Welcome to my blog, inspired by admiration for the many immigrants I've had the privilege to work with over the past two decades.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Say it Ain't So, Sheriff Joe

Years ago a college classmate of mine from New York visited a mutual friend of ours who owns a ranch in southern Arizona.  Enchanted by the beauty of the place, Mark went for a walk by himself.  Finding himself in a peaceful valley, he laid down on his back and closed his eyes so that he could listen to the sounds of nature.  He may have dozed.  In time he became aware that there was someone standing over him. When he opened his eyes he faced a gun cocked and pointed at this head.  It was a border officer, who took Mark (who had no identification) into custody.  There they grilled him about whether he was a drug dealer or a smuggler.   Mark is a light-skinned African American with Native American blood.  He is also an extremely well-spoken lawyer who was able to talk himself out of his predicament.  Many other brown-skinned Americans in Arizona aren't so lucky:
  • A 5 months pregnant woman living in Arizona pulled into her driveway after being followed by the police. She exited the car and the officer ordered her to sit on its hood. When she refused he pulled both of her arms behind her back and slammed her, stomach first, into the vehicle three times. Then he dragged her into the patrol car and pushed her into the back seat, where he made her wait for a half hour without air conditioning. He ultimately ticketed her for failing to provide identification, a charge which was later changed to failure to provide proof of insurance and was resolved when she brought it to the local court.
  • Two officers followed a woman for a quarter of a mile to her home. The officers told the woman to remain in her car. When she attempted to leave the car to enter her home, the officers used force to take her to the ground, kneed her in the back, and handcuffed her. The woman was then taken into custody, cited for “disorderly conduct,” and eventually returned home. The disorderly conduct citation was subsequently dismissed.
  • Officers stopped a car carrying four  men, although the car was not violating any traffic laws. The officers ordered the men out of the car, zip-tied them, and made them sit on the curb for an hour before releasing all of them after determining that they had legal status. The only reason given for the stop was that the men’s car was driving "a little low,” which is not a criminal or traffic violation.
  • Officers entered a house adjacent to one they were raiding and searched it, without a warrant and without consent. Although they found no evidence of criminal activity, after the search was over, the officers zip-tied the residents, a man and his 12-year-old son. They required them to sit on the sidewalk for more than an hour along with approximately 10 other people  who had been seized from the target house, before being released.
What do all of the above people have in common?  They are Latinos.  They are Americans or permanent residents, lawfully present in the U.S.  And, according to a 32 page complaint filed by the Department of Justice this week, they are victims of racial profiling and discrimination by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona.

Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, is the 4th largest county in the U.S.  It covers  more than 9,200 square miles and according to the 2010 census, is 59 percent White and getting less so. In fact, the Hispanic population in the county nearly doubled during the decade between the 2000 census and the 2010 census.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) employs approximately 900 sworn deputies and 1,800 sworn detention officers  It also relies on the services of approximately 3,000 volunteer posse members.

Following years of investigation into the discriminatory practices of the MCSO, the Justice Department did something according to the Assistant Attorney General that it has done only once before in its 18-year history of  police reform work.  It  filed a contested lawsuit to stop discriminatory and unconstitutional law enforcement practices.  The complaint sets out three categories of unlawful conduct: (1) a pattern or practice of discriminatory and otherwise unconstitutional law enforcement actions against Latinos in Maricopa County; (2) discriminatory jail practices against Latino prisoners with limited English language skills; and (3) a pattern or practice of retaliatory actions against perceived critics of MCSO activities. These activities violate the Fourth Amendment and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

According to the complaint, the Justice Department investigation found numerous examples of discriminatory conduct by MCSO,  including that Latino drivers in the Phoenix area are nearly nine times more likely to be stopped by MCSO officers than non-Latino drivers engaged in similar conduct. In addition to engaging in discrimination in determining whom to stop,  officers have been illegally detaining Latino passengers to determine immigration status. Once officers stop drivers whose passengers appear to be Latino, they will typically question the passengers regarding their immigration status and ask for identification.  When asked about an American Latina who was taken into custody for four hours to determine whether she was lawfully in the United States, Arpaio was quoted as saying: “That’s just normal police work. You sometimes take people in for probable cause for questioning and they’re released.”

The complaint also reports that in making immigration enforcement its primary focus, the MCSO has failed (among other things) to adequately respond to reports of sexual violence, including allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse of girls.  This has exposed women and girls, who constitute the majority of victims of crimes of sexual violence in Maricopa County, to a disproportionate risk of physical and psychological harm. The complaint points out that a law enforcement agency ordinarily would be expected to prioritize more serious offenses, such as crimes of sexual violence, over less serious offenses, such as low-level immigration offenses.

An excellent editorial by Andrew Cohen in the Atlantic points out that while the allegations in the complaint are appalling, "it's hard to get through them without at least thinking about what the enforcement of SB 1070 might be like if the Court permits the state to expand its power to arrest its resident Latino population. What is the value of Arizona's in-court assurances that it will respect the constitutional rights of these people when the federal government itself is alleging such risible proof of how bad things are today?"

Last month, two years after Arizona enacted the  immigration law known as SB1070, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the law's validity. The law includes a provision (which has been temporarily halted through an injunction) that requires police to check the immigration status of all persons they stop or arrest if “reasonable suspicion” exists that they are in the country illegally. The U.S. government argued that requiring such status checks would disrupt the federal government’s focus on noncitizens convicted of serious crimes because it shifts the allocation of resources to non-serious offenders. While the questioning from the Justices suggests that it may lift the injunction, a number of  Justices asked how the provision would be applied in practice.

Depite the fact that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer continues to insist that SB1070 is not about race, we don't have to look too far to get our answer. Sheriff Joe and his "boys" have been taking matters into their own hands despite the injunction.  As a result, Justice Department complaint clearly spells out numerous examples of discriminatory conduct.  If anyone thinks it is just a necessary coincidence of immigration enforcement that Latinos are being targeted, check this out. On the very same day that the Supreme Court heard its arguments, Michael Hethmon, general counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute and one of the legal minds behind SB1070 shamelessly acknowledged  the real concerns underlying SB1070, "Immigration is on track to change the demographic makeup of the entire country. You know, what they call ‘minority-majority.' How many countries have gone through a transition like that — peacefully, carefully? It’s theoretically possible, but we don’t have any examples..."

He went on to explain how a Supreme Court victory in SB1070 would pave the way for similar laws to be passed in other states, particularly those where “nativist sentiment” runs high:
....(C)opycat legislation will explode. This is the classic environment for, if you will, sort of nativist-type sentiment. . . . It should explode at the states or — even better — [Congress] will be provoked to take action.
"Even better?"  Have we honestly reached the point in America where our highest court will let the nativists (also known as "white supremacists") take over?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Lot of People are Dying to Come to the U.S.

Last fall I was at a local immigrant right’s benefit promoting Green Card Stories from a table that I had set up, with a portion of profits going to the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.  The movie Tony and Janina’s American Wedding, which is a powerful documentary about the long-term separation of a Polish family due to immigration complexities, was being shown and the event was open to the public. 

When the movie ended a number of people wandered over and perhaps because of the sign on my table saying Green Card Stories, began telling me theirs.  One woman who was with her teenaged daughter said, “I should be in your book, but I have had  temporary status for 21 years."  She explained that she is from El Salvador and fled the war at the end of the 1980's.  She has lived here ever since, annually renewing her work permit but unable to apply for her green card.

Temporary protected status (TPS) is granted to nationals of certain countries during times of emergency and political strife and is renewed annually, but only if the U.S. administration agrees that there are still dangers inherent in returning.  Salvadorans were granted something very similar to TPS called Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) back in 1992, followed by other legal protections but in 2001 were granted TPS as a result of earthquakes in the region. 

Twenty one years is an extraordinarily long time to be in “temporary” status.  It is unfathomable for most TPS holders, who have settled into permanent lives in the U.S., that at any point the U.S. government will decide that “the coast is clear” and it is time to go "home".  Living with that constant fear for decades is incredibly challenging for families.  These are, after all, people lawfully in the U.S. with work permission, who still worry daily about being told that they will have to leave.   

I commiserated a little with the woman and agreed that being on TPS for so long was very difficult.  Her U.S. citizen daughter was browsing through the information on my book and looked up to tell me that she was doing a report on immigration for her class in school and was looking for materials to use.  Her mother had already bought a CD of the movie and had signed up to buy a book, which I thought was generous.   Then the mother said, “My daughter really wants to tell her friends about what is happening with immigration.  Her father was deported a few years ago because he didn’t have TPS with me.” 

I said, “Wow, that must be really hard.”  She looked me in the eye and said without emotion, “He tried to come back four months ago but he was killed in the desert.”   I was stunned at the raw truth of this.  Now I understood why this mother had taken her daughter to the movie and was  buying materials for her to try to explain what had happened to her classmates. The girl said simply, “My dad wasn’t a criminal.  No one understands.”

Almost twenty years ago the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper, which was an effort at deterrence, to seal off traditional border crossing routes, making illegal border crossing more dangerous and more difficult.  Over the years, we have built hundreds of miles of fencing and armed Border Patrol agents not only with high-powered weapons but with sophisticated electronic sensor systems, stadium lights, infrared night scopes, and four-wheel-drive vehicles to hunt down immigrants. 

Prior to Operation Gatekeeper border crossing deaths were few and far between, estimated at only one or two a month.  Fifteen years after Operation Gatekeeper the ACLU released a 76 page report finding that there had been more than 5000 deaths in that time period, with the risk of dying 17 times greater in 2009 than in 1998.  Because migrants have been pushed to cross the border in increasingly remote and dangerous areas, deaths have increased substantially despite fewer making the attempt and a steady drop in apprehensions by the Border Patrol. In fact, today there is a net zero increase  in the influx of undocumented workers from Mexico, but this is seen to be more a result of our economic downturn than the result of increased border enforcement.

Still, the deaths continue to increase. It is now estimated that 1000 more people have died while attempting to cross the border in the two and a half years since the ACLU report, with Arizona being the deadliest state to cross into.    Recently the Pima County medical examiner referred to it as a “mass disaster” as the unidentified bodies in its cooler continue to pile up.

The number of people who have died on the Mexican border is the same as U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.   People are dying from drowning, exposure, snake bites, debilitating blisters that make walking impossible, and dehydration. Humanitarian relief organizations set up water and aide stations in the desert but are thwarted by those sabotaging their efforts by slashing water containers or by local law enforcers prosecuting them as trespassers.

Some deaths are from other than natural causes, such as vans over-filled with immigrants crashing  as a result of deadly high speed chases or, according to the ACLU report, nails put onto the road to stop smugglers.  Some are killed directly by border patrol agents, as was the case with a fifteen year old shot and killed on the Texas border two years ago or the tasing and beating of the 25-year U.S. resident and father of five U.S. citizen children (shown in this recently released, appalling video).  Others are murdered by rifle-toting camouflaged border vigilantes, as happened to two innocent migrants in Arizona last month. 

Many more are dying on the Mexico side before ever making it to the U.S., as brutal drug cartels have expanded into the human smuggling business. Or gangs have made their money by demanding ransom from migrants’ families and killing them when those ransoms aren’t paid (as happened two summers ago when 72 migrants were massacred at once for refusing to pay ransoms to one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels.)

So, one wonders, why do people even consider attempting such a dangerous crossing into the U.S. with all of these obstacles?  Are they oblivious to the dangers?  Not at all.  The ACLU report found that most border crossers understand that there are serious risks involved but they are still willing to take them.  Why?  Just as with the father of the girl I mention at the beginning of this post, they are driven by the desire for a better life and most of all to be reunited with their loved ones who already live here.  As a business man  from Iowa who attended an event I spoke at on immigrant investment said to me in passing, “I tell you what, if my family was living in poverty and I knew that the only way I could provide a better life for them was by illegally crossing the border into Canada, I bet you that I would.”

So that is why – love of family.  I recently heard Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez give an impassioned speech about immigration in which he described the dangerous lengths to which people will go to be reunited with their families in the U.S.  He said something like this:

I know that our laws look harshly on someone who is caught trying to re-enter the U.S. after being deported, but I don’t want to know the person who would not try to come back to be re-united with family. To me, the father or mother who would not make every effort to come back is not a person I would admire. The good person, the one whom I would want to know, is the one who would risk everything to be with family again.

To illustrate this natural drive to reunite with family, the ACLU report described the death of 29 year old Jorge Garcia Medina, who died in the Japul Mountains of California in 2009.  His wife waited in vain for a call that he’d made it through so that she could pay off his smugglers.  A diabetic, he ran out of insulin during the arduous journey and was left behind with a blanket, a can of tuna and some water. When his body was eventually found, his cell phone indicated that he had called 911 at 3:30 AM.  And in his lifeless hands he still clutched the photos of his daughters.

NOTE:  I had a couple of weeks' hiatus from writing my blog due to the fact that I was in China and blogspot is banned there. But I'm back at it again.