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After seeing walkouts in Los Angeles and arrests in Chicago, DHS’ Secure Communities Task Force came to Arlington, Virginia last night for the last in a series of four hearings designed to gather public input on the deportation program. (We live-tweeted the event here.)
Some three hundred activists and DC Metro area residents turned out, many gathering ahead of time at St. Charles’ Catholic Church next door before marching to the meeting site at George Mason University. As Margaret Huang, Executive Director of Rights Working Group, said shortly before the hearing:
We’ve seen that the Secure Communities program has had a very negative impact on Arlington residents; it violates the basic principles of the democratic process and leads to broken families, eroded trust in law enforcement, and the potential for racial profiling of immigrants and those perceived to be immigrants. The program must end now.
As the hearing began, the Task Force explained that they were “not federal employees” and did “not work for ICE or DHS.” Their mandate has been to travel around the country, gathering input from communities on the effectiveness of the Secure Communities program. They are to come up with recommendations to improve the program, though critics claim the group is merely a front for DHS inaction.
The hearing drew hours of emotional testimony from immigrants, community members, clergymembers, and others. They told stories of being put through deportation proceedings after being pulled over for traffic violations; stories of children being separated from their undocumented parents and left to the mercy of the state; and stories of how they “would not call the police again” after what had happened to them.
The hearing also brought out Secure Communities supporters and anti-immigrant protestors, including one man who blamed someone he suspected was “an illegal” for a murder in his neighborhood and one woman who claimed that the program might have prevented 9/11 had it been around in 2001.
ICE claims that Secure Communities is designed to deport violent criminals and other dangerous immigrants. However, the agency reported last month that 28% of those deported under the program were not criminals and that an additional 30% were charged with minor offenses such as traffic violations. Over half of the people deported through this program are NOT enforcement priorities.
At one point, it was revealed that Marc Rapp, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting assistant director for the Secure Communities program, was in the audience, and two Maryland women in deportation proceedings spoke directly to him rather than the Task Force panel. (You can watch video of their confrontation, courtesy of NDLON, below.)
“NO soy un criminal,” Maria Bolanos, with the group Casa de Maryland, told him. Bolanos said she had been arrested after calling Maryland police during a fight with her partner. She was accused of illegally selling telephone calling cards, is now facing deportation, and fears being separated from her young daughter.
Rapp did not respond and would not comment on the incident. Shortly after confronting him, Bolanos and a second woman who spoke to Rapp joined about 200 others, walked out of the meeting while chanting, “end it, don’t amend it.”
“This [hearing] is a sham,” shouted Gustavo Andrade, an organizing director for Casa Maryland. Addressing the Task Force panel, he added, “We respectfully ask you to resign from the Task Force, and end Secure Communities. Our time is valuable, so now we’re leaving.”
Those who walked out rallied outside afterward before dissipating, while the Task Force continued to listen to both Secure Communities supporters and detractors inside.
Toward the end, Ophelia Calderón, a business owner in the nearby Arlington area, summed up the impracticalities of the Secure Communities program:
“If I’m an immigrant, and I’m in a scuffle, do I just lie back and be a victim?” she asked. “Or do I fight back and call the cops? But then if I call the cops, my fingerprints get taken. And I get brought to ICE. And I get deported. What kind of choice is that?”
Another opponent, Laura Hall, told the story of how her Irish-national boyfriend chased down a car on foot after a hit-and-run nearly two years ago. An non-uniformed policeman who did not explain himself stepped out of the car and hit her boyfriend, who hit back in self-defense. For that offense, the couple spent a year and a half in and out of courts fighting her boyfriend’s deportation proceedings.
“The moral of my story,” Hall said, “is that this policy affects all communities, not just the Latino community. I speak for all communities, and I think this policy is very inhumane.”
At the close of the hearing, Task Force chairman Chuck Wexler, who directs the Police Executive Research Forum, thanked all those who had come, and said that the hearings “have given us insight into how this program affects communities.” The Task Force’s report to the Department of Homeland Security is due out in September.
For more stories about how Secure Communities negatively impacts neighborhood safety and hinders local law enforcement capabilities, please read our new report “Public Safety on ICE: How Do You Police a Community That Won’t Talk to You?”