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| Building an Immigrant Justice Initiative

Be Our Guest: The downside of immigration reform is increased deportation of immigrants who don’t deserve it

New York Daily News - February 25, 2013 - Nisha Agarwal - President Obama and Congress have not addressed the federal Secure Communities program, which has created a deportation pipeline that tears apart thousands of immigrant families.

In recent weeks, the federal fight for immigration reform kicked off in earnest, with Congress and the White House issuing their legislative principles, and the White House “leaking” specific proposals for a bill. Reform offers the bright possibility of legalization for 11 million, including more than 700,000 New Yorkers who live and work in, contribute to and sustain our richly diverse city and state. But the dark side of reform — its painful compromise — may be an increase in federal immigration enforcement efforts.

The Senate and the President’s proposals demand further fortification of the borders and better tracking of visa-holding immigrants. They also do not address the federal Secure Communities program, which has failed utterly in its objective to identify violent and dangerous criminals and, instead, creates a detention and deportation pipeline that has torn apart thousands of immigrant families.

New York City is poised to alter the terms of the national debate, however, by pushing back against Secure Communities and highlighting the destructive impact of the program for New York’s immigrant communities and the city itself. Recently, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito introduced two bills that will limit the extent to which the Department of Corrections and the NYPD collaborate with federal Immigration Customs and Enforcement officials through the Secure Communities program.

These bills, which are due to pass this week, build upon a law enacted in 2011 that would prevent the Department of Corrections from turning over to federal immigration authorities certain individuals being held at Riker’s Island who posed no public safety threat. Before this law went into effect, thousands of immigrant New Yorkers were held at Riker’s Island every year in order to be turned over to ICE for eventual deportation. A large segment of those held posed no threat to public safety, including those who were long-term, legal permanent residents, juveniles, people seeking asylum and protection under the Violence Against Women Act, victims of human trafficking and many individuals who may have been arrested for minor infractions such as selling merchandise on the street or hopping a turnstile. What is more, the city was under no legal obligation to hold these individuals for federal authorities, but it continued to do so, spending nearly $20 million a year in city funds to subsidize a senseless and harmful federal deportation process.The new law ended this practice, better focusing the city’s limited resources, targeting enforcement and ensuring that immigrant families were not afraid to step forward as victims and witnesses to crime or to interact with their local government.

With the enactment of Secure Communities in New York in May 2012, ICE has been able to “flag” immigrants moving through the criminal justice system far faster and earlier in the process than had previously been possible because it allows for the sharing of fingerprint data almost instantaneously between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ICE. A bad system of indiscriminate immigration enforcement was made much worse under Secure Communities.

Now, New York City is once again faced with the challenge of having to subsidize and support a broken and deeply flawed federal immigration enforcement system. Immigrant New Yorkers are coming into our courts and through our police precincts at risk of being siphoned into deportation proceedings, even if they have committed no crime, are themselves victims of crime or domestic violence or have committed only minor status-related crimes such as driving without a license. Perversely, many immigrant defendants now arrive at arraignments already having been identified by ICE and therefore find it in their best interest to be sent to Riker’s Island rather than released on bail because they are at risk of being turned over to immigration authorities upon release.

The new bills introduced in the City Council will put a stop to these perverse outcomes, ensuring that individuals who have no criminal record, immigrants who have committed only low-level or some status-based offenses, and immigrant youth, among others, are not ensnared by the deportation dragnet when they pose no threat to the public.

This legislation was developed in partnership with Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD, as well as in collaboration with the immigrant community and others impacted by the harmful and inappropriate conflation of the criminal justice process with civil immigration enforcement. It is New York City speaking with one voice, reaffirming our collective values: the importance of trust between government and the people it serves; the commitment to diversity, openness and inclusion; and the enduring, stubborn passion to be a city that attracts and supports a world of talent and human potential. The proposed legislation is also New York’s call to the rest of the country, as national attention focuses on the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform.

The era of exclusion and impunity is over. We must choose a path forward that protects our families, sustains our communities and promotes the hard work and opportunity that boosts our economy.


Nisha Agarwal is deputy director of the Center for Popular Democracy (www.populardemocracy.org) and a lecturer at Columbia Law School.