An Article from our most recent newsletter, written by the interest section leader.
Driving While Brown – The 287(g) Program and Racial Profiling by Tonna Harris-Bosselmann Driving from my home in Doraville to I-85, I travel down Pleasantdale Road, passing by several apartment complexes that are largely inhabited by Hispanics. Signs advertising special move-in rates are written in Spanish, and I see many young moms with their sweet brown faces pushing their children in strollers up and down the busy street. There are also frequent road blocks on this stretch: random checks by law enforcement to see if drivers have a license, registration and insurance. I go this route twice daily – to and from work. Interestingly, in two and one half years of living in this area, I’ve never been stopped or detained at a road block. I’ve always just been motioned on. With permission to continue, I proceed slowly, glancing at the others being checked – always those with brown skin. I proceed slowly with a lump in my throat and shame in my heart. As a blond-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian woman living in the United States, I am in a position of privilege. Knowledge of this priviledge both embarrasses and conflicts me, especially when I’m running late for work, and the largest part of me is relieved not to be pulled over, not to be hassled, not to be profiled. And I am convinced that racial profiling is what is going on at these road blocks. Racial profiling in law enforcement is not new, but the 287(g) Program has opened the door wide open for this abuse. 287(g) allows local law enforcement to essentially serve as federal immigration agents. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) of 1996 added Section 287(g) to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). 287(g) authorizes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to enter into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with state and local law enforcement agencies, permitting state and local officers to perform federal immigration law enforcement. In our state, the Georgia Department of Public Safety, as well as Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall, and Whitfield Counties have entered into MOAs with the DHS. The originally stated intent of 287(g) was to target undocumented immigrants convicted of “violent crimes,” such as “human smuggling, gang/organized crime activities and sexual-related offenses.” According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website, “terrorism and criminal activity are most effectively combated through a multi-agency/multiauthority approach that encompasses federal, state and local resources, skills and expertise. State and local law enforcement play a critical role in protecting our homeland because…they will often encounter foreign-born criminals and immigration violators who pose a threat to national security or public safety” (ice.gov). The problem is that 287(g) is more often being used to target the Latino Community in particular. Furthermore, police aren’t exclusively looking for dangerous criminals who threaten
public safety; they are in numerous cases using this as a license for random checks, raids, and sweeps of suspected undocumented immigrants. Without an MOA, local law enforcement officers are not supposed to request status documentation from anyone pulled over, detained or arrested. Regulating immigration is the job of the federal government. With an MOA, however, they can. In fact, they can pull someone over for no reason whatsoever (“driving while brown”) and demand to see papers. If the proper papers aren’t produced, individuals can be taken to jail and detained while background checks are done. Sometimes these checks take days, weeks, or months. Some people are eventually released, after being cleared and with little apology for having their lives interrupted, and sometimes, deportation proceedings are started. In Hall County, where I teach, I’ve heard countless stories of my students, their families and friends in the community being targeted. There are horrible accounts of families being torn apart and young children being put into foster homes while their parents are deported. A very well publicized case occurred last year when a Mexican man, Bortolo Ruiz, was arrested while peacefully fishing in the area. He was asked to show his fishing license, which he didn’t have; then he was taken to jail. Being arrested for not having a fishing license is virtually unheard of in Georgia. Although Mr. Ruiz had no criminal record, he was detained while it was determined that he was undocumented. Weeks later, the fisherman was deported to Mexico, leaving a wife and children, all American citizens, behind. In another case, a former student of mine, “Marco,” was pulled over for a “broken tail light.” Marco politely pointed out to the officer that all of his tail lights were in fact working, but he was still taken to jail because of an expired driver’s license. He was undocumented and, therefore, was not allowed to get his license renewed. Marco, 19 at the time, spent three weeks in jail before he was deported to Mexico, a country where he had not lived since he was in elementary school. When he was forced to leave the U.S., Marco was dressed in an orange suit, handcuffed, and taken to the airport. Later, he was dropped off in a Mexican city in which he had never been. Is it worth it to mention that Marco was a smart, polite, disciplined and dedicated young man, very busy with his church, volunteer work and community service? (Later, in the police report, the officer stated that Marco was swerving while driving. The broken tail light wasn’t mentioned.) In addition to an increase in racial profiling, there are other concerns about the efficacy of the 287(g) Program. First, law-enforcement officials who are forced to take on the role of federal immigration agents are seeing the relationship with the communities they are sworn to protect undermined or even destroyed. When this happens, a fear of law enforcement results in already vulnerable immigrant communities being reluctant to inform police of crimes. Furthermore, reports have shown that 287(g) is costing municipalities millions to execute, while little assistance and oversight are provided by ICE. Moreover, we should all be concerned about the violations to basic American civil liberties, which threaten the rights and legal protections of all citizens and residents. Gainesville attorney Joe Diaz, who represented Bortolo Ruiz in his fishing violation case, explained to me how people were losing access to the court system. He described an occurrence where immigrants, suspected of being undocumented, are arrested on a small charge – often a bogus one. They are detained while background checks to determine status are done. To fight a
charge to which they are innocent, the accused would have to remain in jail for months until their court date. Because they can’t afford to be away from family and work for an extended period, they may choose to admit “guilt” so that they can pay a fine (and in normal cases be released). However, if they are found to be undocumented, a “hold” is placed on them following the guilty plea, and the deportation process begins. Diaz calls the 287(g) Program an “abomination.” Finally, 287(g) is simply a band-aid approach to what remains a critical problem in the United States: a broken immigration system that can only be solved by Comprehensive Immigration Reform on the national level. Sources and Further Information: ice.gov; GALEO.org; Immigration Policy Center (immigrationpolicy.org); ACLU of Georgia and ACLU of North Carolina. Tonna Harris-Bosselmann is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the ESL Program at Gainesville State College and Chair of GATESOL’s Socio-Political Concerns Interest Section. To get involved with the interest section, contact Tonna at firstname.lastname@example.org.