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?"

 

Spanish
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Adriana Arvizo / Redacción AL DÍA