How One Immigrant Community Secured Itself

New Orleans is the first jurisdiction in the South to opt out of Secure Communities, a federal program that critics say tears immigrant communities apart.

By Aura Bogado Sep 03, 2013

Late in George W. Bush’s second term as president, his administration ran a pilot Secure Communities (S-Comm) program that targeted immigrants that, at least on paper, sought out immigrants with criminal records to be removed from the U.S. In 2008, 14 jurisdictions participated in the trial run. Just five years later, the Obama administration has expanded S-Comm to more than 3,000. Critics say that S-Comm has damaged communities by sweeping up a broad swath of nonviolent offenders and even citizens. But those communities are also fighting back–and sometimes getting local law enforcement on their side.

S-Comm works to streamline deportations. Any time a person is arrested or booked, they’re fingerprinted. Under S-Comm, those prints are then crosschecked by the FBI and ICE, which has a long list of criteria for immigrants who could be deported. If the agency suspects a match for deportation, the state or local jail is asked to detain the person in question for an additional 48 weekday hours.

Although S-Comm is supposed to target immigrants only, U.S. citizens have been detained for deportation. Gerardo Gonzalez Jr., for example, is a U.S.-born citizen who should never have appeared as a match on the S-Comm program. Nevertheless, ICE requested a detainer after he was arrested in Los Angeles and Gonzalez spent more than 4,000 hours on hold. He was finally released after filing a lawsuit. More than 1,000 U.S. citizens have found themselves in a similar situation. 

The majority of those targeted by S-Comm, however, are immigrants–who are often also held beyond the specified 48 workday hours. Jacinta Gonzalez, who’s the lead organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers in New Orleans, says that plenty of the group’s 250 or so members that attend regular assemblies have been affected by S-Comm for minor infractions. "We’ve even had members who have been falsely charged," says Gonzalez. One member, Mario Cacho, served a short sentence for not paying a fine related to a misdemeanor disturbing the peace charge. Instead of being released afterwards, he was held in a New Orleans prison for six months on an ICE detainer. Cacho finally filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Justice and ICE expedited his deportation. Gonzalez says many more the group’s members who don’t have criminal records have been detained for two days anyway. 

The Congress of Day Laborers had been organizing since 2010 to get Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman to stop cooperating with ICE on the detainers. So far, more than a dozen cities, counties and states around the nation have already stopped collaborating with ICE to hold anyone who doesn’t pose a real threat to their community–but the majority of those have been symbolic victories in places where local and state officials have not held many people on detainers to begin with.

In New Orleans, however, where immigrants moved in to help rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina eight years ago, the local community has been hit hard by S-Comm. "Members started realizing that the only real integration [into New Orleans] was taking place in the criminal justice system," says Gonzalez. 

For years, it seemed that Sheriff Gusman wouldn’t budge. Gonzalez says the sheriff explained that his agency had no choice but to participate in S-Comm, which is true. Yet by law, ICE detainers are carried out voluntarily. On top of that, the federal government has unilaterally decided that it will not incur the administration and housing costs related to detaining people in local and state jails under S-Comm; those detainers eat up funds in a state that arguably still hasn’t recovered from Katrina. Pending lawsuits this year, as well as a city council resolution against ICE detainers passed in May pressured Gusman to change his internal policy–but to no avail. That changed this month, however, when the sheriff became the first in the South to stop cooperating with ICE detainers, except for serious criminal cases, such as murder and rape.

Gusman wasn’t available for comment, but Gonzalez says that it wasn’t until the sheriff started talking to people who were directly affected by S-Comm that he started to reconsider the way his agency was keeping the people he was sworn to protect in a constant state of fear. Addressing a state senator who was angry with the sheriff’s decision, Gusman explained that his new "policy is about freedom and fairness," that protects Constitutional rights, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports. He also cited "the cavalier nature" of ICE requests. 

In a newly released video, the sheriff is seen attending one of the Congress of Day Laborers meetings, listening to harrowing stories before helping close the meeting by shouting, "No papers! No fear!" That a sheriff in the deep South is shouting a slogan coined and used by the immigrant rights movement indicates just how much work has been done to change the way at least some in law enforcement are thinking about immigration.

And though the policy change is new, Gonzalez says the community is already feeling the difference that comes with the trust and comfort of knowing that their local sheriff isn’t playing into a flawed program that, instead of making people safer, was tearing a community apart.