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Despite Stated Aims, Obama’s New ICE Policy Targets Immigrants for Minor Offenses

So far in 2016, hundreds of people have been rounded up in ICE raids, following a shift in US immigration policies.

Undocumented youth and allies rally with Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago, Illinois, on March 10, 2011. (Photo: Sarah Ji)

Four men in unmarked cars showed up at a local trailer park where many Latinos reside in the small Midwestern college town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. It was 8 am one cool morning in October 2015, and José was getting ready to go to one of his three jobs. He heard a knock at the front door and when he opened it, the men came inside. They never showed him a warrant. They wanted to know his name, and then put him in handcuffs. José noticed the badge on one man’s belt and guessed it was immigration enforcement, or “la migra.”

After being put in the back of a car, José was driven to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office in St. Louis, 180 miles west on the other side of the Mississippi River. He said that one of the worst parts of the experience was not receiving anything to eat during the first 24 hours he was in ICE custody. It was “very difficult,” José said in an interview with Truthout. He currently has a deportation case pending, so he asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect his identity.

Much like the earlier program, ICE is still going after people with relatively minor charges.

Stories like José’s have become increasingly common since the beginning of the new Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). There was the recent announcement that ICE would be conducting a series of raids to begin in the first days of 2016 to target the thousands of families from Central America seeking refuge in the United States. But this was only the most visible campaign in the recent shift of policy.

Over the last year, the Obama administration has quietly stepped up efforts to stem immigration. The PEP is to replace the much-maligned Secure Communities policy, in which ICE was going after undocumented immigrants for minor offenses. Under the slogan “felons not families,” Obama said his administration is now going after those who have broken immigration laws, and “especially those who may be dangerous.”

Yet as Truthout has documented, much like the earlier program, ICE is still going after people with relatively minor charges, mostly DUIs. The wide majority are still undocumented immigrants from Mexico. In many ways, these aggressive new tactics are worse than the previous ones, and have set off a wave of fear in Latino communities. Family and friends are now asking one another if they have heard of anyone who has disappeared.

Shifting Priorities

By mid-2014, Secure Communities, the policy that won Obama the title “deporter in chief,” had become unenforceable. In an interview with Truthout, Lena Graber, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, explained how an April 2014 ruling in the case of Miranda-Olivares v. Clackamas County found holding someone on an immigration detainer, the key function of Secure Communities, to be illegal. After that case, detaining individuals for 48 hours constituted a warrantless arrest without probable cause. “Even many anti-immigrant sheriffs would not participate in Secure Communities because they could be sued,” Graber said.

Eventually, more than 350 jurisdictions – from Washington, DC, to Santa Clara County, California – refused to hold people for ICE as required by Secure Communities. My hometown, Champaign-Urbana, was one of the first to withdraw. A community organization called the Immigration Forum came together to convince the sheriff to opt out. Several studies show that many of those caught in the dragnet are charged with low-level traffic offenses.

“The Priority Enforcement Program is Secure Communities in new clothing.”

In response to the failure of Secure Communities, the Obama administration crafted PEP. On November 20, 2014, Jeh Johnson, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary, released a memo outlining guidelines for PEP. It places an emphasis on immigrants who were engaged in terrorism, participated in street gangs and had previously been apprehended for unlawful entry into the United States.

Listed under “Priority 2” are other offenses such as burglary, illegal gun possession, sexual abuse and drug trafficking, as well as more common charges like driving under the influence (DUI) and domestic violence. Most are being arrested in conjunction with these lower priorities, according to Graber. Some are even being picked up for DUIs from a decade ago. As Graber put it, “PEP is Secure Communities in new clothing.”

In fact, under PEP, ICE agents have the authorization to take even bolder actions. Now instead of just picking people up at the jail, as they did with Secure Communities, ICE is going straight to people’s front door, their place of employment or the county courthouse to find them. “We’re definitely seeing more home arrests,” Graber said.

Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago told Truthout that pushback against PEP will be much harder. ICE has done a good job of selling PEP to law enforcement, he said. Even sheriffs who had formerly been critical of Secure Communities believed PEP “strikes the right balance.” Tsao stressed that any such “entanglements” with ICE sowed apprehension and fear that “undermined any trust” between the community and local police. Fortunately, he said, Chicago’s Cook County maintains a policy of not communicating with ICE.

Immigration in the Midwest

The story of José is representative of what is happening not just at the border but also throughout the US heartland. Two hours south of Chicago, Champaign-Urbana is a typical college town with a population of around 140,000, which fluctuates during the school year with the large student body at the University of Illinois. There is a growing Latino community, many of whom have gained US citizenship, and some who remain undocumented, although how many is hard to know. The large number of international students drives up the census figures of those designated as foreign born.

Latino immigrants clean hotel rooms, mow lawns and cook in restaurant kitchens. Some come as seasonal workers who toil in the cornfields managed by multinational agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).

This policy is spreading fear and anxiety in Latino communities, and ultimately separating children from their parents.

Because students drive up the cost of housing, many local immigrants like José live in trailer parks on the outskirts of the city. They also reside in small, economically depressed towns like Rantoul, just 20 miles from Champaign-Urbana, where the immigrant population has tripled in the last 15 years. Many work at the local pork plant, Rantoul Foods. Empty barracks and an abandoned hospital at a closed Air Force base provide housing. Some have been here long enough to save up for a house, which can be purchased for as cheaply as $40,000.

There are similar rural towns throughout the Midwest with large immigrant populations like Beardstown, Illinois, in the western region of the state. In 2007, the pork plant there was the site of an ICE raid that netted dozens of undocumented immigrants, one of many workplace raids at the time that made national headlines.

José first came to Champaign-Urbana from Mexico some 20 years ago and has never sought to gain citizenship. He has easily found work and been willing to labor long hours to provide for his family. José has two children, both of whom were born in the United States and attend local public schools. In the past year, José was arrested after police were called for a minor domestic incident involving one of his teenage children. He paid his fines and has been dutifully attending anger management classes. But his arrest put him on ICE’s radar.

Jail Town

After spending three days in a jail cell in St. Louis, José had a hearing over a video screen with a judge in Kansas City, Missouri, who set his bond at $10,000. Customarily a person must post 10 percent of their bond, but in a federal immigration case, José had to pay the full amount.

José was then sent to the Tri-County Justice and Detention Center, or “Tri-Co” as it is known, in far southern Illinois, where three of the counties are so small that they chipped in to share the costs of operating the jail, which was built in 1997. It’s located in Pulaski County, in the town of Ullin, with a population of less than 500 non-incarcerated residents, about 80 of whom work at the jail.

Many have heard of the “prison town,” but this oddity may more aptly be called a “jail town.” The counties have a few dozen people housed in the jail, and the majority of the 230 beds are rented out to ICE. The Tri-County detention center has been the subject of reported human rights abuses. For years, it was managed by the private prison company, the GEO Group, but it is currently run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The immigration crackdown has long been a bipartisan effort.

José said that inside the jail there were “many Latinos,” and several whom he talked to were there for DUIs. The expensive phone calls from the jail made it difficult for him to stay in contact with his family. It took him about a month to raise the bail before he was released. He currently has deportation proceedings against him, for which he had to spend another $5,000 to hire an attorney. Fortunately, he was able to return immediately to work after getting out of jail.

Hannah Sullivan, an attorney with the Catholic Immigration Law Project in St. Louis, has many clients in the Tri-County jail and was familiar with stories like that of José. ICE agents were driving a long way to find people, she told Truthout. They were traveling east from St. Louis throughout Illinois. “They’re going west too,” she said, into Missouri.

The Tri-County jail is part of a vast invisible network throughout the country of black sites, detention centers and private prisons. Many from Chicago are sent to the McHenry County Jail, 50 miles northwest of the city, where more than 300 immigrants are held. There is another large immigration jail to the north in Kenosha, Wisconsin. How many jails ICE operates and their locations are unknown.

Other signs indicate this is also an expanding network. There have been four attempts to build a jail to house immigrants from Chicago just over the state line in Indiana. The most recent effort came to a head at the end of 2015. When the GEO Group applied for a permit to build an 800-bed jail in Gary, Indiana, immigration activists from Chicago and the local Black Lives Matter chapter descended upon the city council and convinced the mayor to reject the bid.

Fugitive Operations

A snapshot of the population at the Tri-County jail on October 1, 2015, was obtained through a public records request. It shows that on that day 118 people were being held for ICE. As expected, a number were from Chicago, others were from Illinois prisons and many were transferred from county jails. There were also people held there who were from St. Louis, the Missouri prison system and one person from the Kansas City area. Others were transferred from Indiana, Wisconsin and Kentucky, and even one person was from Texas.

Another category of what are called “Fugitive Operations” includes a total of 26 individuals who were swept up under the new PEP mandate. In these cases, teams of ICE agents traveled hundreds of miles to knock on the front doors of wanted individuals. Of these arrests, 15 people were from Mexico, eight were from Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), and there was one each from Ecuador, Poland and Kenya. The ages ranged from 22 to 48 years old, with an average age of 35.

Of the 26 missions carried out by ICE agents, 17 were for DUIs. One person had a DUI case from as far back as 2005. Four raids were for drugs. Three were for domestic violence. One was for failing to register as a sex offender. And only one person had charges of terrorism in a case that dated back to 2008. (There are no names provided, so it is impossible to investigate the charges.) The wide majority caught up in these raids are not those named as top priorities. This massive reinvestment in the police nation-state apparatus is aimed at capturing a fictional “illegal alien,” who is “dangerous” to national security, but in reality is only spreading fear and anxiety in Latino communities, and ultimately separating children from their parents.

The Gloves Are Off

The PEP program also provides ICE with the legal authority to go after thousands of Central American families. The New Year’s ICE raids were the first public unveiling of how this new policy is implemented. PEP is Secure Communities with the gloves off.

In the first days of 2016, ICE rounded up 121 adults and children in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, and another 244 in Southern California. Subsequent deportations were reported in Boston. Some claimed ICE agents were forcing their way into homes without a warrant. One mother said an agent threatened her “not to make him mad.”

The raids were focused on those from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador seeking official refugee status. According to the DHS, some 10,000 families have arrived in the United States over the last two years. Two detention centers in Texas and one in Pennsylvania were opened to hold 1,700 refugees. In January 2016, a building at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico was opened to hold 400 children from Central America. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said there have been two flights a day sending refugees back to their countries of origin.

In the current era of mass incarceration, these raids represent what writer James Kilgore calls “The New Operation Wetback,” invoking the US government’s 1954 program to deport more than a million Latinos. Nearly half a million people are currently incarcerated in the United States on immigration violations.

University of Illinois professor of anthropology and Latino studies Gilberto Rosas, author of Barrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals of the New Frontier, said in an interview with Truthout that the reasons behind the flight of refugees from Central America were “directly tied to US foreign policy, particularly US counterinsurgency wars of the late 20th century.” These recent efforts represented “the latest intensification of militarized law enforcement, punishing immigrants, their families and their communities that reaches from the US-Mexico border deep into the interior of the United States.”

“Fuck ICE”

The raids have already been met by much resistance from immigrant advocates across the nation. In New York, activists held an “ICE-Free NYC” rally. Seven were arrested after shutting down an intersection outside of ICE offices. Others held signs that read “Fuck ICE.”

In Minneapolis, students from 12 high schools across the city staged a walkout. Samantha Compean Morales, one of the student organizers, told Fight Back News, “We are doing this walkout to show solidarity with the families that are being ripped away from each other by ICE.”

Outside the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, singer John Legend and Colombian musician Juanes performed in front of a small crowd. “Today we’re focusing on how the immigration enforcement system intersects with our mass incarceration system,” Legend said on Twitter.

In Champaign-Urbana, members of the Immigration Forum have been tracking the stories of José and others visited by ICE since the summer of 2015. They have identified more than 20 people who have been arrested. Most tell stories of ICE showing up at their front door looking for someone. ICE picked up one person at the nearby hog plant. In a couple incidents, they met people at the courthouse who were showing up for their hearings. Several have been picked up for DUIs. Representatives from the group have held workshops with concerned families in the local public schools to quell fears and teach people their rights.

Mixed Message

The Democratic candidates for president, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, immediately condemned the New Year’s raids. Twenty-two Democratic senators have signed onto a statement calling on President Obama to put a stop to them. Given that this is an election year, many in the Democratic Party are surely concerned about how the raids will impact their Latino base.

Sulma Arias at the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a national network of grassroots organizations based in Washington, DC, told Truthout the raids “send a mixed message from the [Democratic] Party that will be calling on Latinos to vote for them in this coming election cycle.” Her organization held a press conference in front of the White House calling for President Obama to end the raids.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump took credit for the raids on Twitter the day after they were announced, claiming they were “because of the pressure put on by me.”

However, placing responsibility on either one of the major US political parties fails to recognize that the immigration crackdown has long been a bipartisan effort. As Rosas observed, “While Trump and his brownshirts represent the most vile white supremacist ant-immigrant bigotry, it is the neoliberal Obama administration that has deported millions of immigrants and is holding thousands in privatized detention centers, under the cover of bureaucratic operations of power. These dynamics capture how living statelessly is living on a racialized edge of death.”

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