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Insecure Communities: addressing immigration issues in Illinois

This spring, the theme for the Center for Public Interest Law (CPIL) annual symposium came from the work of students in Clinical Instructor Sarah Diaz’s new Immigration Advocacy Clinic.

CPIL student assistant and clinic participant Ana Valenzuela said the idea for the immigration forum was generated by student discussions and Professor Diaz’s work with community based organizations. The forum, “Insecure Communities: Addressing Immigration Issues in Illinois,” began with a group of clinical students, including Valenzuela, Geraldine Arruela, Katerin Zurita and Cordia Perez (JD ’14), who provided a brief overview of their clinical project before the panel discussion.

The group’s project focused on investigating and addressing the discrepancies in policies between local law enforcement agencies in the manner in which they choose to certify, or not certify, Form I-918B. This form is required for all U Visa applicants to confirm that they were helpful in the investigation or prosecution of their qualifying crime.

There is no waiver of this form and without it the victim cannot apply for the U Visa. Refusal by law enforcement agencies to issue this certification undermines the dual purpose of the U Visa statute: to serve as a form of humanitarian relief for undocumented victims of crimes and as a law enforcement tool.

Symposium panelists included Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights; Mark Fleming, national litigation coordinator at the National Immigrant Justice Center; Andrew Kang, legal director at Asian American Advancing Justice-Chicago and Viviana Martinez, assistant special legal counsel to Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle. The moderator was Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director at the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC).

McCarthy started the discussion by providing an overview of the Secure Communities program, which seeks to increase cooperation between local and state authorities with the federal immigration authorities. This voluntary program essentially allows for the sharing of information between local and federal authorities. As a result, undocumented immigrants are being placed into immigration detainers, which are requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to local law enforcement to detain persons for an additional 48 hours so that ICE can pick them up for immigration violations.

The program is designed to identify aliens convicted of serious criminal offenses, but the real outcome has been the separation of thousands of families without regard for ICE’s stated priority of deporting “criminal aliens,” which has resulted in a lack of trust in law enforcement. Tsao discussed the statistical effects that the Secure Communities program has had on immigrant communities. According to Tsao, ICE has issued more than 8,000 detainers in Illinois alone. Sixty-nine percent of these, however, are issued against individuals who have no criminal convictions. As a result, the program that was meant to target criminal offenders has also been used to target harmless individuals.

Fleming presented on the lawfulness—or rather, the unlawfulness—of ICE detainers. He provided a summary of NIJC’s class action lawsuit, which is sure to have a large impact on detainers and Secured Communities. The lawsuit is a challenge to ICE’s presumed authority when instructing law enforcement agencies to hold an individual in detention during a check on the individual’s immigration status, when there is no other reason to keep that individual in custody.

Fleming commented on how ICE’s detainers lack enforcement authority and oversight. Fleming then spoke of the unconstitutionality of Secure Communities and how the key arguments were addressed in the litigation. Next, Kang discussed his work with the activists in California responsible for the passage of the California Trust Act. The California Trust Act is meant to limit the state’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities regarding Secure Communities. This action aims to put pressure on Congress, which has stalled on immigration reform.

Kang further stressed that because undocumented immigrants are often afraid of contacting law enforcement for fear of consequences, the Secure Communities program ironically creates an “insecure” community. For example, an undocumented immigrant who is a victim of crime may himself or herself be too afraid to report the crime for fear that the police will contact ICE against him or her.

Finally, Viviana Martinez was asked to share her work under Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the passage of the Cook County ordinance refusing to comply with the Secure Communities program. As a result, Martinez said, Cook County has become a sanctuary for immigrants. She explained how Cook County’s refusal to take part in Secure Communities has led the way for other jurisdictions to follow suit and build resistance against this policy.

Martinez concluded by reiterating the need for sound policy and consistency within the immigration legal community to protect immigrants, especially those without criminal backgrounds, from costly detention. The panel not only identified the weaknesses in Secure Communities, but served as a stepping stone for those wishing to learn more about issues affecting immigrant communities.

Cindy Bedrosian (JD ’14) remarked, “With comprehensive immigration reform pending, it was so helpful to learn more about issues in immigrant rights that are specific to Illinois.”

According to Valenzuela, the panel put into perspective the fact that “although 287(g) (Secure Communities) policies were heralded as ‘protecting’ American neighborhoods from criminals, what they have really done is instill a fear of reprisal in undocumented individuals who seek to report a crime” and the program “is not targeting those it was meant to target. As a consequence, innocent and hardworking individuals are torn away from their families under these misguided policies.”

During the panel discussion, Tsao ended his comments with a quote by political activist Mario Savio: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part . . . And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”