At last, some good news to report on the immigration reform front, although it’s only a sliver of glad tidings: in San Francisco, immigration detainees are no longer required to wear shackles in court. This dehumanizing and humiliating requirement is in place in courts across the country, forcing detainees who don’t pose a considerable risk to shuffle into court in chains, wear them throughout the hearing and leave it the same way. While this only applies to San Francisco, activists hope it will be extended to other regions as well.
Why is this important? First of all, we’re not talking about handcuffs (which are already uncomfortable and humiliating to wear). We are talking about shackles, which include heavy wrist and ankle hardware along with chains. Shackles are uncomfortable to move, stand, or sit in, and they are designed as a tool of power and control; it’s difficult for prisoners to pose much danger when they’re shackled. As a legitimate law enforcement tool for defendants who pose a flight risk or danger to others, shackles are used in some court settings, but when immigration authorities required their use for all detainees regardless of their profile, this made a statement.
Detainees felt dehumanized by being placed in shackles and treated as serious, dangerous criminals. Moreover, they argued that having to wear shackles in court changed the way judges perceived them. While judges strive to be impartial, they’re influenced by what they see in court, and there’s a significant difference between a shackled prisoner and one dressed neatly and sitting attentively through the hearing. Shackles were adversely affecting outcomes in immigration cases, making them a tool of injustice as well as a human rights violation.
The decision to drop the requirement for shackles (some detainees will still be shackled, it’s simply not mandatory anymore) is the result of a settlement with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the City and County of San Francisco, applying only to San Francisco’s immigration court. It’s not surprising to see San Francisco leading the way on this issue, given that the city designated itself as a Sanctuary City in 1989, long before the current increase in anti-immigrant sentiment and harsh crackdown on immigrants through repressive laws.
Under the city’s ordinance, city employees cannot ask about or share a person’s immigration status, may not deny or alter services on the basis of immigration status and may not cooperate with ICE on immigration investigations unless compelled to do so by federal law. Last year, Supervisor John Avalos recommended extending the city’s progressive policies even further, suggesting that San Francisco join other cities around the country in refusing to comply with ICE holds.
San Francisco is in a prime position to fight for immigration rights: as a major airline hub located next to a major port (Oakland), San Francisco is home to an incredibly diverse population that includes many undocumented immigrants, including people who want to seek permanent residency and citizenship. By working to establish fundamental human rights in its borders, the city is trying to build bridges of communication and trust with immigrants, making them feel like safer, more valued members of San Francisco’s vibrant landscape.
Photo credit: Nevele Otseog.
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