enforcing immigration law

As I mentioned in a previous post, there is a concern in my area about ICE (immigration) raids and about the sheriff’s policy of telling ICE about possible illegal immigrants. Stated policy is to send ICE the name and birth date of any non-citizen who has been arrested and is processed into the jail, regardless of reason, even for unpaid parking tickets. People are also being grabbed by ICE when they come to court as witnesses or to collect child support. Our task force had a pretty intense discussion of this the other day. The task force combines “system” people (sheriff, police, district attorney, judges) with community activists and social service providers. Several system people have objected to a draft recommendation to change the policy and to some of the assertions the draft makes about what is happening based on one task force member’s conversations with some bailiffs. We know we don’t agree about what should be done – there are deep social conflicts about the immigration issue itself, and about the proper role of law enforcement. So we have to figure out what the report will say.

At first we were going to defer the discussion to the next meeting, as we knew it would be  controversial. But as a member of the writing subcommittee, I said I really needed to know what the policy actually is, so that it could be correctly characterized. I offered to talk to the head of the jail privately later, but the group decision was to take “five minutes” to get this clarified. The five turned into thirty, but it was a very instructive thirty minutes. I asked, “so what is the policy, exactly?” Answer: Information about all immigrants is sent to ICE. “So how do you know whether someone is an immigrant? What about Canadians?” Answer: They tell us. We ask if they are a citizen. ” So if someone with a Spanish accent tells you they are a citizen, you believe them, and that’s that?” Answer: Yes . . . [voice trails off, the rest is quieter and the sentence is incomplete] . .  unless there’s other information . . .  The sheriff says: Look, the policy has been the same for thirty years, we ask everyone place and date of birth, citizenship status. “So if someone with a Spanish accent says they were born in El Paso, that’s it? They are OK?”  [No clear answer . . .]   Later in the discussion, people ask why if the policy has been the same for thirty years, it is only in recent years that people are getting arrested when they come into the court house as witnesses or to report to drug court. The sheriff’s answer is that the change is the creation of ICE and ICE policies, not his policies. The DA says it is part of the post-9/11 anti-terrorism policies. But this implies there are two policies: what you ask people, and what you do with the information. ICE was created in 2003, so the sheriff couldn’t have been sending information to ICE for the last thirty years. The sheriff implies that there is no choice about sending information to ICE, other people think there is.

Then other people ask questions. So how is it that people who come in as witnesses or to collect their child support get arrested? One task force member has talked to bailiffs and says they told her that they go over the names of people coming in and routinely send immigrants’ names to ICE. But the head of the jail says that people are not doing that, he has talked to his supervisors and that just isn’t happening, she is just relying on hearsay. I point out that she talked to some people and he talked to some people: it’s the same thing. More tension. Then he says, well of course in some cases you have to run people through the computer, you have to make sure there are no restraining orders or outstanding warrants. That is part of the job of keeping the court safe. You don’t want people fighting at court. Sometimes an ICE warrant shows up in the national computer, they did not know it would be there, but when it is there, you have to execute the warrant. I say “There are lots of warrants. You can have a warrant out for unpaid parking tickets.” The DA sort of starts to object and the sheriff says that our area is sending parking tickets to collection, not to court orders. I insist: “I know a white guy who was, in fact, arrested and taken downtown for unpaid parking tickets.”  The rest of the story – which I don’t go through – is that he got out quickly when arrangements were made to pay the tickets, but if he had not had a friend who put up the money for the tickets, he would have been sitting in jail for unpaid parking tickets. That is a fact. And the DA knows it is a fact, as he acknowledges when we chat later: the vast majority of warrants are for “failure to appear” in court, which can be for anything. It turns out that legal procedures require running criminal background checks on anyone who will appear as a witness, so it does happen that people come in to be interviewed as potential witnesses and get arrested for outstanding warrants. Although ICE arrests are the current concern, this also happens for other kinds of warrants.

But law enforcement officers vehemently say they do not get to choose which warrants to execute, a warrant is a warrant, that is their job. If they know there is a warrant out for the arrest of a person, they are duty-bound to arrest that person. There is no choice. And so we are back again to the question: when do you run someone’s name through the computer to look for warrants? Do you run the name of every single person who enters the court house through the computer? Well, no, that is impossible. There are too many people going and coming every day, and there is no central list of everyone who is scheduled to come in as a witness or to make an appearance for some reason. So how is it that some people get arrested by ICE when they come to court? Why is ICE waiting for them? Well, we may get a tip or information about someone . .  . [voice trails off . . .]  Hmmm. I think to myself, this ties in with complaints we heard at the public hearing about ICE sending spies into the Latino community. SOMEBODY could well be running the name of every single local Latino through ICE computers and then looking for opportunities to nab the folks who are identified as illegal.

I find it very instructive to hear the law enforcement people and the district attorney insisting that if there is a warrant you have to arrest, this is non-discretionary, this is central to who they are as part of the legal system. This is just non-negotiable. There is a lot of emotion when they say this. It is a very deeply held value at the core of a worldview about what it means to be an officer of the court.

Next people ask whether there is a way for people to find out whether there is a out warrant on them. The DA says that it is not considered good police policy to tell people in advance that they are going to be arrested. Folks pretty much go along with this (although I’m thinking to myself that there are circumstances in which people are allowed to turn themselves in rather than be arrested). But people repeat the question: not necessarily warning people they will be arrested that day, but telling people that they should find out whether there is a warrant out for them, and some way of being able to find this out. After all, the vast majority of warrants are for missing a court date, and the most likely reason for missing the court date is that you forgot it or you never read or understood the summons in the first place  or you didn’t go because you didn’t have the money to pay your fine anyway. I remind people that there are faulty warrants out there – the warrant for the kid who was tasered at the high school when he tried to run away from the police was actually a mistake that shouldn’t have been in the system in the first place. (We all know about that case because both the tasering and the fact that police were arresting a kid at school were big controversies that got a lot of news play.) Law enforcement and the district attorney are looking pretty dubious about the idea of giving ordinary people access to the national law enforcement databases.

The community activists say: OK, we get it that arresting someone if you know there is a warrant out on them is non-negotiable from the point of view of law enforcement. So the community needs to know this and needs to know exactly what the policies are. Can you give us written policies? The sheriff and the DA say the policies are straightforward and clear-cut. But it will take them a while to write them down.

This was a very good discussion, even as it was very intense. I learned a lot. I’m thinking later again about the radically different ways you can look at the same thing. I respect the rule of law and the police view that you don’t choose which warrants to execute, and I can respect the people who feel that violation of immigration law is a violation of law and as long as the law is on the books, they are obligated to uphold it. The real problem is the immigration policy and the disconnect between the formal immigration policy and the reality that Mexican people have always worked in the US. But then I am reminded that the police who helped arrest the Jews in Europe under Hitler were also following orders, and that the US was party to trials that said that following orders is not an excuse, that citizens have a positive obligation to refuse to follow immoral orders. Such discussions were very common in the 1960s regarding citizen obligations about the Vietnam war.  Ivan Ermakoff is working now on a project showing that police in different places actually varied in the zealousness with which they carried out the orders to arrest all Jews. I know that many people would take deep offense at my even bringing this up. Killing and torturing people isn’t the same as deporting them. But I do think the people who want the police to be less aggressive about running people’s names through the computers think that the immigration policy is immoral and that it is the duty of moral people to work around the policy.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

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