By William Fisher
A fast-growing program touted by the Obama Administration has led to thousands of US citizens being arrested and detained, separated from their children, held without bond or access to a lawyer, and without any kind of court hearing.
According to a new report, that describes the majority of people arrested under the so-called “Secure Communities” program conducted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in association with local law enforcement throughout the country.
When S-Comm, as it has become known, was introduced, its stated objective was to arrest and deport “the worst of the worst” among people in this country illegally – murderers, rapists, sexual predators, and so forth. But today more than half the people caught in the grip of ICE’s cold hand have been arrested for such crimes as a broken tail light, driving without a license, overstaying a visitor’s visa. And many of them are bona fide US citizens caught up in the paperchase of a quota-driven bureaucracy.
The report, “Secure Communities by the Numbers: An Analysis of Demographics and Due Process,” was released by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law & Social Policy at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Its authors say it is a “first-ever in-depth analysis of Secure Communities data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.”
Secure Communities relies on local law enforcement to target noncitizens for deportation. Fingerprints from individuals booked into local jails—many on minor infractions—are sent to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for an immigration check, triggering arrests. This has transformed the enforcement landscape by allowing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to effectively run federal immigration checks on everyone booked into a local jail.
“The results are disturbing because they point to a system that is funneling
people towards deportation without due process. Based on our findings, we
recommend that the Department of Homeland Security suspend the program until the government addresses the issues we identify, particularly wrongful U.S. citizen arrests, potential racial profiling, and lack of discretion in detention,” said Aarti Kohli, director of immigration policy at the Warren Institute and lead author of the report.
Lisa Chavez, Senior Research Associate at the Warren Institute and a co-author adds, “We had unprecedented access to federal data on ICE arrests, detentions, and deportations of people who are pulled in through Secure Communities. By following the numbers, we were able to construct a picture of who is being arrested and what happens to them after their immigration arrest.”
Key findings include:
• Approximately 3,600 United States citizens have been arrested by ICE through the Secure Communities program even though citizens, by definition, should not be subject to immigration detention;
• Approximately 88,000 families containing U.S. citizens have been affected by Secure Communities through the immigration arrest of a family member;
• Latinos comprise 93% of individuals arrested through Secure Communities though they only comprise 77% of the undocumented population in the United States;
• Only 52% of individuals arrested through Secure Communities were slated to appear before an immigration judge;
• Only 24% of the individuals arrested through Secure Communities who did have an immigration hearing were represented by an attorney. By contrast, 40% of all immigration court respondents have counsel;
• Only 2% of non-citizens arrested through Secure Communities are granted relief from deportation by an immigration judge. By contrast, 14% of all immigration court respondents are granted relief;
• A large majority (83%) of people arrested through Secure Communities is held in ICE detention as compared with an overall DHS immigration detention rate of 62%. ICE does not appear to be exercising discretion when deciding whether or not to detain Secure Communities arrestees.
“The wrongful arrest of thousands of U.S. citizens demonstrates that, too often, ICE’s protocol is arrest first, investigate second. This flies in the face of the Constitution. With these numbers finally public, ICE must confront the deep flaws in the program that have led to these wrongful arrests and to the disproportionate targeting of young Latino men,” said professor Peter L. Markowitz, director of the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic at Cardozo School of Law, a co-author of the report.
Cecilia Muñoz, Obama’s top adviser on immigration issues told FRONTLINE correspondent Maria Hinojosa why the administration plans to keep detaining and deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants: Secure Communities is a high-tech information-sharing program between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement.
But FRONTLINE says critics, including three Democratic state governors, say the program is detaining and deporting low-level offenders or people without criminal records, contrary to the administration’s stated goal of deporting only “aliens who are convicted of a serious criminal offense.”
Muñoz told FRONTLINE the adjustments she refers to include a recent Department of Homeland Security [DHS] prosecutorial discretion memo aimed at giving ICE guidance about who to detain and deport, and a promise to review 300,000 pending deportation cases to identify people who have lived in the U.S. for years without committing crimes.
The data of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s Secure Communities program was obtained through partial settlement of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Cardozo law school’s Immigration Justice Clinic and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON).
“The government’s own data has consistently shown that most of the people
impacted by this program have no criminal record or are low-level offenders. To lock these people up in detention centers without access to attorneys or an opportunity to see a judge is undemocratic,” said Kohli.
The report makes a number of recommendations, including: increasing transparency of the program; adding safeguards to prevent U.S. citizen arrests; investigating the evidence of racial profiling of Latinos; providing access to government-appointed legal counsel; and suspending the program until these recommendations are addressed.
“The Warren Institute study demonstrates how deeply U.S. citizens’ own rights have been eroded in the name of immigration enforcement. The Obama administration should treat this study as the final nail in the coffin of a program that should have been buried long ago,” explains Sarahi Uribe, Organizer for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
Said CCR attorney Sunita Patel, “This new report further confirms what we know from the damning records released through our lawsuit and the experience of immigrant communities. Secure Communities has been and will always be a dangerously flawed program. The Obama Administration must disconnect immigration enforcement from law enforcement. The results of merging the two systems are erosion of public safety and civil rights.”
The S-Comm program was also the subject of a penetrating investigation of, among other abuses, sexual harassment in immigration detention facilities.
The PBS program claimed that illegal immigrants held in US immigration detention facilities filed more than 170 allegations of sexual abuse over the last four years, mostly against guards and other staff at the centers, according to government documents obtained by FRONTLINE and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU says documents it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provide a first-ever window into the breadth of the national problem of sexual abuse of detainees in immigration detention facilities. The ACLU made information from the documents public in concert with the filing by the ACLU of Texas of a federal class action damages lawsuit on behalf of three immigrant women who were sexually assaulted while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, along with numerous others who experienced similar trauma.
Government documents obtained by the ACLU contain nearly 200 allegations of sexual abuse of immigration detainees jailed at detention facilities across the nation since 2007.
The documents were obtained from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and ICE. While the information gleaned from the documents likely does not represent the full scope of the problem given that sexual abuse is notoriously underreported, the documents nonetheless make clear that the sexual abuse of immigration detainees is not an isolated problem limited to a few rogue facilities or the result of a handful of bad apple government contractors who staff some of the nation’s immigration jails.
According to the documents, while facilities in Texas are the focus of more allegations by far than any other state, sexual abuse allegations have come from nearly every state in the nation that houses an immigration detention facility, FRONTLINE reported..
“It is clear there is an urgent need for the government to recognize just how pervasive a problem the sexual abuse of immigration detainees is and take immediate steps to fix the problem and ensure that everyone in the government’s care is protected,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “The detainees in immigration detention are a particularly vulnerable population. Even one incident of sexual abuse is one too many.”
Defendants named in the in the ACLU of Texas lawsuit include three ICE officials; Williamson County, Texas; Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison company that manages the Hutto facility; the former facility administrator for Hutto; and Donald Dunn, a guard who pleaded guilty in state court to three counts of official oppression and two counts of unlawful restraint based on his assaults of five women. Separately, Dunn has been charged with four additional federal counts of criminal violation of civil rights and is awaiting sentencing on two of them.
The FRONTLINE investigation found no evidence that the vast majority of complaints had been investigated or resolved. Most of the complaints went through the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s (IG)Office, which is the primary office responsible for investigating outside complaints. IG records show only 15 “reports of investigation,” which resulted in six substantiated or partially substantiated cases. Two guards were convicted of sexual abuse; three others have been terminated from their positions.
The documents, together with interviews of dozens of detainees, employees, investigators and officials, present a portrait of detainees with few effective recourses if they are victims of crimes while in detention. Many say they face continuous pressure to sign deportation orders. And unlike in the criminal justice system, immigration detainees do not have a guaranteed right of legal representation, and so have difficulty with access to counsel if they have a grievance.
A former mental health coordinator at Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas, told FRONTLINE that officials attempted to cover up complaints of sexual abuse, which she described as common among female detainees. The coordinator said she later resigned because of the treatment of detainees at the facility.
FRONTLINE has made repeated requests to DHS to review complaints and the department’s process of investigating sexual abuse allegations. Officials declined to comment.
“Who’s Going to Believe You?”
In 2009, a Canadian immigrant living in Florida was pulled over during a routine traffic stop. When the officer typed her name into his computer, a 10-year-old outstanding warrant for a $230 bounced check from Wal-Mart popped up. The bounced check, combined with her undocumented status, led to her detention.
The woman, whose identity FRONTLINE is withholding because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault, agreed to be interviewed under the name “Mary.”
She said that when she was taken into custody she left her four young children, all U.S. citizens, in the care of a relative. After a local sheriff’s deputy drove her to jail, the authorities notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Mary was sent to Willacy. She said that when she arrived, a fellow detainee warned her that another female detainee had been raped by a male guard. Mary, who had never been behind bars, didn’t know what to believe.“This is the government. The U.S. government,” she remembered thinking. Mary said she tried to keep quiet at Willacy. She took trips to the law library to escape the dorm and work on an appeal of her deportation case.
A male guard first approached her in the library, she told FRONTLINE.“He would talk to me nicely, and ask me questions, where I’m from, and say] ‘Oh, you’re beautiful,’” she recalled.
During subsequent trips to the library, he made her uncomfortable, but she said she was too afraid to say anything. On the third encounter the guard touched her, Mary said. “He came up, and he started holding my hands, and he kissed me. I said ‘You shouldn’t be doing that. … I don’t like what you’re doing.’”
“I can help you get out of here,” the guard replied.
Mary says she pushed him away, and said she was going to report him. Who are you going to tell?” he responded. Mary said she felt alone, and didn’t tell anyone what happened. “Who’s going to listen to you?” she explained. “Who’s going to believe you?
You’re criminals. You’re a detainee. Who are you going to go complain to?”
A short time later, Mary said, the guard sexually assaulted her. She said he approached, saying, “I love big-breasted women.” She said he placed his hands in her pants, penetrated her with his fingers. Mary said she pushed him away and that the guard told her, “If you tell anyone, you wouldn’t come out of here alive to see your family.”
According to the 170 records examined by FRONTLINE, Willacy Detention Center garnered more complaints of sexual abuse than any other facility.The program said “MTC also received more than 900 grievances filed by detainees in its own internal grievance process, according to a 2009 audit by Creative Corrections, a company contracted by ICE to perform the audit. Of the 900, four grievances were resolved in favor of the detainee. There is no indication as to what the grievances were about or whether any of these were forwarded to oversight agencies in Washington, D.C.
The audit found 49 physical assault incidents at Willacy, but contained no details about the assaults or who was involved. None of the assaults was classified as sexual.
At the same time, MoveOn.org has also taken on a major immigration-related issue. The organization said, “ Jim Crow-style, state-sanctioned racism has returned to Alabama. Governor Robert Bentley and his allies recently enacted HB56, the nation's most draconian anti-immigrant law.”
The organization said the law is scaring businesses, citizens, and immigrant families alike. Sheila Hodges, a business owner in southwest Alabama, said that 30% of her employees have left the state because they are "scared" of enforcement of the new law, even though they carry documentation.
Moveon says that families in Allgood, AL, are in danger of losing water service for being suspected of having undocumented immigrants in their household.
Most heinously, the group says, there have been reports of police patrols driving around Latino neighborhoods like the one Isobel Gomez lives in near Birmingham that have her and other residents afraid to even go outside.
Immigrants and citizens in Alabama are standing up to fight against this discrimination. State Senator Billy Beasley has filed a bill to repeal this law. The U.S. Department of Justice has even stepped in to block parts of the law.
Moveon says, “Support from inside and outside Alabama will strengthen Sen. Beasley's and other local organizing efforts to repeal the entire law and bring relief to everyone impacted. Sen. Beasley said that one of the reasons he wants HB56 repealed is because ‘many folks didn't realize it would have such an impact.’”
The editor of Immigration Daily writes: “ICE announced that it deported nearly 400,000 people in Fiscal Year 2011 setting an all-time record. It is difficult to figure out exactly how many of the 400,000 were deported solely due to immigration violations, and how many due to criminal violations unrelated to immigration issues. 45% of those deported had only civil immigration offenses.
“It is unclear how large a percentage of the remaining 55% of felonies or misdemeanors were immigration-related. We look forward to the clarification of the breakdown of these numbers, to see if and to what extent the numbers conform to or depart from the stated enforcement priorities of the Obama administration.”