The harshest immigration law on the books in the United States, Arizona’s State Bill 1070, has attracted national attention because it threatens to encourage racial profiling and opens the door for civil rights violations. President Obama has denounced the law, saying it is “misguided” and threatens “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.” [NOTE: Late reports are that the administration will file suit against the Arizona law; we'll have more on this tomorrow.] But even as Obama and his administration condemn SB 1070, they continue to expand federal programs such as 287(g) and Secure Communities, which would enforce similar policies across the country.
Two Tough Policies
The 287(g) program trains local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws and initiate deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants. Secure Communities allows the federal government to use fingerprints to check the immigration status of anyone who is processed by a local police department. In both programs, men, women, and children can be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement before they are even charged with a crime. As a result, immigrant communities have lost trust in the police, and the immigration detention and court system is flooded with the cases of nearly 400,000 immigrants per year facing deportation.
Despite rhetoric from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton that their enforcement initiatives target “criminal aliens,” a study from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that fewer than half of the men, women, and children detained by ICE in 2009 had any criminal history. In Illinois, the National Immigrant Justice Center represents hundreds of immigrants detained and facing deportation from the United States every year. In one recent month, we tracked the stories behind the 288 people who, placed into ICE custody, asked for our help.
Twenty percent of them had no police record greater than a traffic offense or one DUI. Among them was a father of three U.S. citizen children who had lived in the United States for 30 years with no criminal history when he was arrested for driving in a bike lane on his way to work. Another man was traveling to work with a group of co-workers when the Illinois State Police stopped their van and asked everyone inside about their immigration status. The police did not issue a ticket or charge anyone in the car with an offense, but they did turn everyone over to ICE.
As ICE has expanded its enforcement programs, it has refused to ensure immigrant access to legal counsel and humane treatment. To accommodate the growing detention population, up 64 percent since 2005, ICE transfers detainees to isolated jails far from their families, often hundreds of miles from cities where they could find legal counsel. Without a lawyer, detainees are more likely to suffer human rights abuses and, because of the complexity of immigration law, can find it nearly impossible to adequately prepare their case for a fair day in court.
A Legal Double Standard
Here is where a crucial difference between U.S. immigration law and the criminal justice system comes into play: While non-citizens facing deportation have a right to be represented by counsel, they do not have access to court-appointed lawyers. Men, women, and children in ICE custody must locate and hire lawyers on their own Legal counsel is expensive, especially when detained and unable to work. There are
other obstacles too: physical isolation, language barriers, and broken telephones.
One man who suffers from diabetes and asthma was held for five years at a detention facility in Oakdale, Louisiana, before he was able to find legal counsel by contacting the National Immigrant Justice Center. The 562-bed Oakdale facility is located more than 100 miles from New Orleans or Baton Rouge, where Louisiana’s five lawyers who represent detained immigrants struggle to meet the needs of even a fraction of the 2,300 immigrants detained in the state. The National Immigrant Justice Center lawyers, based in Chicago, had to advocate for their client from afar this spring when Oakdale’s medical staff refused to allow him to see a doctor when he suffered an episode of serious respiratory failure. This kind of incident is not uncommon in the sprawling immigration detention system: At least 112 people have died in ICE custody since 2003, and most of those deaths have been attributed to alleged neglect on the part of detention facility medical staff.
The man who has been suffering in Oakdale and the men who were detained during traffic stops on their way to work pose no threat to our communities*. We shouldn’t spend taxpayer money to lock them up – at an average cost of $95 per person per day – in a system that endangers their health and human rights. If the government continues to expand programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities without oversight to hold police officers and detention facility staff accountable, none of this will stop any time soon.
by Tara Tidwell Cullen