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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

On the first anniversary of immigration detention reforms, what has changed on the ground?

From the Detention Watch Network

On the first anniversary of an announcement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the enforcement agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)) would overhaul the nation’s immigration detention system, reports show that for the nearly 400,000 immigrants ICE has detained this year, little has changed.

On August 6, 2009, in response to sharp criticism from advocacy groups, community organizations, and government officials, ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton promised sweeping changes to improve detention conditions.  According to Mr. Morton, the agency intended to take substantial steps to transform the sprawling patchwork of approximately 350 jails and prisons into a non-penal, “civil” detention system.  

While advocates were initially encouraged by Mr. Morton’s promise to overhaul the detention system and move away from holding immigrants in jails and prisons, the reality on the ground is that little has changed.  ICE must do more to address the human rights violations occurring in both the detention and enforcement systems.

There have been a number of positive developments in the past year.  However, these are to achieve meaningful impact in the lives of those detained.  The reality is, under President Obama’s Administration, more people are being detained and deported than under the Bush Administration, in a manner that fails to meet the United States’ human rights obligations under international law.

Some of the steps ICE has taken toward achieving reform include last month’s launch of an Online Detainee Locator System, a tool allowing, for the first time, families and attorneys to find loved ones and clients in ICE custody.  In May, ICE piloted a risk assessment and custody classification tool, which will allow the agency to screen individuals to determine whether they should be released. Historically, ICE has routinely detained people that should have been released.  

ICE has also discontinued the detention of families and children at the T. Don Hutto Facility in Taylor, Texas, which received national attention when the facility’s substandard conditions became the subject of lawsuits. Today, ICE uses the Hutto facility, which is privately owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), to detain only women.

But there is much to be reformed. In May, Hutto came under scrutiny once again when allegations surfaced of a series of sexual assaults by a CCA guard against females detained there. “We were heartened that the Obama Administration ended family detention at Hutto and took on reforming the broader immigration detention system,” said Rocío Villalobos, of Texans United for Families, a member organization of Detention Watch Network. “Today, the majority of women at Hutto are seeking refuge from violence in their home countries.  This spring’s sexual assault incidents show how detention subjects people to more violence, which deepens their trauma, rather than protects them from it.”

ICE has also appointed “detention managers” to work in 42 facilities and hired experts in detention management and health care. However, their presence has meant little change for detained immigrants. For example, a detention manager was working at the Hutto facility at the time the sexual assaults occurred, calling into question the detention managers’ ability to adequately oversee detention operations.

The Detention Watch Network, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, are releasing a report evaluating ICE’s progress in October 2010.

 A snapshot of the reports reveals that human rights violations persist.  In Florida, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center reported that gross deficiencies in the provision of medical care continue, as well as the unnecessary detention of individuals with serious medical conditions. For example, a woman at the Baker County Detention Center who had been detained for five years remained in custody despite her deteriorating health, which involved a heart catheter, ulcers, and lung and orthopedic problems.  

Multiple reports were received of inappropriate treatment of detained immigrants with mental health issues, including one man that was placed in solitary confinement after he exhibited suicidal tendencies. In New Jersey, the Middlesex County Coalition for Immigrant Rights described only two working toilets for a dorm with a maximum capacity of 48 that held 60 men.  Groups also report that individuals continue to be subjected to indefinite detention – in some cases for years.

Most recently,  the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has found that “U.S. deportation policy violates fundamental human rights because it fails to consider evidence concerning the adverse impact of the destruction of families, the best interest of the children of deportees, and other humanitarian concerns.”

Photo courtesy of www.machamexico.com

ICE rolls out detention reforms on one hand, and endorses stun-guns on the other

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has not been able to keep itself out of hot water recently. Between the agency’s own admissions of mismanagement, a leaked memo, records highs in deportations, and the recent sexual assault cases in detention centers calling for greater oversight, ICE has been under a lot of fire from civil rights advocates to fulfill their delayed promises of overhaul and detention reform.

In the context of ICE’s multiple misadventures, an internal ICE email obtained by the Houston Chronicle a few days ago comes as a huge relief to advocates as it announces a series of concrete changes that ICE is planning to implement at several privately owned detention centers. The 28 changes listed in the email range from superficial changes like “softening the look of the facility” with new paint, new bedding, hanging plants and “fresh carrot sticks,” to more substantive ones like eliminating pat-down searches, lock-downs and lights-out for low risk detainees, providing unmonitored phone calls and email access, extending the duration that visitors can stay, increasing attorney access and allowing low-risk detainees to wear their own clothing or non-penal attire.

Beth Gibson, ICE’s senior counselor to Assistant Secretary John Morton and a leader of the detention reform effort, has committed to some of the changes being carried out within 30 days, while others will take up to 6 months to be effected. The changes outlined in the email are slated to be implemented in nine detention facilities in Texas, Arizona, New Jersey, California and Georgia, all owned and managed by the Corrections Corporations of America, one of the nation’s biggest private contractors that ICE uses for immigrant detainees. It does not seem like a complete coincidence that ICE and CCR decided on these changes while CCR is under investigation for allegations of sexual assault against one of their guards at a Texas facility, who allegedly groped female detainees on their way to being deported.

Most important is the much needed shift in philosophy behind immigrant detention that ICE senior counselor Beth Gibson attested to when speaking about the changes. Speaking about the purpose of detention facilities, she said-

When people come to our custody, we’re detaining them to effect their removal…It’s about deportation. It’s not about punishing people for a crime they committed.

Increasing recreational activities for low-risk detainees and introducing dance, cooking, computer classes as well as movie nights and and a dinner menu that has expanded to include a vegetable bar might seem like minor changes, but are, in fact, hard fought victories for immigrant advocates. Lory Rosenberg, policy and advocacy director for Refugee and Migrants’ Rights for Amnesty International was pleased with the changes. She said-

A lot of these measures are what we’ve been advocating for. Many of these points are very important to changing the system from a penal system, which is inappropriate in an immigration context, to a civil detention system.

As expected, there has already been opposition to the reforms from various quarters. Union members are worried for the safety of the staff at the detention facilities, and feel that the absence of pat-down searches and lock-downs could be potentially dangerous as “some detainees may be classified as low-risk because they have no serious criminal history but still may be gang members that haven’t been caught doing anything wrong yet.”

When it comes to local jails that house immigrant detainees, it is precisely this argument of jail administrators and union members that seems to have won. Ironically, while ICE makes detention reform plans that lean towards a more humane and less penal detention system, the agency has simultaneously relaxed their ban on the use of stun guns or Tasers on detainees in local jails. When a Sheriff’s Deputy in a Sherburne County jail used a stun-gun on Salaad Mahamed (a pre-trial immigrant detainee who had come to the U.S. seeking political asylum) in 2007, the action was in violation of federal immigration standards for the treatment of immigrant detainees. ICE had banned the use of Electro-Muscular Disruption Devices (Tasers) for safety reasons in 2003, and gave the Sherburne County jail in Minnesota an evaluation rating of “deficient” for its use of stun-guns on detainees.

However, while Mahammed, who was shot in his hand and testicles for arguing with a guard over a TV channel, suffers from incontinence, impotence, mental trauma and blackouts as a result of his ordeal, in August of 2009, ICE seems to have relaxed its ban on Tasers and reversed its previous “deficient” rating for Sherburne County jail to “acceptable.” This shift seems largely attributable to pressure from local law enforcement that runs these jails, and their insistence on having the same rules apply for “civil detainees and jail inmates who live under the same roof.” Worse still, ICE only communicated this change in policy directly to the individual jails it deals with, without making a public announcement of it. Helen Harnett, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, which monitors detainee treatment was shocked at the change. She said-

It’s a radical shift. I think the reason it’s so surprising is Secretary Napolitano and ICE assistant secretary John Morton announced a series of changes. They called it ‘an overhaul to the immigration system to make it truly civil,’ and there’s a lot of staff at ICE national working on this change right now.

As long as ICE continues to rely on the disparate combination of government-run detention centers, private facilities and local jails to house immigrant detainees, there will continue to be extreme inconsistencies in detention conditions across the board. Moreover, promising reforms supporting a more humane civil detention system, while sanctioning violence against detainees at the same time shows a drastic contradiction in detention policy from within ICE itself that needs to be addressed before more and more people suffer life-long trauma and even death at the hands of immigrant detention.

Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com

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Desperate need for oversight as sexual assault is carried out in immigration detention

Despite repeated promises of detention reform from John Morton at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the immigration detention system is under fire once again. A guard at the T. Don Hutto detention facility in Taylor, Texas, has been accused of sexually assaulting female detainees on their way to being deported. As per complaints from the women who had been assaulted, several of them were groped while being patted down on the way to the airport, and one detainee reported being propositioned for sex.

ICE disclosed the information to advocate groups last week. Responding immediately, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and Grassroots Leadership expressed their outrage at the alleged sexual assault and called on the federal government to take immediate action to reform the broken detention system. The guard has been fired and Corrections Corporation of America, the private for-profit company that manages the facility under contract from ICE is on probation, until the outcome of the investigation is known. ICE has also ordered the company to effect changes such as not allowing female detainees to be left alone with male guards.

When Morton announced a detailed plan for reform of the immigration detention system last October, he attributed the majority of the detention problems, such as inhumane treatment and lack of medical care for detainees, to an over dependence on contractors like the Corrections Corporations of America and the infamous GEO Group, and the lack of federal oversight to monitor the running of the facilities. As part of the long-term plan for overhaul of the system, Morton had mentioned a smaller network of detention facilities that were monitored and managed by federal personnel and ensured appropriate medical care and transportation protocol. While those long-term goals are being implemented, there had been talk of establishing a representative from ICE at each facility to oversee activities.

This most recent incident of mistreatment of detainees drives home the urgent need for these reform plans to be implemented by ICE. Speaking about the sexual assault case, Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership’s Texas Campaigns Coordinator said-

We are saddened and shocked by this report of abuse. While we were heartened that the administration took on reforming the U.S. detention system a year ago, this incident illustrates the inherent problems in an immigration detention system with no meaningful oversight. We hope that this latest news of misconduct in an immigrant detention facility will spur President Obama to action. His administration should should immediately take steps to scale back its growing and out-of-control detention system.

While such incidents do not receive the media attention they deserve, this is not the first case of sexual abuse in a detention center in Texas. Also at the T. Don Hutto facility, a different CCA guard was fired in 2007 when he was found having sex with a detainee in her cell. In 2008, a guard employed by the GEO Group at the South Texas Detention facility was charged with impregnating a detainee. As recently as April 2010 a guard at the Port Isabel Detention Facility in Los Fresnos, Texas was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually assaulting female detainees who were being kept in medical isolation. Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas, denounced the inability of the facilities to prevent against such abuse saying-

The continued occurrence of sexual assault in immigration detention facilities demonstrates the need for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to move more aggressively in implementing reforms like improving detention standards, strengthening federal oversight of private providers like GEO and CCA, or better yet, eliminating the use of contract providers altogether.

Advocates have repeatedly stressed the various problems associated with immigration detention being managed by groups like private companies like GEO and CCA. In an article posted on our blog in December, ACLU’s Tracey Hayes reported that the GEO Group has witnessed a long and steady rise in its profits while continuing to cut costs on detainee care. According to an article in the Boston Review-

Over the past eight years, the prison giants CCA ($1.6 billion in annual revenue) and GEO Group ($1.1 billion) have racked up record profits, with jumps in revenue and profits roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants…Inmates …are technically in the custody of the federal government, but they are in fact in the custody of corporations with little or no federal supervision. So labyrinthine are the contracting and financing arrangements that there are no clear pathways to determine responsibility and accountability. Yet every contract provides an obvious and unimpeded flow of money to the private industry and consultants.

In a disturbing side note that underscores the implications of private prison companies being in charge of immigration detention and deportation, the Phoenix News Times connected the Corrections Corporation of America to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s campaign. The article says that months before signing SB1070, Gov. Brewer accepted hundreds of dollars in “seed money” from CCA executives and others “with a possible stake in Arizona’s “papers please” legislation becoming law.” While the donations did not go beyond the limits of how much “seed money” can be received for a campaign, it is difficult to ignore the ethical implications of a company that stands to gain from the passage of the law, funding the campaign.The ugly truth of the matter is that the more people that get questions and detained as a result of Arizona’s racist and extreme new law, the more the private detention facilities stand to profit.

It is imperative that the federal Government understands how urgent the need for reform is. And while ICE takes its time to implement the long-term goals for an overhaul of the detention system, more and more people are suffering from inhumane conditions, sexual abuse and even facing death.

Photo courtesy of texasobserver.org

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Federal government may not co-operate with Arizona immigration law

Immigration has and always should be a federal issue. So even if Arizona has decided to pass an anti-immigrant law that will inevitably lead to racial profiling, the federal government still has the power to do the right thing. And that’s what seems to be happening, as the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Morton expressed skepticism about SB1070, stating that ICE would not “necessarily” process undocumented immigrants referred to them by Arizona. Like President Obama’s denunciation from a few weeks ago, Morton believes that “the Arizona law, or laws like it, are not the solution”, favoring a comprehensive federal approach rather than disparate state laws to address our broken immigration system.

But while John Morton’s criticism of Arizona’s draconian enforcement measure is encouraging, his desire for increased enforcement is not. ICE is planning to step up immigration enforcement in a number of states by expanding collaborations between federal and local law enforcement through programs like 287(g) and the Secure Communities. With a record high number of deportations carried out in 2009, and a 40% increase from that in 2010, a “sharp increase” in deportations of immigrants is predicted for the end of this year.

So what Morton is not addressing is that the very same programs that are being expanded have paved the way for bills such as SB1070, by sending a signal that collaborations between local police and federal immigration is encouraged, even though these lead to racial profiling and loss of trust from communities. Take the case of Eduardo Caraballo, a Puerto Rico born Chicago resident who was arrested in connection with a stolen car last week. He maintains his innocence with regard to the car, but while that was being investigated, his real nightmare began. After his mother posted bail on Friday, Eduardo, a U.S. citizen, was told that he was being turned over to Immigrations and Customs enforcement who were detaining him on the suspicion that he was undocumented. Eduardo says he repeatedly told the officers that he was born in Puerto Rico and an American citizen.

I’m pretty sure they know that Puerto Ricans are citizens, but just because of the way I look – I have Mexican features – they pretty much assumed that my papers were fake. They were making me feel like I can’t voice my opinion or I can’t even speak for myself to let them know that I am a citizen.

The officers interrogated him about Puerto Rico but since he had moved to mainland U.S.A. when he was 8 months old, he was unable to answer them. Even after his mother presented the officers with his birth certificate and state I.D., the officers maintained that he was facing deportation. It was only after his mother contacted Congressman Gutierrez in desperation, that Eduardo was released. Rep. Gutierrez, of Puerto Rican descent himself and a big advocate for immigration reform, said that the situation is going from bad to worse. He saw Eduardo’s case in Chicago  to be emblematic of everything that would go wrong if Arizona’s anti-immigrant law was to be implemented. 

In Arizona, they want everybody to be able to prove they’re legally in the country. They want everybody to prove that they’re an American citizen. Here we had an American citizen, that the federal government… could not determine, for more than three days, his status as an American citizen. It’s very, very, very dangerous ground to tread.

While Caraballo is considering legal action, Rep. Gutierrez is hoping that this outrageous incident will  demonstrate the risk involved in the local police enforcing immigration law, and open the eyes of Congress and the White house to the dangers of racial profiling.

The urgent need for a reversal of Arizona’s law and a broader immigration reform bill has led to a series of protests around the country. 37 people, including City Council and State Assembly members, were arrested yesterday in New York city, a second in a series of planned civil disobedience actions to put pressure on the Obama administration to put a stop to SB1070,  curb detentions and deportations that separate families and enact humane immigration reform. Organizers say that they will continue resisting until their demands are met.

And on May 29th, civil rights groups and immigrant activists are organizing a massive rally against Arizona’s SB1070 law. The boycott against Arizona has been put on hold for the weekend as thousands of protesters are expected to arrive from across the country to join in a march of defiance against the state. In addition to over 50,000 people, the rally will include speeches by the DREAM Act students, Rep. Gutierrez, representatives from the government of Mexico City and members of a number of indigenous communities. With marchers refusing to carry IDs, the goal is to terminate all ICE-local police initiatives and put an end to SB1070.

Video courtesy of nbc.com

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Condemnation of Arizona’s anti-immigrant bill goes national

Tonight, Arizona’s future hangs in the balance as Arizona Governor Jan Brewer decides whether to sign SB 1070, one of the harshest anti-immigrant bills in recent memory, into law. The bill will be forwarded to the Governor’s desk this evening and could ostensibly be signed into law by midnight tonight.

Ironically titled the “Safe Neighborhoods Bill”, the bill makes it mandatory for state and local police to stop anyone based on a “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented, effectively mandating racial profiling and creating panic across communities. Immigration law is within the domain of the federal government, not local police, but the bill is egregious even in its application of due process, allowing for the arrest of people without a warrant including day laborers and those who hire them. It also makes it mandatory for local towns and cities to share information with the Department of Homeland Security and any citizen can press charges against local administrations who they believe are not be enforcing the law.

If passed into law SB 1070 will have enormous repercussions on the United States. Already, a senator in Ohio is looking for a co-sponsor to introduce a similar bill, and similar movements are expected across many states. Condemnation of the bill has reached massive proportions and a cohesive movement of immigration groups, agriculture, labor, police foundations and civil rights groups is emerging.

It started with Congressman Luis Gutierrez  calling on President Obama denouncing the Obama administration’s silence on the bill. Condemning deportations that have reached 1000 a day, half of which are originating in Ohio, he said-

Giving police such a broad mandate to arrest and book people “suspected” of looking a certain way isn’t just an invitation to racial profiling, it’s like waving a green flag and saying “gentlemen start your engines”… If we allow police-state tactics in Arizona to continue, the level of basic community security will erode and civil unrest could escalate. The President must act now to diffuse the Arizona panic and take control of a deteriorating situation that could become a national crisis.

The media reacted almost immediately. In a heated exchange with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, Alfredo Gutierrez, editor of the La Frontera Times, criticized the SB 1070 bill for taking immigration law enforcement away from the federal Government, referring to it as a “civil libertarian’s nightmare…You don’t have to throw out civil liberties because you have a major issue.”

Vigils, rallies and press conferences against the bill are reaching a fevered pitch. Advocacy groups across the country, such as Amnesty International, Reform Immigration For America, NDLON, and the National Immigration Forum are joining groups in Arizona including the Border Action Network, the Puente Movement and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in denouncing the bill. A group of people are fasting until the bill is vetoed. PSA’s and two hotlines have been introduced to educate people about the bill and dispel some of the fear and panic created by its introduction in communities. The National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) is organizing a press conference outside the Department of Homeland Security HQ in D.C. to call on Assistant Secretary John Morton to denounce the bill, coming on the heels of demands by civil rights groups to end the 287(g) and other programs that mandate local and state police to enforce federal immigration law. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is taking legal action against the bill if signed into law, arguing that it violates due process and Supreme Court precedents, urging Governor Brewer to recognize that-

… This law is an open invitation to racial discrimination, community discord, and naked clash between state and federal government. The law’s constitutional flaws will inevitably attract costly legal challenges, to the detriment of all Arizona.

Take urgent action today and ensure that Gov. Brewer vetoes SB 1070.

Photo courtesy of www.altoarizona.com

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Arizona experiences “Largest immigrant smuggling raid in U.S. history”

While Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant bill SB 1070 awaits its fate in the hands of Governor Brewer who will decide to sign it into law on Monday, the immigration enforcement spotlight turns once again to Arizona. Led by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with the full cooperation of Mexican police agencies, more than 800 agents and officers from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies carried out a massive search and arrest operation yesterday on border crossings located on either side of the border.

In what the New York Times has called the largest immigrant smuggling raid in U.S. history, the operation focused on privately run shuttle vans used to transport people across the border, resulting in the arrest of 47 people across four cities in Arizona. The raid formed the culmination of what ICE says has been a “comprehensive year-long investigation” entitled “Operation In Plain Sight.” John Morton, the director of ICE, who has come under a lot of fire in the last month, said that this was sweep was an example of a concerted effort to push immigration enforcement in the direction of going after the umbrella organizations, networks and businesses that lead smuggling efforts. The New York Times quoted John Morton -

What we are trying to do is rip this thing out by the roots…We are taking out the whole industry and giving such a shock to individuals that they won’t recover as they have in the past.

The suspects taken into custody from the cities of Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales and Rio Rico face a number of charges against them, including money laundering, smuggling and conspiracy. Given the current pressure to see immigration reform introduced into Congress, and the very recent upheaval caused by the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona’s State legislature that expands police powers to detain individuals for not having proper identification, this large-scale ICE operation has already come under a lot of criticism. From the New York Times-

Immigrant advocacy groups on Thursday denounced what they called a climate of fear and criticized the ICE operation for coming at the same time as the legislation. A handful of protesters outside the United States attorney’s office here chanted, “We are going to beat back John Morton’s attack.”

In a press release from the Arizona-based advocacy group Coalition de Derechos Humanos, they talk about the atmosphere of panic and fear that is palpable through Arizona’s immigrant community, given the threat of SB1070 coupled with yesterday’s raid. Talking about border enforcement and immigration reform, Derechos Humanos co-chair Isabel Garcia stressed the need for debates around immigration to focus on economic and political forces that motivate it, rather than framing it as a threat to national security. Decrying the impending legislation in Arizona, Garcia told Democracy Now that the state had been turned into a “laboratory of anti-immigrant measures”and that the answer lay in “real reform” rather than increased enforcement and an atmosphere of fear.

Immigrant advocates are concerned by the fact that instead of ending the Bush-era policy of “enforcement now, enforcement forever”, immigration enforcement is as harsh as ever. Moreover, the Obama administration has been critiqued for giving “mixed messages” on the issue of immigration reform and enforcement. Advocates such as Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, are calling on President Obama to take a clear stand on the issue, and lead an approach to enforcement that is humane and efficient.

Photo courtesy of nytimes.com

End it. Not mend it. Message to the administration over failed immigration program.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for detention and deportations of immigrants, is on a roll. Haitian earthquake survivors and mentally ill detainees are amongst those locked up in inhumane detention centers. Memos leaked last week confirmed a desire for growing deportations of immigrants. And now, the government’s own agency, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General delivers a scathing critique of ICE’s 287(g) program that gives local police the power to enforce immigration law.

60 police forces across the country have signed agreements with ICE that allow their local officers to detain suspected immigrants for deportation. Various reports have documented racial profiling concerns, but the government has failed to listen. Even Members of Congress and police foundations have spoken out against the program, which diverts scarce resources from the police and endangers community safety as people are afraid to report crimes.

The OIG points out serious flaws in ICE’s 287(g) program for its lack of training, oversight and transparency, and its failure to protect against racial profiling and civil rights abuses. In one example, a victim of a traffic accident who was also an immigrant was taken straight to the local jail until federal officers arrived to check his legal status. And although the program is supposed to focus on “Level 1″ offenders or those who have committed serious crimes, almost half of those reviewed had no involvement in such crimes, revealing a misdirection of resources.

The issue around a lack of supervision is grave. “In the absence of consistent supervision over immigration enforcement activities, there is no assurance that the program is achieving its goals.”This has led to severe violations, with Sheriff Arpaio type neighborhood sweeps to locate undocumented immigrants. Other horrific examples – Juana Villegas, 9 months pregnant, was detained on a minor traffic stop and remained shackled while giving birth, while Pedro Guzman, a mentally ill U.S. citizen was mistakenly deported to Mexico.

And finally, the 287(g) training of police officers is very inadequate. In one example, two officers who were enrolled in the program had been defendants in past racial profiling lawsuits, indicating a flawed selection process. The performance records of local officers are not examined properly while many officers are given only a cursory training in immigration law.

While ICE claims that the report was researched before it has made radical changes to the program, the changes that have been made are largely superficial and problems continue unchecked. Many groups consider this report a wake up call and have demanded the 287(g) program be “ended, not mended.” Take action to “Reign in the Cowboys at ICE.”

Photo courtesy of thenation.com

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Haitian earthquake survivors amongst those in immigration detention centers

Where have all the promises gone?

The Obama administration has delivered many promises, not least of which is to deliver desperately needed reforms to an unwieldy and unjust immigration detention system.

So why is it that the New York Times reported today that 30 survivors of the devastating Haiti earthquake were rushed out of Haiti during aftershocks at the airport, only to be thrown into immigration detention centers on U.S. soil in far flung areas, confined while dealing with the traumas of what they had encountered back home. Many have relatives in the U.S. who are desperate to take them in. They are neither flight risks, nor a danger to the community. Yet, they continue to remain detained. Like Jackson,

who was trapped in the collapse of his family’s apartment building in the quake… His formal request for release, dated March 12, describes how even the sound of someone on the jail stairs makes him fear another earthquake and worry that because he is locked up, he will be unable to escape.

The detainees have received little or no mental treatment for their trauma. This is not surprising, given a new report from a public interest law center Texas Appleseed that documents the shocking treatment and lack of due process meted out to immigrants with mental disabilities. The case studies are astounding. Take for example a 50-year-old legal permanent resident who had lived in the United States since 1974. Declared incompetent by a New York criminal court, he was ordered to serve 90 days in a mental institution, but before anyone could blink, he was transferred far away to a detention center in Texas for deportation without his family’s knowledge. Even though he was suffering from severe schizophrenia, he went without his medication for a month, as detention centers are notorious for medical mistreatment, and this extends even further to mental illness. As his sister said

If they deport him, it will be the end of his life and the end of my mother’s life. My mother says he will die out there in the streets.

The example illustrates the continuing emphasis on enforcement only approach. Even though many immigrants are neither flight risks, they are mandatorily detained in far flung locations. Even though detention is a civil sanction, people in the system are treated as criminals, required to wear prison uniforms, housed in cells and monitored constantly. More than 33,000 immigrants are held daily in a network of privately contracted facilities and state and local jails. Imagine the state of someone with a mental illness in an increasingly overwhelmed system. Moreover, 84% of detainees have no legal counsel – so in an overburdened court system, mentally ill detainees are often left defending themselves.

The report documents what health professionals in the facility have to say. Like one Detention Facility Nurse who stated, rather matter of factly, that “When they are crazy and cannot be managed they go to ‘seg’ [segregation] when there is not room in the short stay unit.”Detainees are often given the wrong drugs, or accused of faking their illness. The worst is when they are let free, often suddenly in the middle of nowhere where the detention facility is located, without any resources. Like the tragic story of a delusional Mexican national suffering from schizophrenia whose father had arranged with immigration for his son’s voluntary departure by plane to Mexico, where he was to be picked up by his mother. But when he called the deportation officer to confirm the travel arrangements, he was told that his son had been deported four days earlier than originally planned, due to the vacation plans of his deportation officer. He still remains missing two years later, though the body of a young man who fits his son’s description remains in a morgue in Tijuana.

Day by day, violations in detention continue, even as a leaked memo from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has revealed the need to meet larger quotas of immigrants for deportation, contrary to the official stand by the administration that they are mainly targeting immigrants who have criminal convictions. According to the ACLU,

The ACLU and select immigration groups met Monday with ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton and his senior staff to discuss the reported quota policy and Detention and Removal Office (DRO) priorities. At the meeting, James M. Chaparro, the DRO director who wrote the memo, which was apparently not cleared by the Assistant Secretary, apologized for his “tremendous error”… Assistant Secretary Morton denied the use of quotas, stated his commitment to work together in a “spirit of candor and transparency” and asked to be “judged on the record, not on rumors.”

But many are not believing the “bad apple” story. Key immigrant and Latino organizations have called on President Obama and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to dismiss John Morton. “The reality is that ICE has gone rogue and needs to be reined in with dramatic action,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change.

Growing frustration is leading to more broken families and destroyed futures. No more promises we say again. It’s time for concrete action.

UPDATE: From the New York Times – More than three dozen Haitian earthquake survivors were released from Florida immigration jails on Thursday after more than two months in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immigration officials said 40 Haitian survivors would be released on orders of supervision by nightfall. This came on the day that The New York Times reported that at least 30 earthquake survivors were being detained. Lawyers said the federal government was now reversing a practice adopted after the earthquake, to hold Haitians for at least 90 days after a deportation order before considering them for supervised release. Those released can be returned to Haiti when deportations resume.

Photo courtesy of globevision

Delaying immigration reform gets expensive

Sirens, helicopters, immigration agents with guns swarming into factories and homes, this was standard game for immigration raids during the Bush administration. But all that was supposed to change during President Obama’s tenure. In a disturbing turn of events, documents procured by the Washington Post have exposed a senior-ranking Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official explicitly stating that even while deportation of those with criminal charges has risen, the overall number of deportations is “well below the agency’s goal” and what is needed is a reversal of the downward trend of deportations.

Rather than reflect the plans of the Obama administration that is committed to an enforcement agenda focused on immigrants that commit serious crimes, the exposed ICE memo has laid out a plan that will -

pump up the numbers by increasing detention space to hold more illegal immigrants while they await deportation proceedings; sweep prisons and jails to find more candidates for deportation and offering early release to those willing to go quickly; and, most controversially, include a “surge” in efforts to catch illegal immigrants whose only violation was lying on immigration or visa applications or reentering the United States after being deported.

In keeping with this plan, ICE field offices in Dallas, Chicago and Northern California have set their agents an incentive system that calls for them to process 40-60 cases in a month in order to earn “excellent” ratings. Such a policy encourages agents to target “easy” cases rather than focus on high risk, criminal cases that take longer to process.

ICE immediately distanced themselves from Chaparro’s memo.

Our longstanding focus remains on smart, effective immigration enforcement that places priority first on those dangerous criminal aliens who present risk to the security of our communities. This focus has yielded real results – between FY2008 and FY2009, criminal deportations increased by 19%… Significant portions of the memo cited in The Washington Post did not reflect our policies, was sent without my authorization, and has since been withdrawn and corrected.

Mixed signals from an agency known for its harsh implementation of detention and deportation policies. A report published by the Center for American Progress weighs the fiscal damage that would result from mass deportation of all immigrants, the alternative to comprehensive reform that is championed by immigration hardliners, and the results should worry us all.

Based on federal spending on border enforcement and deportation for 2008, the report estimates the cost of detention and deportation for 10.8 million undocumented immigrants present in the U.S. at around 200 billion dollars. Referring to the option of mass deportation as the “status-quo on steriods”, it points to this option as a highly irresponsible one that would require “$922 in new taxes for every man, woman, and child in this country.” The bad news, the National Immigration Forum puts this number on the lower side.

The good news. Americans aren’t buying this option and are demanding immigration reform in record numbers. The Public Religion Research Institute asked American voters (predominantly white Evangelicals, Catholics and Mainline Protestants) what they think about immigration reform, and found-

Two-thirds of Americans believe in a comprehensive approach that offers illegal immigrants an earned path to citizenship. Overwhelming majorities of those asked believed that immigration reform should be guided by values of fairness, security, dignity and keeping families together.

On the other side is Public Agenda, a non partisan group that decided to find out what immigrants think about their lives in the United States. What did they find?

The overwhelming majority of immigrants say they’re happy in the United States, and would do it all over again if they could. Immigrants “buy in” to American society, for themselves and their children. They rate the United States as an improvement over their birthplace in almost all dimensions, and most say they expect their children to remain in this country. A solid majority says that illegal immigrants become productive citizens and an overwhelming 84 percent support a “guest worker” program

So what’s next? We’ve marched. We’ve rallied. We’ve practically shouted from rooftops demanding immigration reform. And now it’s time to make sure that we get some concrete action. With the current system broken, expensive and inefficient, and with 10.8 million people eager to contribute to the nation’s economy and society, everyone should be on board for finding a sustainable, just, and humane solution to the current immigration system. We rest our case.

Photo courtesy of americanprogress.org