Insecure Immigrant Communities: What Obama and Congress have Ignored so far

The best ideas for comprehensive immigration reform come from the immigrants themselves. Unfortunately, few are listening. How else do we explain the recent proposals announced by President Obama and the Senate?

Both the White House and a coalition of key Senators prioritize doubling down on enforcement, and advocate increased surveillance and militarization of the US-Mexico border. This heavy handedness towards detecting, detaining, and deporting immigrants may seem like a necessary concession for a bipartisan overhaul but it further obscures the violence that undocumented immigrants deal with on a daily basis.

As an immigrant activist, I must say that our goal is not only to legalize the millions that live in the shadows but to expose the brutal enforcement policies that have devastated communities across the country. An example that hits close to home is the federal Secure Communities (S-Comm) program, a primary means of identifying and deporting undocumented immigrants in Travis County and Austin, TX.

S-Comm blurs the boundary between police officers and immigration agents, allowing federal authorities to look into local jails. If Immigrations and Customs Enforcement even thinks that an inmate might be undocumented, they can ask local PDs to detain the inmate until an ICE agent picks them up and places them in deportation proceedings. Taxpayers foot the bill for detaining these immigrants: 3094 people were held in 2011 at a price of $60.59 per day, which meant local residents paid $3,556,219.78 in detention fees. The federal government reimbursed the county $683,501.00, which left a local impact of $1.8 million.

While the White House and program administrators maintain that S-Comm targets criminal immigrants, up to 82% of the immigrants removed from Travis County are non-criminals. S-Comm has long been a throny PR issue in the side of Austin PD especially in recent years as its impact on Austin immigrants has become glaring. Over 1000 low-priority undocumented immigrants have been thrown into jail for minor infractions such as traffic tickets or loitering, and 2600 people in Travis County were deported in a span of 3 years.

Another unfortunate consequence of S-Comm? Latino residents, especially in poor neighborhoods with higher crime rates, have lost faith in APD. Up to 65% of immigrants surveyed by the UT Civic Engagement Center say they have little to no confidence in the police. Over half are reluctant to report violent crimes such as domestic assault, battery, rape, or armed robbery for concern over the legal status of a family member.

S-Comm is only one among dozens of directives, policies, or procedural mechanisms that prioritizes enforcement over the health of immigrant communities. A closer look at the US-Mexico border reveals increasing violence in the name of enforcement.

Border deaths have reached a historic high even though migration from Mexico is at a net 0. Routine stories of ICE, Border Patrol, and nativist Minute Men militias shooting at immigrants surface from time to time. There was the grisly case of  Brisenia Gonzalez, a 9 year old shot in her Arizona home after a gang of Minute Men raided her house pretending to be Border Patrol agents. In 2010, Anastasio Rojas, a 42-year-old Mexican migrant worker, was tased and beaten to death at the San Ysidro border crossing by more than a dozen Customs and Border Protection officers. And in late 2012, a 15 year old Mexican citizen was shot 7 times by Border Patrol when he was on the Mexican side of the border. BP claimed that they were targeting drug traffickers nearby.

These stories, much like the victims of S-Comm, are brushed aside in the name of more immigration enforcement. Police departments across the nation ought to be directing their resources at building safer communities and creating relationships with vulnerable residents. And politicians must investigate the growing body counts and human rights violations that accompany aggressive enforcement.

What point is comprehensive immigration reform if immigrants are left feeling more insecure? In Austin, the result of additional enforcement has been family separation, a growing distrust between immigrants and APD, and higher crimes committed against already vulnerable people. If lawmakers want justice and fairness in our system of immigration laws, they must first restore human dignity.

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