Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

MIGRATION-US: Profiling Persists Despite Revamped Guidelines

Valeria Fernández

MESA. Arizona, Jul 30 2009 (IPS) - A three-day widely publicised immigration raid by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office left the city of Mesa like a ghost town. Small businesses closed. Workers stayed home to avoid being pulled over and questioned for documents.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a recent press conference.  Credit: Valeria Fernández/IPS

Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a recent press conference. Credit: Valeria Fernández/IPS

“There was panic and fear,” said Magdalena Schwartz, a pastor at the Disciples of the Kingdom Free Methodist Church in Mesa, who received numerous calls from residents.

“Children are afraid of being separated from their parents,” she added.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has the largest police force in the nation deputised to enforce U.S. immigration laws. His raids in mostly Latino neighbourhoods have raised concerns over racial profiling – and prompted a call to end his 287(g) agreement with the federal government.

His latest controversial sweep happened weeks after Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced new guidelines to put the focus of the programme’s Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with local law enforcement on the capture of criminal immigrants.

But while some see the chances as a positive step, civil rights advocates argue they are minimal and cosmetic.

“We don’t see any new provision in the MOA directed to stop the sort of abuse and racial profiling that we see in Maricopa County, and that’s disappointing and disturbing,” said Omar Jadwat, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Immigrants’ Rights Project.

The ACLU performed a side-by-side comparison of the old MOA with the new one through a public records request and found minimal changes.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claims one of the most significant changes to the guidelines is that participating agencies would have to focus on the arrest of immigrants who committed serious crimes.

The new MOA includes three levels of “priorities” for suspected criminals. The highest level includes murderers and kidnappers. But it doesn’t say the police can’t arrest the low priority suspects, said Jadwat.

Civil rights activists are not the only ones concerned with the changes. Arpaio himself said he was “angry”, for quite different reasons.

If the new rules were to be applied strictly, he might not be able to arrest immigrants just for being in the country illegally. And that’s what he has mostly done.

It is estimated that 500,000 undocumented immigrants reside in Arizona.

During the past two years, he detained 258 undocumented immigrants in raids. Of those, 119 had committed a crime or civil offence and 110 were turned over to ICE because they were in the country illegally.

He has 90 days to decide whether or not he wants to sign a reviewed agreement under the new guidelines.

But he claimed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is already changing the game plan. He protested during the recent raid in Mesa, when one of his deputies was allegedly told by ICE to release three migrants. The men were illegally in the country and were passengers in vehicles pulled over for minor traffic infractions.

Tensions between Arpaio’s office and ICE became clear when DHS said his officers were never told to release the migrants, but rather were given the choice to question them.

“It’s sad that all at once you arrest people or detain them and then have to release them on the streets. It makes me angry to have to do that, knowing that these people are criminals and committed an offence by coming across the border illegally,” Arpaio said during a press conference.

Not everybody in law enforcement sides with Arpaio.

A report released in May by the nonpartisan Police Foundation criticised the 287(g) programme from diverting police resources for fighting crime and creating mistrust between officers and the immigrant communities they serve.

In Maricopa, Arpaio’s immigration sweeps have created the perception that other local police agencies will deport a migrant upon being contacted, even when the person is the victim of a crime.

“We don’t want any trouble. Calling the police is like expecting to be deported,” said Jesús Aguilar Saenz, an undocumented immigrant. “If you see something wrong, you rather shush about it.”

Arizona has some of the toughest policies in the nation regarding immigration. They include an employer sanctions law against companies that knowingly hire undocumented labour, which has been used as grounds to conduct workplace immigration raids.

“Arpaio doesn’t need 287(g) to arrest people. The Arizona criminal code has changed so drastically that he’s above and beyond the control of Napolitano,” said Aarti Shahani, a researcher with Justice Strategies and lead author of the report “Local Democracy on ICE”.

In the report, Shahani says police have been using immigration powers to go after corn-vendors and traffic violators without probable cause.

She believes it is clear the police don’t need immigration powers to go after criminals. But some agencies like Arpaio’s want them so they have the ability to detain someone who enters the country illegally but committed no other offence.

The bottom line for some immigrant activists is that the 287(g) programme needs to end. And the failure of the federal government to put an end to it reflects poorly on President Barack Obama’s promise to approve comprehensive immigration reform, they contend.

“If [Napolitano] wants to show good faith, she should have suspended the agreement [in Maricopa],” said Salvador Reza, a member of PUENTE a local pro-immigrant movement that opposes 287(g).

“Unless they implement immigration reform that works, what is going on right now is going to keep on dividing our families,” said Reza.

The 287(g) programme is named after a section of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 allowing the federal government to deputise local law enforcement officers and jailers as immigration agents. Currently, 66 enforcement agencies in the nation have signed such agreements.

The recent changes announced by DHS respond directly to criticism of the programme in a March Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit of 29 agencies that have 287(g) agreements.

In the report, the GAO said that four local law enforcements agencies were arresting immigrants for minor violations like speeding, contrary to the objective of the programme.

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