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Playing with ICE

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Ramsey.jpgPolice Commissioner Charles Ramsey's has a smart new plan to combat crime that puts police in closer contact with their communities -- walking the beat, getting familiar with the neighborhood. It makes sense, except in heavily Latino areas of town.

In these neighborhoods, especially in the Mexican community in South Philadelphia, people cringe when they see the police and they fear contact with them.

Any attempt for the police to gain their trust is doomed. Why? Because the Police Department has chosen instead to have a special relationship with the federal agency responsible for enforcing immigration laws.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency -- ICE, for short -- has been on a tear here and nationally, in rounding up illegal immigrants and deporting them. Under the Secure Communities program, the number of deportations has risen dramatically during the Obama administration.

On paper, Secure Communities makes sense.  ICE is supposed to target undocumented immigrants with criminal records.  Who can disagree with that? Why let Dominican drug dealers or Mexican gang members stay in the country.

In reality, there is a major gap between the stated goals of Secure Communities and its practice.  In Philadelphia particularly, the program -- which says it targets sharks -- has ended up mostly capturing minnows.

Only one out of five illegal immigrants rounded up by ICE agents in Philadelphia in the last two years were convicted of Level 1 crimes, the most serious offenses.  The majority were people who had not been convicted of any crime.

How could this be?

Because in Philadelphia, the Police Department allows ICE access to its computer system, which records information about arrests in real time. Officially, it is called the Preliminary Arraignment System (PARS).

To use one example, if a Mexican kid is arrested for drunk and disorderly ICE agents know it immediately -- often before his parents. Wevre heard tales of young men arrested on suspicion of theft, with no official charges leveled, being whisked away by ICE and deported to Mexico.

In this particular case, the young man was 25 and had lived in the U.S. since he was two. To him, Mexico was a foreign country.

We revealed what was happening with ICE, PARS and the police in a story in June called The Deportation Machine.

Immigrant activists had hoped that the city would end it special relationship with ICE. Most other police jurisdictions do not give ICE agents access to their real-time data. In fact, a number of police departments and local and state officials are unhappy with the whole Secure Communities program, saying it puts them at odds with their local immigrant communities and makes policing more difficult.

Recently, in response to these complaints -- and with one eye on re-election -- the Obama administration has pulled the throttle back on Secure Communities.

Not in Philadelphia. In this city, as the Spanish-language weekly Al Dia has reported, the local officials renewed their contract with ICE to continue to use PARS.

Let's be clear here.

This issue is not about where you stand on immigration. ICE has a job to do and if they do capture sharks -- people with serious convictions either here or in their home country --- they should be deported.

But, it shouldn't be the job of the Philadelphia police to, de facto, become surrogate ICE agents -- anymore than we should ask ICE agents to combat crime on the streets. Both are enforcement agencies, but both have different missions.

So far, the Nutter administration has given lip service to critics of the relationship between ICE and the police. The mayor says soothing things about the need for broad immigration reform. Still, he approved renewal of the contract.

That makes him, along with Ramsey, part of the problem.

So, if you are a police officer, don't be surprised if Latinos walk the other way when you walk your beat. Instead of seeing you as a protector of their community, they see you as an arm of ICE.

They fear and distrust you -- and the city has earned that distrust.

-                                                                               - Tom Ferrick

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