On the morning of Nov. 14, 2011, Francisco “Pancho” Ramos-Stierle and other activists were meditating peacefully in Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza in solidarity with the adjacent Occupy encampment. As police officers moved in to clear out the encampment, they ordered Ramos-Stierle and others to disperse. Ramos-Stierle, however, refused to leave and continued sitting and meditating. Oakland police officers soon afterward cited and arrested Ramos-Stierle for failure to disperse. Ramos-Stierle, a former UC Berkeley student and nonviolent activist, was then taken to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.
Normally, someone arrested for failure to disperse could be released after his or her time was served. But because Pancho Ramos was undocumented, when he was fingerprinted and booked his information ended up catching the attention of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, who asked Alameda County Sheriff’s Department to hold Ramos for additional time so they could take custody for violation of federal immigration law.
Despite the fact that Ramos’ only crime was peacefully meditating, he has faced the prospect of being deported from the United States. Unfortunately, Pancho Ramos is not the only person charged with a minor crime who faces the threat of deportation. Ramos is one of many victims of a flawed federal program called the Secure Communities program.
Alameda County was the fourth Bay Area county to participate in the Secure Communities program, which is administered by ICE, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Secure Communities creates an automated information-sharing system through which fingerprints collected by local law enforcement at the time of booking are submitted by the California Department of Justice to the FBI, which in turn shares those fingerprints with ICE.
ICE compares the fingerprints from the California Department of Justice database with its civil immigration database to identify and apprehend individuals who are not in compliance with federal immigration law. Once ICE identifies someone suspected of violating federal immigration law, it uses a civil immigration detainer request to ask a county to hold the individual so that ICE can take custody of the inmate. Neither state nor federal law requires a county to honor civil detainer requests. Recent court decisions and letters from ICE itself to local law enforcement agencies have confirmed that detainer requests not mandatory.
According to a recent White House report titled “Building a 21st Century Immigration System,” in large part due to the implementation of Secure Communities, the deportation of undocumented persons with criminal records increased by more than 70 percent as compared to 2008, when ICE began implementing the program. While the stated purpose of the program is to apprehend undocumented persons who have been convicted of serious crimes, in reality a large percentage of those apprehended and deported have either no criminal record or are low-level offenders.
According to ICE figures, in the nine Bay Area counties, serious criminal offenders account for less than 30 percent of detainees, and since May 2009, when Secure Communities began in California, to Jan. 31, 2011, more than 79 percent of individuals identified and taken into ICE custody as a result of Secure Communities have never been convicted of serious or violent offenses. In Alameda County, this program has led to the deportation of more than 1,382 people since its inception.
Secure Communities has eroded trust between the immigrant community and law enforcement, creates a sense of fear in the immigrant community and has negatively impacted law enforcement activities.
Fortunately, several local communities have found ways to deal with the negative and divisive impact of Secure Communities. Cook County, Ill., and Santa Clara County, Calif., have all adopted detainer reform policies, directing law enforcement to honor ICE immigration detainers in very limited circumstances. Berkeley City Council will also be voting on a similar policy in September that would prohibit Berkeley Police Department from honoring ICE detainers for people held in our city jail, except for people convicted of serious or violent felonies.
Two weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court struck down many parts of Arizona’s discriminatory immigration law, SB 1070. This past Thursday, another important step forward occurred. The California State Senate adopted Assembly Bill 1081. AB 1081, also known as the TRUST Act, would set a clear standard for local governments to not detain people for deportation unless an individual has a serious or violent felony conviction. Additionally, the bill guards against profiling. AB 1081 is an important step to address the key linchpin of Secure Communities — the holding of undocumented inmates. AB 1081 ensures that Secure Communities achieves its stated purpose of identifying and deporting serious and violent undocumented felons, not innocent people. It will help reverse the negative trend of large numbers of deportations of people and will prevent families from being divided and help restore trust between law enforcement and our immigrant communities.
The bill now moves back to the California State Assembly, which will hold a concurrence vote in early August, and then to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk for him to decide whether to sign the bill into law.
At a time when Arizona has passed discriminatory immigration laws that encourage racial profiling, it is all the more important that California be a model for other states. AB 1081 is an example of how we can balance public safety while protecting civil liberties. In these difficult economic times, it’s easy to scapegoat immigrants. Remember, it has happened throughout the history of our country. However, deporting immigrants and creating fear in our communities will not solve the problems of our recession. It will not create one new job, and it is also morally unjust. We need to fix our broken immigration system. But until we can create an easier pathway for people to become legal citizens, we need to adopt laws in our own communities to protect immigrants from discrimination and deportation.
AB 1081 is a step forward in reversing the destructive impact Secure Communities has had on our communities and in restoring trust.
Jesse Arreguin is a Berkeley City Council member.
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