In a climate of political backwardness, undocumented immigrants and their advocates are often accused of manipulating language. We are told that we should say “illegal immigrant,” rather than “undocumented immigrant”. Yet in the legal realm, this is backward and void. Asserting that someone, including many of our neighbors and community members here in the Bay Area who are not properly documented, are guilty of a crime ignores their presumption of innocence. This involves all sorts of extraneous factors, such as potential refugee status, amnesty status, undocumented but legal ancestors, lost paperwork, and a number of other factors which affect an undocumented person’s legal status.
Yet in a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program, known as Securing Communities (S-Comm), ICE has itself nefariously used a legally void and undefined term – “criminal alien” – to deport many of our nation’s residents, including many here in the Bay Area. S-Comm is billed as a program to deport “criminal aliens” who have committed egregious offenses. S-Comm involves requesting that local law enforcement transfer anyone deemed “deportable” to ICE to await possible deportation when police submit finger prints for criminal background checks, which also go through immigration background checks. But law enforcement officials, judges, elected officials, and community leaders have instead found that ICE is using the Secure Communities program as part of a growing trend to engage in mass deportations of residents who have often committed no criminal offenses – or even worse, residents who are themselves victims or eyewitnesses of criminal activity. Furthermore, ICE’s program avoids accountability and oversight, violates privacy rights of citizens and undocumented workers, and severely hampers effective police conduct.
In a new report titled “Restoring Community,” the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and a National Community Advisory Commission has put together an extensive collection of facts and testimonies from law enforcement and community leaders regarding the devastating effects of ICE’s new program. The full report, as well as a run-down of the report prepared by the San Jose Peace and Justice Center, can be found at http://altopolimigra.com/s-comm-shadow-report/
Rather than targeting those who have committed serious crimes, data from ICE itself reveals that S-Comm deportations have overwhelmingly been of individuals who have committed no criminal offenses or have committed misdemeanors, including traffic offenses. Furthermore, data collected by NDLON and civil liberties advocates have found that time and again, many of those deported as a result of S-Comm are themselves victims of violent crimes, including domestic abuse. In addition, law enforcement officials from throughout the country claim that S-Comm has had a negative effect on community policing methods. Immigrant communities, including witnesses and victims of crimes, are more afraid to interact with police, fearing an arbitrary deportation as a result of the program. Furthermore, law enforcement officials nationwide believe that ICE is a distraction for police departments who care to focus on more serious crimes.
Other serious problems with S-Comm include entangling ICE with the criminal justice system, which creates a “two-tiered system of justice” for its targets, in which both – the criminal justice system and the immigration system – are overwhelmingly stacked against the defendant, preventing individuals accused of any crime from properly defending themselves in court. Furthermore, data from ICE’s deportation suggests that the program incentivizes racial profiling, and follows a long trend of using the criminal justice system to attack immigrants in the midst of the war on drugs and the war on terrorism. Large numbers of immigrants swept up in S-Comm related deportations across the country committed no serious offenses, strongly suggesting the presence of racial profiling.
Moreover, the limits of the program have been vague, allowing ICE to “go rogue”. Time and again, ICE officials have lied to elected officials and judges over the scope and nature of the program, and the legal limits of S-Comm have come under scrutiny. On a related point, privacy advocates like Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation have noted that the FBI has used S-Comm to “accumulate a massive store of personal and biometric information on citizens and non-citizens alike”
S-Comm has hit home to the Bay Area, one of the most diverse areas on the planet and home to millions of immigrants themselves. There is no reason for Bay Area residents concerned about their safety, human dignity, or privacy rights to put any faith in ICE’s new program.
Indeed, Bay Area leaders have been taking a stand against the program. Bay Area Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) has demanded an investigation of the S-Comm program, accusing federal immigration officials of lying about whether or not local counties and states have the right to opt out of the devastating program. “It is inescapable that the [Department of Homeland Security] was not honest with the local governments or with me” said Lofgren. Both San Francisco and Santa Clara counties have defended the rights of Bay Area citizens and non-citizens by attempting to opt out of the program – only to have federal immigration officials give mixed responses as to the legality of opting out. Although the program was billed as “voluntary,” Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)-obtained documents reveal that ICE officials knew it was involuntary long before.
Lofgren and county governments are not alone. San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey also condemned the draconian nature of the program and its exploitation of police departments:
This fear of the arbitrary use of immigration laws is only reinforced when you have a high-ranking ICE official telling law enforcement, “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear.” This is a quote from James Pendergraph, the former executive director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination, who was speaking in 2008 to the Police Foundation’s national conference on immigration issues…My main criticism of Secure Communities is that it casts too wide a net and scoops up the fingerprints of everyone not born in the United States whether or not they pose a criminal risk (6).
Hennessey also claims that out of opposition to the misleading and dangerous program, he does not recommend immigrants caught with minor violations for deportation. His sentiments as a law enforcement official are echoed throughout the Bay Area. San Mateo County demanded clarification about opting out, and Sonoma County representatives were also “upset” about misleading information from ICE. Marin County’s Juvenile Probation Office was “quite agitated about S-Comm being ‘forced’ on them”. NDLON claims that despite S-Comm being mandated by federal officials through deception, the program’s officially “voluntary” method is an important legal means of fighting back against this draconian legislation. As per the tenth amendment, it is illegal for federal immigration officials to require state and local police to do be distracted from serious police work with the dirty job of rounding up innocent Bay Area residents for deportation.
The opposition to S-Comm from local leaders, law enforcement, our elected officials, and our community has been strong and vocal, and has sent a clear message to those at ICE who seek to harass and deport members of our community. But the fight is still uphill. The number of annual deportations from the United States in 2010 has skyrocketed to 400,000, up from only 20,000 in 1980. With the conflation of immigration violations with the criminal justice system, under the auspices of solving drug problems or fighting terrorism, we have seen a drastic increase in deportations and harassment of undocumented immigrants.
Immigrants-rights advocates continue to be accused of manipulating language for our defense of our communities. But S-Comm proves that it is deportation officials from the federal government, not immigrants-rights advocates, that have been deceptive and manipulative with words for their own purposes. As such, we must unite as a community and remain strong against ICE’s new harassment program. Only through continuing to organize as a community against this heinous attack on Bay Area citizens and non-citizens alike can we reverse this disturbing trend.