By Aarti Kohli and Antonia Hernandez, San Francisco Chronicle
California is now a prime hunting ground for expanding federal programs to deport illegal immigrants. Assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Morton visited Los Angeles in August, promising a “smart” enforcement approach that goes after the “worst of the worst.” At the same time, ICE announced that all inmates in the city’s jails would have their immigration status checked, as part of the Secure Communities Initiative – a federal-local police partnership that supposedly targets serious offenders.
In theory, immigration checks of prisoners sound sensible. But they can lead to racial profiling, according to a new report by the Warren Institute, a think tank at the UC Berkeley School of Law.
The report analyzes police data acquired by the ACLU through a public records request from Irving, Texas, which launched a federal-local police immigration enforcement partnership a few years ago. Soon after the so-called Criminal Alien Program was launched, data show that misdemeanor arrests of Hispanics rose dramatically for the pettiest crimes, like knocking over a cone or driving with a broken headlight.
Irving police arrested Hispanics for misdemeanors in far greater numbers than whites and African Americans. During the program’s most intense phase, the number of Hispanic arrests for minor crimes increased by nearly 150 percent. Traffic arrests jumped 223 percent in July 2007 compared to just three months earlier.
The report supports what advocates in cities nationwide have been saying for a long time: These enforcement programs result in rampant racial profiling by local police. No surprise. Police know that if they increase the pool of Hispanics sent to jails with immigration checks, then a greater number of people will be deported by federal authorities. As it turns out, the majority of Hispanics arrested for minor offenses in Irving since the ICE partnership were living lawfully in the United States.
Although the Criminal Alien Program purportedly sought to target serious criminals for deportation, just 2 percent of those detained by immigration authorities over a 14-month period were charged with felonies. A whopping 98 percent of those placed in deportation were charged with misdemeanor offenses.
After the Hispanic community marched in the Irving streets to protest their treatment, ICE issued a memo stating that it would stop detaining immigrants arrested for minor offenses. But an immigration agency spokesman acknowledged to a Dallas paper that ICE was still processing petty offenders for deportation and would continue to do so indefinitely.
Congress is about to give the immigration agency $1 billion for the 2010 fiscal year to roll out similar programs nationwide. To prevent racial profiling and harassment of Hispanic citizens, the report’s authors propose a commonsense solution for Congress and the administration, including:
— investigating the implementation of local partnerships with immigration enforcement before allocating additional funds to expand the Criminal Alien Program;
— prohibiting criminal alien screenings for individuals arrested for petty offenses; and
— mandating that local police who partner with federal immigration authorities record arrest data by race, ethnicity and level of offense.
Ever since 9/11 and the launching of the “War on Terror,” we’ve been asked to accept racial profiling as a trade-off for increased safety. We need to reject this Faustian bargain. Our history is replete with instances showing that, when we violate the civil rights of an ethnic group, we weaken our democracy, security and community.
Aarti Kohli is director of immigration policy & legislative counsel, Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity at the UC Berkeley School of Law; Antonia Hernández is president and chief executive officer of the California Community Foundation.