Driving While Latino

For immigrant communities, every instance behind the wheel becomes an opportunity for scrutiny at the hands of law enforcement.
09/29/2016 11:12 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

Co-authored with Mat Coleman and Sarah Horton (bios below)

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

After dropping his children off at school one morning in 2011, Marcelino was pulled over less than a mile from his home in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, allegedly for rolling through a stop sign. Undocumented, he was unable to produce a driver’s license, so he was arrested and taken to the Cobb County jail. Once in custody he was handed over to federal immigration authorities. After spending three months in detention, he was deported to Mexico and hasn’t seen his family since.

His wife, Lorena, who remains in Atlanta, is terrified every time she gets behind the wheel. She says all she can do when she walks out the door is put her trust in God. “It’s our only recourse; the only license we carry. If I’m ever stopped by the police and asked for my license, I’ll tell them I only have God’s license (solamente la de Dios), which is the most important one. There’s no other.”

The 1996 passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), which created statute 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, laid the foundation for a new era of immigration enforcement in the United States. By enabling state and local police to investigate, arrest and detain any noncitizen they believe has violated immigration laws—a responsibility previously reserved for federal immigration authorities alone—287(g) effectively shifted the landscape of U.S. immigration enforcement from our nation’s borders to its heartland. This has created a gauntlet of immigrant policing that stretches across the country and operates through the intensified surveillance of immigrants as they go about their daily lives.

Interestingly, the 287(g) statute was largely ignored until September 11, 2001, when immigration control became synonymous with national security. Over the next decade, police and sheriffs across the country signed on to the 287(g) program, and by 2008 a second initiative, Secure Communities, had been crafted in its image to expand immigrant policing. Combined, these two programs contributed to the detention and deportation of over 2 million people between 2001 and 2010—roughly the same number registered in the preceding 107 years.

Over the same time period most states across the country, in a thinly-veiled attempt to criminalize unauthorized immigrants at the state level, made it impossible for undocumented individuals to obtain licenses. Many states—including Georgia, where Marcelino and Lorena lived—made driving without a license an arrestable offense, and in some cases, a felony.

As the opening story attests, the interior policing of immigrant communities through programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities relies on traffic enforcement as the principal means through which to ask about immigration status, and driving has become a high-stakes gamble for undocumented people. Yet most immigrants—like most “Americans”—are compelled to drive on a daily basis in order to work, care for their children, keep up their households, and engage in leisure activities. As a result, getting pulled over for a minor traffic or equipment violation—rolling through a stop sign; driving with a broken taillight—now routinely results in the detention and deportation of undocumented drivers.

What’s more, the evidence unequivocally shows that enlisting local police as immigration agents opens the door to racial profiling. A 2011 Department of Justice investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office found it engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional stops after entering into a 287(g) agreement with DHS. It found that Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies used the program to routinely conduct “sweeps” of Latino neighborhoods without probable cause, and that law enforcement officers were nine times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latino drivers in parts of the county.

Meanwhile, a separate 2012 Justice Department investigation found that sheriff’s deputies erected checkpoints strategically placed at the entrance to Latino neighborhoods in Alamance County, North Carolina, after the county signed a 287(g) agreement. And in Gwinnett and Cobb Counties in suburban Atlanta, a 2011 ACLU report found that 287(g) led to a pattern of police inventing pretexts to stop and search immigrants, in turn escalating tensions between communities of color and the police.

These cases are not outliers. While local politics and leadership ensure that 287(g) practices vary across different law enforcement agencies, racial profiling is undeniably central to non-federal immigration enforcement. For immigrant communities, every instance behind the wheel becomes an opportunity for scrutiny at the hands of law enforcement, and thus a potential occasion for detention, deportation, and life-shattering family separation. In fact, these compromised programs have resulted in the identification of millions of individuals as deportable, though the vast majority have not committed a serious crime.

IIRAIRA’s 287(g) program and its successors (Secure Communities and, by 2015, the Priority Enforcement Program), are not only the flywheel in the U.S. deportation machine, but a mechanism of social control that is driving people deeper and deeper into the shadows.

The overhaul of IIRAIRA must be a cornerstone of the movement to reform our immigration system and provide undocumented immigrants with a pathway to legalization—a proposal that continues to enjoy great public support. To restore fairness and humanity to our immigration system, join the Fix ’96 campaign today.

Angela Stuesse is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South.

Mat Coleman is Associate Professor of Geography at The Ohio State University and has written extensively about 287(g) and interior immigration enforcement.

Sarah Horton is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Denver and author of They Leave their Kidneys in the Fields: Illness, Injury, and Illegality among U.S. Farmworkers.

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