Local officials join crackdown on immigrants


HARTFORD—Josemaria Islas is facing deportation. A resident of New Haven, Conn., Islas was arrested last July 2 for attempted bicycle theft. There was absolutely no evidence for the charge. The accuser could not identify Islas, and never lost possession of his bike. Islas’ defense even produced evidence that he was at work and then lunch during the incident.

Still, the arrest alone gave court marshals the right to turn Islas over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. Islas had remained in jail for four months attempting to avoid such an outcome. When he finally resolved his initial case the marshals moved in.

The court marshals derived their right to seize Islas from a program that the Obama administration recently imposed upon every single jurisdiction in the United States and its territories. The program is called “Secure Communities,” or S-Comm. It requires local law enforcement to turn over to ICE the identifying information of all detained persons. If a person does not show up on ICE’s national database, ICE can detain and then deport them.

In its essence, the program is a politically streamlined version of Arizona’s SB 1070. It connects every state and local police department directly to federal immigration enforcement. It is difficult to understate the significance of this program.

Obama is on track to deport a record 2 million people by 2014—as many as were deported between 1892 and 1997. S-Comm has been an invaluable tool in reaching this record. It allows deportations to be made more quietly and under the ruse of deporting “dangerous criminals.” Yet nearly half of the individuals deported in 2012 had no criminal record whatsoever. Of those with records, one-fourth had only traffic convictions, and on-fifth had been convicted of nothing more than immigration-related crimes like “illegal entry.”

This is not carelessness, but conscious policy. The ACLU has recently obtained e-mails showing that top Obama administration officials in 2012 instructed ICE to round up more immigrants through traffic violations and other minor offenses in order to fill quotas for deportation of “criminals.”

For years immigrants and their allies have advanced the slogan “we are workers, not criminals!” and this has made an impact on the political landscape. The federal government no longer feels confident justifying its repression solely via the idea that all immigrants (or at least undocumented immigrants) are criminal outlaws.

The Obama administration has adapted itself with a line from the playbook of mass-incarceration and the new Jim Crow. As in Black communities, repression of immigrants is now carried out under the guise of targeting only the “dangerous criminals.” This justification is directed toward not only immigrants’ allies, but towards immigrants themselves. It assures some that S-Comm is not a threat to them but protection against the criminal elements in their own community. It serves to divide not just native workers from immigrants, but also immigrants from each other.

Of course, S-Comm does not require ICE to check whether a person has been convicted of anything. A person whose name is not on ICE’s database need only be arrested (falsely or otherwise) in order to be detained by ICE and deported. The program creates a legal means for circumventing due process since no trial by jury is required for such deportations.

When Islas was arrested, Gov. Dannel Malloy had already begun a policy of only giving ICE people who met certain conditions—those with felonies on their records, “known gang members,” and those on terrorist watch lists. Islas didn’t meet any of these conditions, but the court hierarchy under which the court marshals operate refuses to follow this policy. In this sense, the case highlights some limitations of attempting solutions through local arrangements.

Local measures like these, which restrict who can be deported under S-Comm, only allow for even sharper divisions among immigrants, as such policies promote the development of more concrete distinctions within the community.

Those with felonies become more vulnerable than those without. Young people are especially vulnerable to the vague charge of “gang affiliation.” Terrorist lists are wildly arbitrary, and overwhelmingly target members of Muslim and Arab communities. These policies are calculated to discourage people from identifying with victims of state repression. To succeed, the immigrant rights movement cannot swallow this bait. It must establish a consistent principle of “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Led by Unidad Latina en Acción, a steady campaign continues to demand Islas’ release. Protests are taking place in New Haven and Hartford.

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