“I heard one of the agents say to another, ‘This is like going hunting.’ And the other responded, ‘Yeah, I like this shit.’”
Due to the absence of a federal immigration policy, some cities throughout the U.S., such as New Orleans, are struggling with what some immigrant rights activists call the implementation of “race-based community immigration raids” that activists say are devastating immigrant communities nationwide.
Immigrant rights activists have expressed their concern about a new program established by the Obama administration in 2012 known as the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative or CARI. Under this program, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents focus on apprehending violent criminals whom the agency believes are a risk to public safety.
According to ICE, the program allows the agency to increase the number of “fugitive operations teams” in cities with field offices, such as New Orleans, by 25 percent. The program also allows agents to focus its “limited enforcement resources on identifying, arresting and removing at-large criminal aliens who pose a risk to community safety.”
But groups like the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice say the program is more like racial profiling and “stop and frisk,” and illustrates that the Obama administration is not just continuing to deport illegal immigrants but is using new tactics and technology to increase the number of deportations.
And since ICE agents are arresting people not because they have a violent criminal record, but because they violated prior deportation orders, the group says the program illustrates deep violations of Americans’ civil rights.
In order to round-up these “violent” immigrants, Jacinta Gonzalez, an organizer with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, says agents carry out immigration raids at grocery stores, Bible study groups, apartment complexes, parks, and other public places frequented by Latinos.
The agents then handcuff and fingerprint suspects right on the spot. The fingerprinting technology ICE agents in New Orleans use is similar to a device used in Iraq and Afghanistan by the military.
“These machines were intended for war situations,” Gonzalez said. “And now they’re being used in the streets of New Orleans.”
However, ICE maintains that its “invaluable resource,” known as “IDENT,” has been used for the past 10 years and has “allowed ICE to exercise discretion for 75 percent of individuals scanned” in New Orleans.
Gonzalez says she is concerned about the raids because they have “a terrifying effect.”
“We haven’t seen raids with this magnitude, this intensity and this technology in other parts of the country,” she said.
Erlin San Martin Gomez, a New Orleans resident, knows all too well how intense the new ICE program is. The 27-year-old immigrant from Honduras was on his way to pick up his 2-year-old son from daycare last September when two immigration agents dressed in plainclothes approached him.
Gomez said the agents asked him if he had any identification, before handcuffing him and placing him in an ICE vehicle for several hours.
“My feet were shackled, and I was handcuffed from 5 in the afternoon to 10 at night,” said Gomez.
Once he was in the back of the car, Gomez says the agents scanned his fingerprints with a biometrics unit that searches immigration and criminal databases. They then reportedly stopped for a meal, met with other ICE officers and drove around New Orleans arresting more people until the vehicle was full.
“I heard one of the agents say to another, ‘This is like going hunting,’” said Gomez. “And the other responded, ‘Yeah, I like this shit.’”
Gomez says he and the others were taken to ICE headquarters in downtown New Orleans, where his leg shackles were removed, but the agents kept him in handcuffs.
Though Gomez says he doesn’t have a criminal record, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox told Al Jazeera that the agents stopped him because he had been deported once before in 2006.
Gomez was held in a detention facility for a month. Despite repeated requests from a local immigrant rights advocacy group, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, for ICE to allow Gomez to stay in the country with his family, including his son who is a U.S. citizen, the agency refused.
But what was most interesting about ICE’s response to the Workers’ Center’s request is that the government agency cited that Gomez had been arrested under ICE’s CARI program, publicly acknowledging the program’s existence for the first time.
Internal ICE emails published by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina found that the program was established in May 2012 — the same month that the agency began to push for an increase in the number of criminals who were deported.
One of the emails was from David Venturella, who at the time was the assistant director of ICE field operations in Washington, D.C. In the email, Venturella told agents in Atlanta that they were “1,200 criminal removals under when compared to last year,” and said, “The only performance measure that will count this fiscal year is the criminal alien removal target.”
As Open Secrets reported, Venturella left ICE shortly after CARI was implemented to work for GEO Group, which is one of the largest private prisons in the U.S. and one of the largest owners of immigration detention facilities in the nation as well.
Agents listened to Venturella’s orders and in 2013, the agency reported that 82 percent of the people it deported from inside the country last year had a criminal record. Most of those immigrants came from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
In response to the agency’s admission, immigrants rights activists in New Orleans held a protest outside of ICE’s New Orleans headquarters in November for two hours and called upon the Obama administration to use its legal authority to stop the deportations before this new immigration enforcement became normal throughout the U.S.
“Every day, ICE is terrorizing, arresting and deporting the workers and families who helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” Gonzalez said. “All these people have done is struggle to be reunited with their families and loved ones—or refuse to ‘self-deport’ from the communities they helped rebuild.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana agrees the ICE raids violate rights granted under the Constitution and wrote a letter to ICE Director John Sandweg in December.
“Profiling any race is not the American way and no one should be subject to unethical pursuit; especially not while accompanying your son at his school bus stop, while attending weekly Bible study meetings or while purchasing food for your family at the local supermarket,” Richmond wrote.
But his calls for reform may have fallen upon deaf ears, since Gonzalez says that while the raids initially decreased after the protest, the Obama administration has continued to “deport immigrants at the blistering rate of 1,100 a day …”
With a deportation rate higher than George W. Bush, it’s estimated that Obama has deported about two million immigrants so far during his presidency. And according to a report from the organization, Louisiana has the highest per capita deportation rate in the country.
Violation of the Constitution?
While illegal immigrants may not be protected under the Constitution, J.J. Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the Worker’s Center, said that many individuals who are handcuffed and fingerprinted are innocent.
“This is exactly what the Constitution prohibits,” Rosenbaum said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, an ICE official confirmed that while CARI raids are supposed to target a specific individual, immigration agents are instructed to also handcuff and fingerprint people in the area.
“We may scan people in the immediate vicinity because that makes sense to do,” the official said. “We want to make sure that there’s nobody else there that might be a violent criminal.”
According to Gonzalez, “[Agents] will raid a house looking for one person, but subject everyone in the house to fingerprints.”
She said that recently a pregnant woman in New Orleans with no criminal history was arrested after calling the police to report her car had been broken into.
“How pregnant women are a priority for removal at this moment is beyond me,” Gonzalez said.
Whether the federal government will step in before programs like CARI spread to other parts of the U.S. remains to be seen. But until there is legal action protecting immigrant communities, groups such as the Workers’ Center will continue to fight for reform and equality.
As for Gomez, he won an “order of supervision,” which means he is allowed to live with his family in the U.S. until immigration officials make a final ruling in regards to his deportation case. When that decision will be made is not known.