families around the country in the past year.

The immigration reform movement, however, recently marked a series of small victories. The infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa Country, Arizona, has been ordered to pay two men, Julián and Julio Mora, $200,000 in a racial profiling case. On February 11, 2009, Arpaio’s deputies had detained the pair for several hours after stopping their pickup truck outside a landscaping company they raided in search of identity-theft and fraud suspects. A federal judge determined that Arpaio’s deputies had no grounds on which to stop the men or detain them for so long.

This isn’t the first time Arpaio has come under legal fire for his racially prejudiced actions. However, he has tried recently, all too hard, to break this reputation. On July 11, Arpaio launched a line of Spanish-language pink underwear which reads “Vamos Jose!” For the last 17 years, Arpaio has been forcing his inmates to wear pink underwear that reads “Go Joe!” as a way to discourage theft of the undergarment. In an all too deliberate effort to prove his naysayers wrongs, he launched the Spanish-language version for public sale, that too in a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. Sarah Palin and Hugh Hefner have reportedly already purchased their own pairs at $15 apiece. In a press release, Arpaio said-

It will raise more money to help at-risk youth and it is a poke in the eye to the critics who for years have called me racist because of my tough stance on illegal immigration.

However, this move hasn’t gone down well with activist groups. Lydia Guzman, of Somos America and Respect Repeto, labeled this “just another publicity stunt,” asking ”Who is he trying to convince? He is trying to too hard to convince us.”

In another move, the Manhattan Federal Court ruled on July 12 that DHS and ICE must furnish documents detailing why they misled state governments and the American public about the extent of SComm, which has recently come under fire for drastically varied interpretations. Reacting to the judgement, Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), commented-

While the Obama administration boasts of the Secure Communities program to win political points with Republicans, it has kept actual policy details nearly secret from Congress, state partners and the American public. Thankfully, federal courts, not ICE, get the last word…As we’ve seen in states and localities across the country, the more the public learns about Secure Communities, the more they say ‘no thank you’ to its implementation.

As another step that has been hailed by immigration reform activists, Russell Pearce, the president of the Arizone state Senate and the primary sponsor of the racist anti-immigrant SB1070 bill, will face a recall election. This has been the result of a grassroots appeal that collected enough signatures from registered voters to call for the special election. Pearce is the first state official in Arizona to face this kind of election.

Along with these small victories, on June 17 ICE announced a series of reforms to SComm after claiming to heed the criticisms that have come their way. One of the main aspects of the reform package is a training video that explains to local law enforcement officials what SComm entails and what constitutes racial profiling. Watch the ICE training video here:

While the video achieves the goal of explaining SComm to the local enforcement officials, it has also been criticized for being somewhat redundant and repeating racial stereotypes within the visuals of the video. Opponents of SComm have said that the officers should already know racial profiling is against the law. Margaret Huang, executive director of Rights Working Group, argued-

Putting into a video information that law enforcement should not be racially profiling—that is not likely to have a whole lot of impact…Part of the reason it’s become acceptable to use racial profiling in immigration enforcement is because it has been deliberately tied into the national security context.

While the movement against SComm has effectively brought scrutiny on the program and pushed ICE to take note of the criticism that the program has faced from all quarters, the minor tweaks that ICE released have been considered hugely inadequate in their redressal of the program’s flaws. Today at noon, immigrants and advocates in New York City are gathering to rally against the so-called reforms that has made to SComm. The rally, being held at 26 Federal Plaza, New York, NY, will take place one hour prior to a meeting that ICE has set up with advocates in New York City. This meeting is the third in a series of meetings that advocates have dubbed a “desperate marketing tour” through the states that have withdrawn from the program, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York. Today, protesters will rebuke ICE for excluding from its meetings the very people who are most greatly impacted by “Secure Communities” and call for a nationwide termination of the program, which funnels people directly into the deportation system, jeopardizes trust in the police, and encourages racial profiling.

Join us in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help our nation move even further in the right direction. To take action against Secure Communities, contact your Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

Photo courtesy of azcentral.com