Hundreds of immigrants rights advocates in Los Angeles staged a walkout during a federal task force field hearing about the Secure Communities program, blamed for the deportations of tens of thousands of non-citizens living peacefully in America. Activists implored the members of the task force to resign their post, and recommend that the Obama Administration end Secure Communities, before exiting the meeting to a chant of “we don’t need a hearing, we need to end the program.”
First, some backstory on an issue that is roiling through Latino communities, but which has not received the same scrutiny elsewhere. Secure Communities (S-Comm) is a federal/local partnership that has local law enforcement send fingerprint information on individuals they arrest to federal immigration officials, who crosscheck them against their records. The Department of Homeland Security and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement claim that S-Comm is a valuable tool in the deportation of violent criminals. However, undocumented immigrants have been deported through S-Comm for trivial offenses like parking tickets, driving without a license, participating in protests or even merely reporting crimes to authorities. Estimates are that over half of the deportations from S-Comm are of undocumenteds with no convictions or misdemeanors. Marissa Graciosa, spokesperson for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), said in a statement that “As a result of Secure Communities, immigrants are afraid to report crimes committed against them for fear of being deported. The program creates a wedge between local law enforcement and people they are trying to protect.”
The program is up and running in 44 states, with the goal of all 50 states by 2013. Multiple states, including Illinois, New York and Massachusetts, have tried to opt out of the program, part of the Obama Administration’s deportation strategy, which has removed a record 400,000 immigrants a year from the country (approximately 11,774 have been removed from Los Angeles County through S-Comm). They would prefer not to have their local law enforcement officials turned into ICE agents. And community activists have demanded that the program be terminated.
However, the Administration has given conflicting signals on the program. First it made it a voluntary partnership, then pronounced that communities could not opt out. After signing memoranda of understanding with dozens of communities, DHS recently tore them up. Internal memos stressing prosecutorial discretion and highlighting the goal of unification of families are simply not being implemented at ICE satellite offices. Victor Nieblas, an immigration attorney who spoke at the hearing, decried a “lack of transparency and mass confusion” around S-Comm.
As part of an effort to increase transparency, DHS set up this federal task force, led by retired Sacramento Police chief Arturo Venegas Jr., which goes around the country collecting information and listening to communities ravaged by deportations. But there is tremendous skepticism that the task force is nothing but a sounding board that will then ignore the concerns of the communities at risk. “These hearings are only a guise to appease public outrage about the Secure Communities Program. Last week ICE terminated all Memoranda of Agreement with states, clearing the way for the program to continue to expand, despite many Governors’ and Mayors’ requests to opt out of the program,” said Graciosa of FIRM.
Activists packed the hearing room in historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles, wearing and carrying signs that said “Terminate Secure Communities,” “Stop Ripping Apart Families” and “No Legalizacion, No Reeleccion” (no legalization, no re-election). Nearly all of the comments were harshly critical of S-Comm, and many were in Spanish. In particular, undocumented students took to the microphone to tell their story. Rigoberto told of his life as an undocumented student with a citizen brother, who had his mother deported through S-Comm. “My brothers were taken by a social worker, sent to foster families, I couldn’t take custody of them,” he said. “This program is unjust and unfair, it keeps separating families.”
Lieblas, the immigration attorney, told a story about a client, a young girl who found a dead body one day after work. She alerted the authorities, and the district attorney subpoenaed her for testimony. After that she was sent to ICE. “Who will want to participate with the authorities” in such an environment, Lieblas queried the task force.
Multiple aides to state and local elected officials read statements. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said that DHS misrepresented the program to electeds, and that the members of the task force should resign, and call to “end this fatally flawed program today.” An aide to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that he supported reworking or eliminating the program, and noted that the LA City Council voted to opt out of S-Comm.
Finally, after about 90 minutes of testimony, Jonathan Perez, an “undocumented and unafraid” student from San Bernardino, who earlier told of his night in an ICE holding cell after an arrest, interrupted the task force by saying, “This task force is a farce, the community has spoken, they want you to resign and to end this program.” Then he asked everyone who agreed with him to walk out of the hearing, which they promptly did. Nearly the entire crowd exited the meeting room and spilled out onto the street.
Arturo Venegas Jr. of the task force said that “I always have an option of resigning” but that the task force “has the opportunity to make a recommendation.” He decided to continue to take testimony for the duration of the meeting from the few stragglers who remained.
Meanwhile, outside the hearing room, community activists rallied with chants, drums and speeches. Perez told the assembled, “We showed them that we’re tired of being criminalized. They continue to lie that people aren’t being deported from S-Comm. DHS has no intention of making reforms.”
Another undocumented student, Marisa Franco, said that this was not a struggle of immigrants, but of all people concerned with civil rights. She sneered at the task force’s effort to make it look like the federal government was listening to the concerns of the affected communities. This was the second hearing, with an earlier one in Dallas last week. “It’s like what Jay-Z said, on to the next one? They have no plans to listen to us, no plans to change this program. But it didn’t go down like that in LA, not like Dallas, we walked out.”
There are national protests scheduled by Presente.org and other immigrants rights groups in six cities tomorrow over S-Comm, including in front of the Obama 2012 Campaign Headquarters. Until you see the anger and frustration among young Latinos up close, you really have no idea about the magnitude of this issue in these communities. As Carlos Rea from Presente said in a statement, “There have been more deportations on President Obama’s watch than at any time in American history — If the President continues to alienate Latino voters he will lose the election, plain and simple.”
More on the hearing from the Associated Press.