Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Los Mexicanos de Filadelfia Part One: The Deportation Machine

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

and Daniel Denvir

One moment Teresa Garcia's son was there, the next he was gone.

Garcia said her 25-year-old son was deported to Mexico last year after being arrested by Philadelphia police for allegedly making threats against a friend who had failed to repay a loan. Her son was innocent, his mother said. He never got a chance to prove it.

Once arrested, information about him and his case was instantly turned over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, who determined that he was an undocumented immigrant and removed him from the U.S.

The young man had lived in America since he was two. He had no memory of his homeland. Still, back he went.

"Before sending someone to ICE, they should investigate the case," said Garcia (not her real name), whose eyes teared up as she recalled the incident, which happened the day after the American Mother's Day, and the day before the holiday is celebrated in Mexico. "I thought they couldn't deport my son because he was innocent."

This is not an isolated case.  In recent years, hundreds of undocumented immigrants who have contact with Philadelphia police for a minor offense or no offense at all quickly end up in the hands of ICE and then are deported.

It was not supposed to work that way. The Secure Communities program was supposed to target illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes. 

In Philadelphia, though, nearly three out of five immigrants who have been deported under Secure Communities are classified by ICE as "non-criminals," a vague label that means they were never convicted of a crime. This could mean they were arrested for minor offenses, such as public intoxication, disorderly conduct, purchase of a small amount of drugs and other misdemeanors, then deported before a trial.

Here are the exact figures:

According to ICE data, 238 of the 421 Philadelphia suspects transferred from Philadelphia Police to ICE custody between October 27, 2008 and February 28, 2011 were never convicted of a crime, one of the highest rates under Secure Communities in the country. Another 86 were classified by ICE as level 2 or 3 offenders and 97 were convicted of level 1 offenses, which are the most serious crimes.

In addition, ICE also removes an undetermined number of undocumented immigrants through other means:  tips from neighbors, complaints from business competitors, raids on business and a raid where ICE agents were seeking one individual but found several others.

But, the ICE relationship with the Philadelphia police has the highest yield for the least amount of effort.

Secure Communities has created controversy in a number of cities and some states because political and governmental officials are wary of making their police de facto ICE agents. For more on the controversy, click here.

It is hard enough, these local officials say, to forge links with immigrant communities because of language and cultural barriers. How can they protect immigrants from being victims of crime if they fear they will be whisked out of the country if they have even casual contact with local law enforcement? The fear of deportation reinforces the already strong omerta -- the code of silence -- among immigrant groups. 

"When you see violence, one is afraid," said Garcia. "Because if the police come, they'll ask us where we are from, for identification. We don't have confidence in the police because they will deport us. I've seen many things...but I'm not saying a thing."

Philadelphia city officials have no such qualms about Secure Communities.

Not only does it participates with Secure Communities by providing ICE with the fingerprints of arrested suspects, which is a requirement of the program, the city has taken the additional step of giving ICE access to the Police Department's Preliminary Arraignment System (PARS), which records information about arrests in real time.

ICE agents get access to details of an arrest the minute they are typed into PARS. Immigrant activists are angry that Mayor Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams, who have expressed support for immigration reform and the city's booming immigrant community, while they are also actively cooperating with ICE. To these advocates, there is a wide gulf between what Nutter and Williams say and what they do.

Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Everett Gillison sympathizes with critics of the program, but he says that the Mayor is unlikely to change his mind.

"They are supposed to target those in the level 1 [high-level crime] area. We've looked at these, and we have asked them why a lot of people getting deported are in level 2 or level 3. But on a case-by-case basis, that's not really our call," says Gillison. "I can suggest to you that you will find any number of stories that will break my heart, I'm sure. But I'm not dealing with a perfect situation."

It is difficult to say why ICE ends up deporting so many non-criminal immigrants from Philadelphia.  The DA's office was tightlipped, and refused to offer more than a terse, elusive statement: "ICE detainers are sent to and lodged with the Philadelphia Police Department through the Police District where the individual is being held pending a charging decision."

Harold Ort, an ICE spokesman, says the agency discourages DAs from dropping charges pending a deportation. His emailed statement was:

"ICE provides notification to Philadelphia District Attorney Office when someone pending criminal charges has been taken into ICE custody.  They are informed that the subject may be released on their own recognizance, bond or an alternative form of detention while the hearing process proceeds or that subject may be granted some form of relief from removal.  Therefore, ICE recommends that criminal proceeding not be terminated based on the deportation process."

That may be the recommendation, but it appears that it is not always the practice.

The high level of non-criminal deportations in Philadelphia suggests the possibility that the DA does not prosecute some suspects who would otherwise be charged with crimes if they are set to be transferred to ICE custody. Or, activists suggest, it could mean that police are arresting undocumented immigrants who have committed no crime with the sole intention of seeing them deported. Either way, justice is not being done.

Meanwhile, activists have been trying to persuade the city to terminate ICE access to PARS.

Zack Steele, an organizer with the immigrant advocate group JUNTOS, said that in June 2010 Gillison had given activists the impression that the mayor was prepared to end the PARS agreement. Later, though, the city renewed it.

"We think either the DA or the judges put their foot down and helped renew the contract with modifications," he says. Steele contends that the city should discontinue the PARS agreement when it expires this August 31, and make a fuss over Secure Communities, as cities such as San Francisco and Washington D.C. have.

"I would still like our city officials to step up," Steele said. "We would like our public officials to take a stand, and at least push back."

On February 28, activists with Philadelphia's New Sanctuary Movement filed a Right to Know request asking for a copy of the PARS agreement, and received the documents on April 18.

The agreement is signed by representatives of the Philadelphia Police Department, the District Attorney's office and the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania. ICE pays the city an Initial License Fee of $13,065 and a Yearly License Renewal Fee of $5,565.

Activists are once again fighting to stop the city from renewing the agreement.

In the meantime, arrests and deportations continue for low-level offenses.

On involves a young man we will call Carlos, a 24-year-old Honduran handed over the police after a mistaken arrest last month. According to his aunt and uncle, the young man was doing remodeling on a house. When he left the home at 10 p.m., tool belt in hand, police officers were waiting outside.

He was never charged with a crime, but police handed him over to ICE agents, who sent him back to Honduras. The aunt and uncle believe the young man was set up by the homeowner, who they said was a policeman, to avoid payment of $450 owed to him for his work. 

"He's a good kid," said his aunt, "He doesn't drink; doesn't smoke.  We are a strong family that lives in the church."

Meanwhile, Teresa Garcia's son remains in Mexico and is struggling as a stranger in his place of birth.

"He'll call us because he can't find work, and he's hungry," says Gerardo, his father. "And so we send him a little something. If we don't help him, who will?"


For more on the Mexicans of Philadelphia read Part Two: Work, Family & Fear


A Spanish language version of this story was published in Al Dia, the Latino weekly newspaper, and can be viewed by clicking here.



Photographer Peter Tobia has taken a series of striking portraits of Philadelphia's Mexicans that can be viewed in a photo essay  Los Mexicanos de Filadelphia. It can be viewed here.



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