Monday morning, I hear banging, banging, banging on the door… I just opened the door because I’m thinking it’s my neighbor from downstairs, because I hold her key for her… I see like five officers, official-looking with the vest and hats, and they say, “We’re Homeland Security. We’re doing an investigation.” And I’m, like, in my underwear.
He pulls out a piece of paper and says, “Can you tell me if you’ve seen this guy?” And I’m still half asleep, thinking, “Wow, Homeland Security, this guy must be dangerous.”
This is Alisha, a student at John Jay College, resident of the Bronx and activist with the Social Justice Project, talking to Socialist Worker about an event this summer that changed her life. The officers at her door weren’t investigating terrorism, but were part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of Homeland Security, and they were looking for her partner Franz, who was sleeping in her living room that Monday morning in August.
As Alisha knew, Franz was far from dangerous. In fact, his only “crimes”- besides not having legal documentation – were the results of homelessness and racial profiling.
To hear the Republicans running for president tell it, Democrats have unleashed an epidemic of lawlessness – particularly for people of color. They complain about Barack Obama’s claims that his administration is only focusing on deporting undocumented immigrants who are dangerous criminals, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vow to end the police tactic of widespread stop-and-frisks.
But Alisha and Franz have a different story to tell. Despite legislation signed by de Blasio last year promising to limit the city’s cooperation with ICE except for “those who have been convicted of violent or serious felonies,” New Yorkers continue to find themselves in NYPD custody thanks to aggressive “Broken Windows” policing – in Franz’s case, a dubious bust for skipping a subway fare – and then in the crosshairs of ICE.
Alisha and Franz met this past February. Franz, who had emigrated from Haiti in 1998, retained a thick accent. “I always joke and say that this relationship is working because I have no idea what he is saying,” Alisha says. “But I love him.”
When Alisha met him, Franz was coming out of homelessness, and – with the support of his cousin and Alisha – things were looking up. He was beginning to overcome his depression and get involved in the Osborne Association, a well-regarded organization whose mission is to offer opportunities for people who have been through the criminal justice system.
Franz hoped to get his GED and improve his English so he could go to college and eventually become a social worker to help those who were in a similar position to him. But those plans started to get derailed after an incident with the police earlier this summer, as Alisha describes:
Franz went out to get some fish for me, because he knows I love fish. The fish store was a few stops away from the house, so I loaned him my monthly Metrocard [to take the subway]. Next thing you know, I’m getting a call:
“Baby, they’ve arrested me. They said that I didn’t swipe [the card].”
“Tell them that you have a monthly metro card,” I said.
“I’m trying to tell them, but they won’t listen.”
“Give me the officer. Maybe they don’t understand you.”
I said to the officer, “He has a monthly Metro – it’s my card. Why would he not swipe?”
This is the thing with NYPD. I call it the new profile tactic. They hide on the subway platform, trying to catch people coming through. Where I live, no one is going to the Hamptons. We don’t have money, none of us – we’re broke. So if we’re going through the turnstile, we are going to school, to appointments, going to handle our business. What the NYPD is doing is using that tactic for whoever is swiping to get their names.
At the police station, the officer told Alisha he saw Franz go through an unlocked gate instead of the turnstile. Franz acknowledged that he went through the gate instead of waiting at the turnstile because a train was coming, but insisted that he had swiped his card.
When Alisha asked the officer why he didn’t just check the Metrocard to see if it had been swiped, he replied, “You know, I would just have let him go, but I had my supervisor right behind me.”
Once police ran Franz’s name through the system, they found he had two open warrants for unpaid fines in 2008 and 2010.
“He totally forgot he had [the unpaid fines] way back when,” Alisha says. “And with his situation of being homeless, he didn’t have the money to pay in the first place.
Franz was arrested, processed and let go the next day. The following week, we went to court, where his first warrant was dropped, and he was told that his second one would be handled soon. But now that Franz’s name was in the system, ICE had other plans. A couple of weeks later came the home raid. Alisha described what happened after she opened the door:
Franz got up from the couch, and he was walking towards us because he could hear his name. They were talking in the hall, so I looked over to Franz, but I stepped back…and they started coming in. I’m [still] thinking it’s a case of mistaken identity.
And so they come in and they say, “Are you Franz? Can you give us some ID?” He shows his passport. I could tell he was already nervous. “We have a warrant for your arrest.”
I said, “What are you talking about? A warrant for what?” when the officer started to come around, I put my arm up: “‘Uh, uh, what’s going on, hold up!”
Than another officer that I didn’t see out in the hall came around and said, “Ma’am, whatever questions you have, don’t worry, I will answer them for you.”
I turn to the guy who says that he can answer all my questions and ask him, “Can you tell me what this is about?”
“Ma’am, you can come down to 201 Varick Street, and they will answer all your questions.”
I asked him, “Can I have your name?”
“I’m not required to give you my name.”
“Can I have your badge number?”
“We are not required to give you a badge number.”
At this point, I say, “Is this America? Can I get a picture of the picture that you just showed me?” Then he laughed and said, “Absolutely not!” As if that was the silliest question he had ever heard.
He leaves out the door, and Franz is already being taking down the stairs. “Baby, make sure you come down.”
I’m standing at the door, saying to myself, what the fuck just happened, what’s going on? I go to my laptop, and before you know it, there are 20 tabs open. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to call. Do I call the police? Oh my God, no! I was so shocked. I had to go to sleep, this is just a dream.
I reached out to the ICE FREE NYC, and they referred me to Families for Freedom. When I spoke to Abraham, it made everything okay. If I didn’t have that person at the other end, that could have ruined me. He just knew everything and predicted all the steps that Franz was going to go through.
Families for Freedom (FFF) is an advocacy and organizing group that describes itself as “by and for families facing and fighting deportation” and seeking to “repeal the laws that are tearing apart our homes and neighborhoods; and to build the power of immigrant communities as communities of color, to provide a guiding voice in the growing movement for immigrant rights as human rights.”
Executive Director Abraham Paulos, who has been through immigrant detention himself, said in an interview that FFF was part of the effort to get ICE removed from city jails, but that since the bill’s passage last year, he has seen more calls like Alisha’s.
“ICE was kicked out of jail, but there was an increase in home raids,” Paulos says. Before, he says, most calls were about loved ones in jail, but now “we’re getting the same amount of phone calls, but home raid phone calls are the major phone calls. How do they know to come to his [Franz’s] partner’s house? It’s hard to believe that [the information] is not been coming from the NYPD.”
According to Paulos, this is part of a national trend under the Obama administration’s Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), in which the president vowed to target “felons not families” – as if the two categories have nothing to do with each other.
Franz is now in the Essex Detention Center, in Newark, New Jersey. “There is no [right to] speedy trial,” Alisha says. “He’s been in there since August.”
She believes detentions of people like Franz are motivated by a Congressional-mandated “bed quota” that obligates ICE to pay for a minimum number of immigrant detainees. “They need to have those beds filled… ‘We know that you’re not a threat, but we need to keep our money,'” Alisha says. “I’m living in a dream. The process is insane and dehumanizing as well. [For] the visits in the wintertime, they make you stand outside in a line for two hours, [including] little kids.”
Alisha thinks de Blasio “comes from a good heart but represents a system that is corrupt as fuck.”
The system itself is not about supporting those who want to bring what’s best for society. So you have this one person in this corrupt system who’s trying to do something right, he need a backup. That army has to come from the people. That’s how changes are made in society.
It just becomes a scenario where society has to put the pressure on it, so we’ll have to hold those politicians to their word. Hold Obama to his words. Hold de Blasio to his words. It’s about us being organized and coming together as activists and making noise to be heard.
Like Paulos, Alisha thinks part of the problem is the way immigration has become associated with criminality.
I reposted a video that I saw on Facebook, about a little boy [whose] father was detained and was going to get deported. Somebody posted, “What [crime] did his father do?” automatically.
So for us to have this conversation in the community, the first thing is, “well, they are criminals, what did they do?… Well, no, you don’t have my support”. So it works for the system. It automatically signs the person off to not be worthy of support, to fight for, to raise my voice.
People first. We see that incarceration is a problem. Homelessness is a problem. It can be fixed when you separate the person from the situation and deconstruct the whole narrative. It is a hard job but I know it can be done.