City of Berkeley will not hold illegal immigrants for minor offenses

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Berkeley Police Department announced Tuesday that it will not honor its agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold illegal immigrants who are being detained for minor offenses.

At a special meeting of Berkeley City Council, Police Chief Michael Meehan clarified that a person would have to be determined suspicious — involved in activities like item intrusion, manipulating or defacing infrastructure, theft, vandalism or cyber attack — to be detained.

The specific terms have yet to be determined. The council decided to send the policy to the city manager to review what qualifies as a criminal act, after which it will be presented to the council again at a meeting in September.

“Absolutely (the meeting) in September will determine our compliance with ICE,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin.

According to Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission chair George Lippman, this change reflects city officials’ desire to establish a policy in which Berkeley puts its constitutional and human rights values first.

“I applaud the courage of the people making the decision to not comply — rather than ‘honor,’” said activist and former UC Berkeley graduate student Francisco “Pancho” Ramos Stierle. “There’s nothing honorable about kidnapping parents and hardworking people with the ICE hold.”

Stierle was arrested while meditating during a police raid of Occupy Oakland in November and detained because his student visa expired in 2008.

Through a program called Secure Communities, detainees’ fingerprints are run through the federal database, which then sends the data to ICE even if the person has not committed a criminal act. After being turned over to ICE as an illegal immigrant, Stierle was at risk of deportation, despite having no criminal record.

Stierle’s arrest for nonviolent civil disobedience is one of many cases that prompted the City Council to make the changes in the department’s compliance with the ICE.

“(Implementing this policy) will address the flaws of Secure Communities to make sure that innocent people don’t get arrested,” Arreguin said.

According to the ICE website, 396,906 illegal immigrants were removed from the United States in 2011 — 54.6 percent of whom were criminal offenders. Arreguin said he considers that percentage to be flawed because of the loose definition of what is criminal.

Many community members concerned with the ICE agreement with Berkeley and other cities expressed their sentiments at the meeting.

“Unfortunately, being an immigrant is like being black in the age of slavery in the United States,” said Berkeley resident Pablo Perez. “(Illegal immigrants) have no idea what it is like to be innocent until proven guilty.”

Others expressed their sentiments about Berkeley police’s compliance with ICE.

“They are using our resources when they should be behind the real criminals, not behind people that work hard,” said Manuel de Paz, a member of the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley.

According to Lippman, although the city was not able to finalize the policies at the special meeting, a conversation about creating a human rights-oriented policy was definitely started.

“Berkeley will be the first in the country to have such a policy,” Arreguin said. “This sends a message to Berkeley we should not adopt a policy in which we are giving our employees to a forced federal immigration law.”