Crossing State Lines and Prison Gates


Under the guise of "national security" and "public safety," the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has waged a relentless five-year assault on immigrant communities across the United States. From high-profile raids to the militarization of the border, this escalating crackdown has been amply documented. Yet little attention has been given to the growth in local and state police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—the agency of the DHS responsible for the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

DHS’s enforcement-only strategy, based on systematic repression and criminalization, has converted immigrants into one of the fastest growing prison populations in the U.S. The National Immigration Justice Center estimates that detentions spiked 400 percent from 1994 to 2006. While many arrested immigrants end up in ICE detention centers—or one of its many contract facilities of private prison firms—tens of thousands are housed in county jails across the country.

In response to widespread demand from state and local law enforcement, ICE created the Agreement of Cooperation in Communities to Enhance Safety and Security (ACCESS), an umbrella organization designed to coordinate the various programs uniting federal, state, and local agencies in the witch hunt against so-called "criminal aliens." Of the 13 enforcement programs that comprise ACCESS, there are three pillars that serve as its foundation: Delegation of Immigration Authority 287(g), the Criminal Alien Program (CAP), and the more recent Secure Communities.

Beyond providing additional detention space in their county jails, local police officers have increasingly been on the frontlines of enforcing immigration law through the 287(g) program. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 added section 287(g) to the Immigration and Nationality Act, allowing "a state and local law enforcement entity to enter into partnership with ICE…in order to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdiction." Largely inactive prior to September 11, 2001, the program, which essentially deputizes local police as ICE agents, has become one of the most popular and controversial arms of the ACCESS arsenal.

Since January 2006, ICE proudly credits the 287(g) program "with identifying more than 79,000 individuals…who are suspected of being in the country illegally." Across the nation more than 950 officers in 67 state and local law enforcement agencies have been trained and certified through the program—blurring the lines between local and federal agents.

Critics of 287(g) range from immigrants to community organizers to police chiefs. For the first two groups, the program undermines public safety by creating a climate of fear where immigrants, afraid to report crimes, are therefore more likely to become victims; where those who "look and sound" foreign are subjected to racial profiling; and where families are being torn apart as a result of deportation. For police critics, however, the main concerns are that 287(g) diverts time and resources away from policing local communities and causes immigrants not to report crimes for fear of deportation.

Adding to the atmosphere of insecurity in immigrant communities is the expansion of the Criminal Alien Program (CAP), which according to ICE, "is responsible for identifying, processing, and removing criminal aliens incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons." Under CAP, ICE agents routinely visit local jails to check the immigration status of foreign-born inmates and begin "removal proceedings" when appropriate, a process that has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of deportations over the last few years. In 2008 alone, ICE boasts of identifying and charging "more than 221,000 aliens in jails for immigration violations—more than triple the number charged three years ago."

Promoted as an initiative to deport immigrants who pose "the greatest threat to the community," CAP has produced results inconsistent with its stated goals. In January 2008 Sheriff Greg Hamilton of Travis County, Texas, which includes the city of Austin, made the decision to utilize the CAP program, arguing that it would protect the community from "individuals who could possibly be a menace to our society." From January 1 through March 31, ICE agents placed 763 "holds" on Travis County inmates—detaining individuals suspected of immigration violations for possible deportation after the original charges are adjudicated—a 400 percent increase over the same period last year. However, over 60 percent of the holds issued at Travis County through March 31 were for people whose worst offense was a misdemeanor, including traffic violations. Do these individuals pose a threat to public safety?

Despite widespread concern over CAP and 287(g), ICE unveiled a new addition to the ACCESS catalog in March 2008, a "sweeping new plan" known as the Secure Communities initiative. It uses enhanced "integration technology" to facilitate information sharing between local, state, and federal agencies.

The centerpiece of Secure Communities is an automated fingerprint-based identification system. During the routine booking process at most detention centers, officers take an individual’s fingerprints to gain information about the detainee’s criminal history. Under the new system, however, fingerprints will be automatically cross-checked with FBI and DHS databases on immigration and criminal records. If an individual’s fingerprints match those of a non-U.S. citizen, officials at ICE’s Law Enforcement Support Center are notified to take action.

Secure Communities "will create a virtual ICE presence at every local jail, allowing us to identify and ultimately remove dangerous incarcerated criminal aliens from our communities," said Julie L. Myers, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for ICE.

Currently active in 7 county jails, primarily in North Carolina and Texas, ICE plans to expand its "virtual presence" to 50 additional state and local law enforcement agencies throughout the country by next spring. For Fiscal Year 2009, ICE allotted $150 million of its nearly $6 billion budget to Secure Communities, more than any other initiative on the table.

In light of the size and strength of DHS, efforts to stem the tide of the immigration crackdown can often feel like an exercise in damage control. Public demonstrations, community forums, and know your rights trainings have all made significant inroads against ICE’s presence in communities, yet ACCESS is still expanding.

In Austin, Texas the Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defensa Laboral (PDL), a membership-based immigrant workers center, has played a critical role in the fight against ICE in the Travis County jail. However, PDL is also engaged in a variety of projects that distribute power among its members: building critical support for immigrant construction workers to address structural inequality in the industry and improve working conditions; utilizing popular education courses to develop leadership; and creating a participatory organization where priority is given to the voices and vision of immigrant workers.

Immigrants have legal rights. Groups like PDL build on this understanding to develop their analysis and ensure that the human rights of undocumented immigrants are respected, be it in the workplace, in the jails, or in society as a whole.

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Carlos Pérez de Alejo is a community organizer for the Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defensa Laboral.