A coalition of civil rights groups today offered evidence that United States citizens have been illegally detained, sometimes for many days, due to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “holds” placed on them after these men and women were erroneously flagged as deportable. The U.S. citizens were detained due to Los Angeles County participation in the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Communities (“S-Comm”), a fingerprint-sharing federal detention and deportation program.
Civil rights leaders and elected officials today spoke out against S-Comm, which results in the unconstitutional incarceration of U.S. citizens at the behest of immigration authorities. In letters sent today to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors and City Council, a coalition of five civil rights groups called on the officials to enact safeguards to ensure that County and City authorities do not continue to violate the constitutional rights of Los Angeles residents.
“It is time for us to finally say ‘no, we will not participate in a program that detains people unlawfully, crowds our jails, and compromises community policing,’” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, one of the groups that signed the letter. “Our elected officials must pull the blinders off their eyes. The costs of this program are far too great to ignore.”
Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA) endorsed the coalition’s requests and called on L.A. County and City officials to end their damaging cooperation with immigration officials. Their request comes just days after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wrote to Governor Brown urging him to suspend California’s participation in S-Comm.
“For years, community members have decried S-Comm, which destroys families and communities across the country,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “We now know that the program is not only destructive, but also error-ridden. We hope Los Angeles’ elected officials will agree that preserving our fundamental due process rights are more important than participating in overzealous detention and deportation programs.”
Antonio Montejano, a 40-year-old Los Angeles-born U.S. citizen wrongly ensnared by S-Comm on Nov. 5, 2011, said he spent four nights locked up for a shoplifting charge after he forgot to pay for candy his children had eaten while shopping. Among $600 in purchased items, a $10 bottle of perfume had also slipped through. Even after a judge ordered him released, Los Angeles County detained Montejano because of an immigration hold, which was triggered by the fundamentally flawed S-Comm program, despite his American citizenship. County authorities detained him for two nights at the Inmate Reception Center and forced him to sleep on the floor without a mattress or even a blanket, in violation of court prohibitions of floor-sleeping in County jail.
“What kind of a message does this send to my kids?,” Montejano said, "My eight-year-old son asked me: ‘Dad, can this happen to me too because I look like you?’ I feel so sad when I heard him say this. But he is right. Even though he is an American citizen – just like me – he too could be detained for immigration purposes because of the color of his skin – just like me. What am I supposed to tell him?”
Romy Campos, a 19-year-old resident of Redondo Beach, was arrested for a misdemeanor in Torrance, California on November 12, 2011. Within hours of her arrest an immigration hold was triggered through S-Comm despite her citizenship. Police authorities refused to allow her family to post bail for her release because of the erroneous immigration hold. Romy spent four days in custody due to this immigration hold before the hold was lifted.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s arrested Jose Velazquez, Jr., a 37-year-old resident of Huntington Park, on July 13, 2011. ICE placed an immigration hold on Velazquez despite his citizenship, preventing his wife from posting bail for his release. He was detained for at least one day in County custody on the immigration hold before his wife succeeded it getting it lifted.
Rigoberto Amador Flores, a 29-year-old resident of Los Angeles, was arrested by Redondo Beach Police Department. ICE placed an immigration hold on Mr. Flores, despite his citizenship, preventing him from posting bail. He was detained for at least eight days in county custody, including the Thanksgiving holiday, before the hold was lifted.
According to a recent report by the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley, approximately 3,600 citizens have been apprehended from the inception of the program through April 2011.
Through S-Comm, ICE requests that local authorities detain an individual for immigration purposes before they have investigated an individuals’ immigration status. This violates the basic principle of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that no person be arrested absent probable cause. Although the immigration hold is a voluntary request by ICE that the local authorities hold the person, Los Angeles authorities currently comply which with every request. In doing so, Los Angeles County authorities also deny any person with an immigration hold the right to post bail, causing tens of thousands of inmates per year to remain detained for lengthy periods of time. ICE does not reimburse the County or the City for these detentions.
In recent months, communities across the country, such as Santa Clara County and Cook County, Illinois, have enacted policies that narrow the circumstances in which they will detain persons for ICE based on federal reimbursement and the person’s criminal history. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and City Council can do the same.