Taking on Secure Communities

August 24, 2011

Orlando Sepúlveda reports on a protest in Chicago against the federal government’s “Secure Communities” that has contributed to an increase in deportations.

SIX UNDOCUMENTED youth and three others were arrested in Chicago on the evening of August 17 after blocking traffic at an intersection and an exit ramp the main expressway running into the downtown area.

The demonstrators were demanding the termination of “Secure Communities”—a federal program that has contributed to the Obama administration’s record number of deportations during the last two years.

By sharing fingerprints between local law enforcement and immigration authorities, the program puts undocumented people who encounter police in minor incidents on the pathway to deportation. In some cases, people who are racially profiled and stopped for no other reason than “looking undocumented” are being pursued under the program.

The recent Chicago protest started at a hearing of a touring federal task force appointed by the Department of Homeland Security and commissioned to review possible changes to the controversial program.

More than 800 people attended the rally and hearing at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall. Several hundred were locked outside, when police declared that any more people in the auditorium would constitute an occupancy risk. Noting that the actual occupancy of the auditorium is more than 900 people, activists inside delayed the beginning of the hearing by chanting and demanding that more people be allowed to enter.

One of the undocumented youth who blocked traffic is led away by Chicago police
One of the undocumented youth who blocked traffic is led away by Chicago police (DreamActNow.tumblr.com)

After the hearing began, several people had testified when Alaa Mukahha, an organizer with the Immigrant Youth and Justice League, went to the microphone. Rather than testifying, she declared:

Enough! Enough with the lies to us and to yourselves that somehow you will fix something that is designed to deport our families.

I can’t in good conscience stay at a hearing that’s a front for something so irreparable and insecure. Sometimes, words are not enough, hearings are not enough, press conferences and speeches are not enough. I am here today with my undocumented friends, because there comes time when we need to take greater action. We are tired of fear, and today, we will break that fear from Secure Communities.

I and five others are going to walk outside of this building right now. We are going to intentionally block traffic and put ourselves under arrest, knowing full well that under Secure Communities, this act of protest—this minor offence—will mean that that we could get placed in deportation. This is the risk that immigrants all across the country take every day. We ask the community to follow us outside, and we ask the people on the task force to have courage for your communities and do the right thing.

MORE THAN 300 people walked out with them, chanting, “Stop the lies. Terminate the program.” People who had been locked out of the hearing also joined in. The protesters walked to Washington Boulevard and Desplaines Street, where the six undocumented young people sat in the intersection and blocked traffic, surrounded by their supporters.

When the police arrived, it took them a while to clear traffic, but they initially held off from arresting the protesters. Once the traffic was cleared, protesters found themselves still free, and with no actual traffic to block. They took advantage of the partial retreat of the police to stand up and run and block an exit ramp of the interstate highway that runs alongside Chicago’s downtown. Only then did police move in to arrest them.

Asked by the Campus Progress website why she decided to be part of the civil disobedience, Carla Navoa, a 21-year-old student at University of Illinois at Chicago, said:

I decided to do the action yesterday to get other youth and immigrant families to face their fears and stand up to the tyranny of [the Department of Homeland Security] and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)]. I've had enough of hearing stories about friends and community members losing family who have committed no serious crime. I'm not going to be bullied or accept anyone being terrorized by ICE. I guess I reached my boiling point.

I knew I needed to do something when I found out the Department of Homeland Security made the decision to make S-Comm [Secure Communities] mandatory even in areas that don't want to be a part of the program…I was and am enraged.

The Chicago protest was only one in a series of nationally coordinated actions during the week to bring attention to the high toll that Secure Community taking on the immigrant community. On August 15, the touring task force faced another walkout of about 200 people at a Los Angeles hearing. The following day, small protests across the country highlighted the mounting pressure on Obama to terminate the program. In Chicago, about 100 people marched to Obama’s national election headquarters to make the point.

THE IMMIGRANT rights movement helped deliver the White House to Obama and Congress to the Democrats in 2008, but since then, the Democrats have made it clear that immigration reform was not in their agenda.

Even the DREAM Act—which would have given undocumented young people a path to citizenship via military service and college--was “too controversial” for the Democrats to put up a real fight. Instead, the Obama administration has overseen a record-breaking number of deportations each year, using the Secure Communities program to help accomplish this.

The program was put in place to try to appease a vitriolic and racist right wing. But rather than pacifying the right, Secure Communities has helped legitimize anti-immigrant views and given a free hand to racist cops on the streets.

At the Chicago hearing, just before the walkout, Marilú González, who works for the Archdiocese of Chicago, testified about a personal encounter with such a cop. At a red light, she said, a police car stopped beside her. The policeman looked at her and, right after the light turned green, decided to stop her.

“I don’t know what he saw on me, because nothing was wrong with my car, but I’m sure he saw I’m a Latina,” González said. “He stopped me, and he didn’t care about my registration—he wanted to know if I had a license, and asked me: ‘Do you speak any English?’”

An August 2011 report of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, titled "Immigration Enforcement Off Target: Minor Offenses with Major Consequences," looked at cases in 24 states and Washington, D.C., and concluded, "Any contact with the police, no matter how innocent or trivial, can result in immigration enforcement and removal. Police may initiate stops for the sole or primary purpose of enforcing immigration law, and may engage in racial profiling or other abusive practices to accomplish this."

Calling Obama the “Deporter-in-Chief,” Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, wrote in a press release: "The administration has pursued policies that are sowing fear and devastation among immigrant communities, and it must reverse course to stop the Arizonification of the country."

Concerned with the expansion of Arizona-like policies throughout the country, and confronted with no perspective for any form of immigration reform, the immigrant rights movement has focused on alleviating the effects of the Democrats’ betrayal on immigrant families, fighting Secure Communities and deportations one by one.

This pressure has made some inroads. The Obama administration admitted that Secure Communities is flawed--and claims it is seeking ways to repackage it. In June, Homeland Security produced a memo advising prosecutorial “discretion,” followed by the formation of the task force to reform the program. The day after the Chicago action, the government announced a review of the 300,000 cases currently in immigration courts, with the stated intention of ensuring that no one with minor offenses or with no record gets deported.

But activists are advising caution. “I'm not going to hold my breath,” said Carla Navoa. “Obama has done nothing he promised to do for the immigrant community. This is another one of those Band-Aid quick fixes to get the community off his back.”

One factor here is the coming elections. Obama is trying once again to corral the support of the immigrant community. But the willingness that community to believe in him may not be the same. As Jorge Mujica, a Chicago immigrant rights activist and blogger, stated:

Unfortunately, there is another White House document that sets the deportation goal for this year at half a million immigrants. Without explicitly saying that this goal is removed, there is a major contradiction, because the arrests will continue at the same pace, and the system will clog anyways.

Barack Obama knows that no Latino will vote for him in 2012 if he continues to deport their families and workers who have been breaking their backs and paying taxes that cannot be claimed back. But this announcement is not enough. If he is really serious, then he must eliminate E-Verify and Secure Communities, and stop saying that "the law is the law and must be enforced."

Electoral politics aside, the fight against Secure Communities and the radical tactics of the immigrant youth are fueling a new wave of immigrant rights politics and struggle.

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