LIRS is deeply concerned about state and local law enforcement participation in interpreting and enforcing federal immigration laws. “LIRS supports and promotes welcoming communities across the United States,” said Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO. “However, we have heard countless stories from Lutherans, migrants, and other partners who express profound concern that the increased involvement of state and local police in immigration issues is gravely undermining the spirit of welcome in this nation and local communities.” The following are a number of examples of problems that arise when state and local law enforcement assume a role in the immigration enforcement system.
Prolonged Detention of Vulnerable Migrants
In May 2007, local police in Pennsylvania stopped Mark, a migrant from the Caribbean, while he was walking home and then arrested him on the suspicion that the passport he provided as identification was fraudulent. The local judge denied him the opportunity to pay his bond because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had issued an immigration detainer, a federal request to notify DHS prior to releasing non-citizens from local custody. Mark recalls, “I saw immigration officers regularly coming to the jail, but for four months, no one came to speak with me. I didn’t understand how they could put a detainer on me without coming and talking with me first.” He remained in jail for six months, through November 2007, until his passport was finally authenticated. After the charges were dropped, local police misinterpreted the federal detainer policy. To allow DHS time to assume custody of non-citizens, state and local police are not permitted to hold them for more than an additional 48 hours (not counting weekends). If DHS does not take them into custody within 48 hours, police are required to release them. Mark was held for several weeks before being transferred to DHS custody.
LIRS learned about Mark’s case through our Detained Torture Survivor Legal Support Network, a national network of local non-profit organizations working to assist detained victims of torture. Mark came to the United States because he had been tortured in his home country for his alleged allegiance with a political organization and his attempts to expose crimes committed by powerful people.
Recognizing that he could be deported and face further torture, even death, Mark expressed fear of being returned to his home country. His case was referred to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for adjudication. In spring 2010, DOJ granted him with Withholding of Removal under the Convention Against Torture, legal protection that ensures he will not be deported back to his home country. Finally, nearly three years after being picked up by local police, DHS released him from custody.
Diversion of Resources Away from Real Crimes
Irma Bañales, a U.S. citizen and Director for Hispanic-Latino Ministries of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), was on a road trip with her daughter when an Arizona sheriff pulled her over. The sheriff alleged that she was following another vehicle too closely. He interrogated her about whether she was transporting drugs, money or arms, asked for her Social Security number, and searched the car. Rev. Kevin S. Kanouse, bishop of the ELCA Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, questioned, “For half an hour or longer, a completely innocent woman and her daughter were intimidated in the hot Arizona sun on the side of the road by a police officer … And for what reason?” Ms. Bañales and her daughter, both U.S. citizens, felt humiliated, violated, and frightened by the experience.
Erosion of Community Trust and Safety
In late 2006, the Newark, New Jersey City Council approved a resolution that prevents police agencies from asking community residents who have not been arrested to prove their immigration status. Rev. Maristela Freiberg, a member of the ELCA New Jersey Synod’s immigration task force, has cited Newark’s community policing policy as a positive step towards improving the relationship between local police and migrant residents.
Secure Communities, a federal program which requires local police jurisdictions to help identify serious convicted non-citizen criminals, is being expanded very rapidly. DHS expects that it will be in all jurisdictions by 2013. The program has been criticized because a large number of immigrants detained under the program are arrested but never charged or are charged with minor infractions.
“Thanks to our current policies in Newark, if immigrants are robbed or violated or are witnesses to crimes, they can feel free to come forward to report those crimes,” Rev. Freiberg added. “However, if Secure Communities is implemented here in Newark, immigrant victims or witnesses will not want to report crimes to law enforcement because they think it could jeopardize their ability to remain in the United States. This program would create a chilling effect and undermine the community trust and safety we have built over the last few years.”
Bjorn Peterson, a member of the Lutheran young adult movement, the 99 Collective, regularly visits the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington to provide ministry to detained immigrants and their families. Mr. Peterson knows a migrant woman whose husband was recently deported. Although she has legal status in the United States, she is fearful that she could also be deported. “Even if she were to witness a crime, she says that she would not call the police – even the fire department,” said Mr. Peterson. “Further collaboration between immigration authorities and local law enforcement would erode community trust and exacerbate fears.” If criminals know that they exploit communities because immigrants are too afraid to report crimes, all community members are at risk.
When state and local law enforcement dedicate their limited time and personnel to immigration enforcement, resources are diverted away from fighting more serious crimes, community trust and safety are undermined, and vulnerable migrants are at risk of being unnecessarily swept up into detention. Instead of committing state and local resources to interrogate, arrest and detain more and more migrants, state and local leaders should seek compassionate and innovative ways to help build welcome for migrants and work with policymakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
LIRS welcomes refugees and migrants on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. LIRS nationally recognized for its leadership advocating with refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, immigrants in detention, families fractured by migration, and other vulnerable populations and provides services to migrants through over 60 grassroots legal and social service partners.
If you have questions about this statement, please contact Eric B. Sigmon, LIRS Director for LIRS Advocacy, at 202/626-7943 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read the April 25, 2011 Los Angeles Times article on the case of an immigrant victim of abuse who was detained by local police through the Secure Communities program, click here: http://lat.ms/f86CFs.
To read an LIRS statement on the ethical imperative for comprehensive immigration reform, click here: http://bit.ly/hrRtzv.
To read a DOJ resource about immigration relief and protections based on fear of persecution and torture, click here: http://1.usa.gov/mqYxUN.
To read an Immigration Policy Center resource on immigration detainers, click here: http://bit.ly/9MpDG9.
To read a Migration Policy Institute report on state and local immigration enforcement, click here: http://bit.ly/esVyq5.