Washington – When 20-year-old Isaura Garcia called the 911 emergency hotline while being physically abused by her partner, she never imagined that her plea to U.S. legal authorities would lead to imprisonment and possible deportation.
Though Garcia's face was “black and blue” from repeated beatings by her boyfriend, the police – who insisted that she speak in English while explaining her plight – arrested her, held her in prison for over a week on a “felony domestic violence” charge, transferred her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), placed her in deportation proceedings, and finally released her on an electronic ankle bracelet.
Garcia's story is just one of thousands of similar tales whose inception can be traced to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operation known as Secure Communities (S-Comm), a programme that is now being challenged at the national level.
On Tuesday, a coalition of human rights defenders, including the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and the Center for Constitutional Rights, teamed up with over 18 other national and community-based organisations to make public a comprehensive report detailing the often devastating impacts of S-Comm on immigrant communities in the U.S.
Alongside testimony from victims of the programme, including horror stories like Garcia's, the report calls for immediate termination of the programme, which huge swathes of civil society have long deemed to be a failure.
“There is an overall sense within the movement for immigrant justice that S-Comm is too broken to be fixed,” Chris Newman, the legal director at NDLON, told IPS.
“It has now become obvious even to people outside the immigrant rights community – such as former District Attorney of New York Robert Morgenthau and San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey – that DHS is more interested in the politics of [these failed] programmes than they are in genuine reform of immigration policy,” he added.
Launched by ICE in 2008, S-Comm was initially marketed to the U.S. public as a voluntary programme designed to “improve and modernize the identification and removal of criminal aliens from the United States” by sending fingerprints submitted by local law enforcement agencies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for criminal background checks, and then automatically searching those fingerprints against immigration databases.
According to the new report, “If ICE determines that an individual may be deportable, it requests that the local law enforcement agency detain him or her for transfer to ICE and possible deportation.”
Critics of the operation have blasted it as an open attack on immigrants' basic civil and human rights by trapping millions of undocumented residents – most of them innocent, or guilty only of very minor offences such as traffic violations – in a dragnet that has so far expelled 115,000 immigrants from the country.
“This policy is creating an 'Arizonafication' of our country,” Newman told IPS, parroting a phrase that has been used to describe the effects of Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona, which essentially legalised racial profiling and is widely believed to be the harshest piece of anti-immigration legislature implemented in the country.
“The programme piloted in Arizona and initiated as merely an experiment [foreshadowed] the Frankenstein that S-Comm has created,” he added.
“There is a sense within the immigrant justice community – and beyond it to academics, scholars and law enforcers – that DHS simply cannot be trusted,” Newman said.
“Calling the programme 'Secure Communities' is misleading, since it actually achieves the opposite result. In fact, the whole operation has been a lie from its very inception,” he insisted.
Newman is by no means alone in his denunciation. Tuesday's report joined increasingly loud calls for an end to the programme.
Alarmed by the mandate of S-Comm to conflate local police authority with ICE's function as an immigration-regulation body, the governors of Illinois, New York and Massachusetts scrapped the programme, relying on the extensive Memoranda of Agreement (MOA) that were drafted in the initial stages of S-Comm granting states the green light to suspend their participation in the programme whenever they chose.
But last week, the Barack Obama administration “disregarded the concerns of the [immigrant community and law enforcement officials] by announcing that DHS will continue its rapid rollout of the program – without state authorization,” according to a press release by the New York Immigration Coalition.
The statement added that over one million immigrants have been deported since President Obama took office, making his deportation track record the worst in the history of the United States.
Laura Rotolo, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), responded to the rescinding of the MOA in a blog post, which stated, “overnight [S-Comm] has become a federal mandate that will turn every city and every town into a feeder into the broken immigration system, not to mention part of the burgeoning bio-metric surveillance system that targets all Americans,” adding that the DHS must be held to account for its policies.
The recent report highlights all these problems and more, such as the already frayed relationship between immigrants and law enforcement authorities made worse by a reluctance to report crimes for fear of being deported; and the impact of S-Comm on the racially biased and highly lucrative prison industrial complex.
Last week, Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, executive director of Enlace, an alliance of low-wage worker centers and community organisations in the U.S. and Mexico, stated, “DHS continues to demonstrate who it listens to – not to the millions calling for legalisation and not to taxpayers, but to the private prison companies and their investors who are bent on profiting from taxpayers by jailing immigrants.”
He added, “Over a million immigrants have been imprisoned in the last three years, costing taxpayers billions of dollars that should have been allocated for education, healthcare and other legitimate public needs instead of being spent on expensive cages for men, women and children.”
Enlace is currently partnered with unions and community groups across the country in a nationwide Prison Industry Divestment Campaign, an effort to push all public and private institutions to “divest their holdings in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, [the U.S.'s] largest private prison corporations which profit annually from billions in taxpayer money.”