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Azadeh Shahshahani

Azadeh Shahshahani

Posted: May 7, 2010 09:29 AM

ICE's Misplaced Priorities: The Numbers Speak for Themselves and the Stories Cry out for Justice

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This past Wednesday, Jessica Colotl was released from the Etowah Detention Center in Alabama and allowed to reunite with her family back in Cobb County, Georgia. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has granted Jessica deferred action on her deportation case.

Jessica is a 21-year-old smart hard working student at Kennesaw State who has worked nights in order to pay her tuition. She hopes to become a lawyer after graduating in the fall.

So why was Jessica at a detention center all the way in Alabama in the first place? A few weeks ago, as Jessica pulled into her university parking lot, a campus police officer pulled her over, telling her that she was "impeding the flow of traffic." She could not produce a driver's license due to her undocumented status and eventually ended up at the Cobb County jail. This is when 287(g) kicked in. Per an agreement between Cobb County and ICE, some Cobb sheriff deputies have been granted certain enforcement powers of an immigration officer. Jessica was placed in deportation proceedings. Before long, she found herself behind bars at the Alabama detention center, awaiting deportation to Mexico, a country she has not lived in for over 10 years and which she hardly remembers. Jessica was only released after strongly voiced and sustained demands by the community, including her sorority sisters, and after the ACLU contacted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) headquarters on her behalf.

Is it unusual for ICE and the localities to waste limited resources meant for targeting perpetrators of the most dangerous crimes by going after individuals with great potential like Jessica?

Unfortunately not. Jessica is just one of the untold numbers of hard-working people who get caught up in the local immigration enforcement programs, including 287(g). In a sense, Jessica's case is very unusual, as she actually won respite (albeit temporary) from deportation. Most people in her situation, faced with prolonged detention at a jail, oftentimes isolated and hours away from their families, opt to give up their immigration case and are subsequently deported.

An ACLU of Georgia report released in October 2009 recounted stories of 10 community members in Cobb and their families impacted by 287(g). As documented by the report entitled, "Terror and Isolation in Cobb: How Unchecked Police Power under 287(g) had Torn Families Apart and Threatened Public Safety," mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters are torn apart from their families every day in Cobb County, many with little recourse.

In one case, a husband and father was pulled over for "an incomplete stop" on the way to the bank. Angel subsequently ended up at the Stewart Detention Center. He left behind his wife Sharon, an American citizen who is physically disabled and who "depended on [her] husband for everything." Sharon and Angel had to "celebrate" their 7-year wedding anniversary apart; their only means of contact was a phone call by Angel from the Stewart Detention Center.

In Cobb, immigrants disappear into detention for violations such as a broken tail light or tinted windows on their car. In 2008, Cobb County turned over 3,180 detainees to ICE for deportation. Of those, 2,180, about 69 percent, were arrested for traffic violations.

But you don't only have to rely on the ACLU of Georgia report to believe there is something wrong with this picture. A Government Accountability Office investigation of 287(g) released in January 2009 found that ICE was not exercising proper oversight over local or state agencies. And a report released in March 2010 by the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) documents significant lapses in 287(g) priorities and oversight. ICE claims that 287(g)'s mandate is to focus on non-citizens who pose a threat to national security or are dangers to the community. But less than 10 percent of those sampled by OIG were ICE "Level 1" offenders. Almost half had no involvement in crimes of violence, drug offenses, or property crimes.

This trend of misplaced priorities is shared by other ICE local enforcement programs.

Last week, a piece appeared by John Morton, the head of ICE, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution as well as other papers around the country defending the "Secure Communities" initiative through which arrestees' fingerprints are checked against DHS databases with information about civil immigration history, rather than just against FBI criminal databases. Morton claims that his agency is prioritizing perpetrators of dangerous crimes for deportation.

Morton's strongest rebuttal is his own numbers. According to the data ICE released in November 2009, out of 113,000 non-citizen individuals identified in the program during its first year of operation, more than 101,000, or close to 90 percent, were never charged with or convicted of dangerous crimes. "Secure Communities" is in fact designed to sweep up any foreign-born individual who is arrested by local law enforcement for any reason whatsoever, including traffic infractions, even if that person is never charged with, or convicted of, any crime at all. An alarming 5 percent of the total number of individuals identified were actually U.S. citizens, testifying to the inaccuracy and incompleteness of the federal agency databases against which fingerprints are matched.

Meanwhile, precious resources are diverted from identifying and removing perpetrators of the most dangerous crimes.

Contrary to Morton's assertion, the program is also profoundly susceptible to abuse and racial profiling, similar to the misguided 287(g) program. Any police officer or sheriff's deputy can arrest individuals simply to bring them to the attention of immigration officials. Without federal standards or oversight, this creates an unacceptably high risk of unlawful racial profiling.

The risk of racial profiling through local enforcement programs is compounded in Georgia, as there is no state legislation banning racial profiling and mandating accountability and transparency for law enforcement.

It is past time for ICE to match their rhetoric regarding priorities with action and put an immediate end to the unaccountable outsourcing of immigration enforcement functions. If the numbers weren't enough proof, Jessica's story and other accounts cry out for justice.