Groups Protest Citizen Detentions

December 19, 2011

Pro-immigrant and civil liberties groups are stepping up the pressure against  US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Secure Communities program.
Designed to remove immigrant lawbreakers from the United States, thumb Secure Communities enlists local law enforcement agencies in a cooperative relationship with ICE in order to identify, medicine hold and deport foreign nationals.

But a coalition of non-governmental groups including the American Civil Liberties (ACLU) and National Immigration Law Center charged this week that Secure Communities has resulted in the unlawful detention of US citizens. They also urged Los Angeles County to severe its ties with the federal immigration initiative.

“It is time for us to finally say, ‘no, we will not participate in a program that detains people unlawfully, crowds our jails and compromises community policing,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the southern California branch of the ACLU.

In a statement, the ACLU and its allies summarized four recent California cases in which citizens arrested for alleged non-immigration offenses had a detention hold put on them from ICE.

In one instance, a 40-year-old Los Angeles-born resident was charged last month with shoplifting but kept on an immigration hold even after a judge ordered him released on the original charge. Antonio Montejano was then forced to sleep for two nights on the floor of the county jail, according to the ACLU and its coalition partners.

“My eight-year-old son asked me: ‘Dad, can this happen to me because I look like you?’ I feel so sad when I heard him say this. But he is right,” Montejano was quoted. “Even though he is an American citizen-just like me-he too could be detained for immigration purposes because of the color of this skin-just like me. What am I supposed to tell him?”

The ACLU and other groups also cited findings from the University of California-Berkeley’s Warren Institute that reported approximately 3,600 citizens had been detained under Secure Communities since the program’s inception through April 2011.

In Secure Communities, a detained person’s fingerprints are sent to ICE for immigration status verification.

For its part, ICE called the experiences cited by the pro-immigrant coalition and reported in national media “highly unusual with unique circumstances.”

The federal agency said in a statement: “ICE is strongly committed to the prevention of similar situations and have taken numerous steps to ensure that the detention of US citizens does not occur. Secure Communities is not designed and should not be used to detain U.S. citizens and we work hand-in-hand with our state and local partners to ensure that it is used appropriately.”

Reportedly, ICE is cleaning up its data base to make sure US citizens are not mistakenly classified as foreign nationals. The agency is expected to issue a new detainer form for the purpose of avoiding the detention of US citizens for immigration law violations.

In other immigration news, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), Arizona’s Tonatierra organization, the Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West and other groups are organizing a series of activities on Sunday, December 18, International Migrants Day.  Planned for at least ten US states, the events are part of a global day of action against racism and for the rights of migrants, refugees and displaced people.

The NNIRR took the occasion of the approaching day to renew a demand that the Obama administration stop detaining and deporting immigrants. The Oakland-based immigrant advocates contended that Washington’s record deportation of 396,906 immigrants in Fiscal Year 2011 harvested a “high human cost” in terms of shattered lives and separated families.

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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