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Seth Freed Wessler Headshot

New York Abandons Role as Sanctuary for Immigrants

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Coauthored by Janis Rosheuvel and Seth Wessler

New York is a global city, a mash up of people from everywhere. New Yorkers like to boast that we don't care where our neighbors came from since they are an essential part of our community now. But these values are under attack. Across the world, New Yorkers are living in exile, separated from their families because this city fails to protect all its residents.

Calvin James, a 49-year-old man who immigrated from Jamaica as a child and lived in New York for most of his life, was deported several years ago as a result of a drug conviction from years earlier. He was a green card holder and a decades-long New Yorker.

James' deportation served as a wrecking ball for his family. His long time partner and their 11-year-old son now struggle on the edge of homelessness, having lost a second income to support the family. James' son misses his father terribly and James longs to be back with him, to teach his only child how to become a young man.

In Jamaica, James is saddled with constant loneliness and confronted by a debilitating social stigma towards people who have been deported. This stigma makes securing stable work a challenge and many in similar situations find themselves sleeping under bridges with nobody to turn to in a country they have not set foot in for years.

An insidious collaboration between the New York City Department of Corrections and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does this to families. Recent reports find around 3,200 people are placed into deportation proceedings each year from Riker's Island jail and many more are deported from other prisons and jails. While New York City purports a hands-off approach to immigration, non-citizens who come into contact with the criminal justice system know a different reality. ICE agents at Rikers regularly deceive people they suspect of not being citizens and rope them into the deportation system by violating their legal and human rights.

This policy is wreaking havoc on families of color in the city because people of color are overrepresented in rates of arrest and incarceration, the victims of unjust sentencing laws and racial profiling. Immigrants of color are pounded by a kind of de-facto double jeopardy: incarceration followed by deportation. In neighborhoods all over the city, families like James' are missing parents, partners and children after being torn apart and thrust into emotional and financial chaos.

Last year about 360,000 people were deported from the United States, nearly 100,000 deportations resulting from past criminal convictions, mostly for low-level non-violent convictions. It's a mockery of justice that someone can be punished twice for the same crime.

Across the country, local law enforcement have chosen to enforce immigration law or allow immigration agents into their jurisdictions. But many public officials are realizing that making local cops enforce immigration law or allowing federal immigration agents access to their jails undermines community policing efforts and makes us all less safe. In New York, the forthcoming Secure Communities program ostensibly targeting violent criminals has elsewhere trapped immigrants arrested for minor charges. Even a recent report by incoming NYC Corrections Commissioner and former ICE Policy Director Doris Schiro has highlighted the ineffectiveness of these programs.

The federal government is slowly starting to realize that devolution of immigration enforcement has its dangers. The Obama administration recently stripped the infamous Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio of his contract with ICE because Arpaio engaged in explicit abuse and racial profiling of immigrants.

New York claims status as a "sanctuary" city, enabling people to report crimes without fear of punishment or deportation. Allowing ICE into its jails is a violation of this policy. Schiro must urgently implement the demands of Immigration Out of Rikers, a city wide coalition pushing to kick ICE out of the facility. A key first step would be to refuse ICE access to the two-thirds of Rikers detainees who are pre-trial. Letting immigration agents into city jails means that many families end up being needlessly ripped apart.

Calvin James' son put it this way: "[H]ere they talk about family values and stuff, but look what they're doing to people's lives." New York owes it to this 11-year-old and every other child to live up to the image we have of ourselves: a city that takes care of it's own, regardless of where they come from.

Janis Rosheuvel is an Organizer and the Executive Director of Families for Freedom. Seth Wessler, a writer and Research Associate with Applied Research Center, coauthored a ColorLines magazine investigative series on families torn apart by deportation from New York to Jamaica. The just released Torn Apart series is available at http://www.colorlines.com.