New Orleans–heretofore famous in the immigration reform world for the deportation proceedings of the Southern 32–this week is making immigration headlines in a much more positive way by announcing that it will effectively suspend Secure Communities.
Among other things, Secure Communities requests that police send the fingerprints of those they have in custody in local jails to the Department of Homeland Security. If a person is suspected of being in the country without papers, federal immigration authorities can request that police hold the person until immigration agents can pick him or her up. There has been intense opposition to that policy from advocates and the law enforcement community. Since 2011, localities like Chicago, New York, Washington, the state of Connecticut, Santa Clara County, and others have decided to not hold detained immigrants except in cases where they have committed violent crimes or felonies. New Orleans is the first jurisdiction to adopt this policy in the Deep South.
According to the New York Times, the change in policy came from a variety of reasons, including a 2011 federal lawsuit from two men who had spent months in Orleans Parish Prison on expired detention requests. As the Times writes:
One of them, Mario Cacho, was held for more than 160 days after having finished a three-week sentence for disturbing the peace.
“For a long time, I didn’t know what was happening,” said Mr. Cacho, who had come to New Orleans in late 2005 to work in the construction boom after Hurricane Katrina. “I had been in jail for 21 days, I was taken to see the judge and was told that was going to be it.”
After months in jail and the filing of a civil rights complaint, Mr. Cacho was eventually transferred to federal custody and deported to Honduras, where he now lives.
While the lawsuit was making its way through the courts, the Justice Department was investigating the jail for widespread constitutional violations. As part of this investigation, federal officials found that staff members who were supposed to track detention requests appeared “to rely upon memory or handwritten notes on files,” and in any case, could not communicate with the detainees in Spanish.
These findings were among many others that led to a consent decree, an agreement for an extensive overhaul of the jail enforced by a federal judge. (The city is appealing the decree.)
Under the new policy in New Orleans, the sheriff’s office will decline all ICE detention requests except in cases where detainees have been charged with one or more felonies. ICE must also notify the detainee’s lawyer before conducting any investigative interviews. And federal immigration agents will be barred from entering certain parts of the jail without a criminal warrant or court order.