The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Luis Guerra swore he had nothing to do with any murder, that whoever picked him out of a lineup was wrong. Still, he was held at the Rikers Island jail for more than a year before the charges were dropped.
It didn't end there. Federal immigration officials stepped in because Guerra was in the country illegally, brought over from Mexico as a child. He ended up in federal immigration detention in Texas before being allowed to return to Manhattan; he's now waiting to find out whether he'll be shipped to a country he hasn't seen since he was 9.
Merely being at Rikers put him on the radar of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, said Guerra, 21, who's trying to get a college degree while awaiting word on his future. City authorities made "a mistake, and now I'm paying for their mistake," he said. "I was living a normal life before."
Removing illegal immigrants who come in contact with the criminal justice system is a significant part of ICE's nationwide enforcement efforts, but it needs the cooperation of local law enforcement to do so. The relationships that make it work are causing concern not just in New York, but also in places like Arlington County, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Santa Clara County, Calif.; and San Francisco.
Immigrant advocates and some politicians find it disturbing that local officials work with ICE on identifying illegal immigrants. In New York, they say, it puts a city that owes its existence to immigrants in the deportation business and breeds fear among immigrants that any contact with authorities — even reporting crimes — could have severe consequences.
"It is really not a good idea to have large segments of your community be afraid of law enforcement," said Nancy Morawetz, a professor at the New York University School of Law and part of its Immigrant Rights Clinic.
Guerra, testifying at a City Council hearing on the issue Wednesday, said he saw that firsthand after his 2007 arrest on a second-degree murder charge.
"There were people who witnessed the murder, people who could have cleared my name," he said, "but they were afraid to go to the police after they heard what was happening to me with immigration."
ICE has had a presence at New York's main jail complex for at least 15 years. The city Department of Correction says federal regulations require it to comply with things like detainers that ICE puts on inmates it wants custody of.
In the 2010 fiscal year, 3,155 out of 13,386 foreign-born inmates had ICE detainers, and 2,552 of them were released directly into federal custody when they were discharged from Rikers, the department said. Nationwide, about half of the nearly 393,000 people removed from the country in the past year were criminals, according to Homeland Security Department statistics.
"Our top priority is to identify and remove criminal convicted aliens who post a threat to the community and to national security," said ICE spokesman Ivan Ortiz-Delgado.
ICE says the city is obligated to hold anyone the agency has put a detainer on, and Department of Correction spokeswoman Sharman Stein echoed that.
If anything, ICE should be taking more people into the detention and deportation system, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter controls on immigration.
He argued that every illegal immigrant is deportable at any time, and that as it is, ICE exercises discretion in terms of whom it detains. Advocates' fears of a dragnet dragging are overblown, he said.
"I'd be ecstatic if this program worked the way immigrant rights groups fear it does," he said.
The federal agency often comes under fire for its practices, with critics citing issues like transfers of detainees far away from family and friends, and people in the system having limited access to legal resources that could allow them to stay in the country.
The city is going along with that by not exercising more care in who gets turned over to ICE, critics say. It's one thing for people convicted of violent felonies to be turned over, they say; it's another for someone convicted of a misdemeanor or of nothing at all.
That would include Jose Reyes, a legal resident from the Dominican Republic. Arrested in May 2009 after an argument with his ex's new boyfriend, an immigration detainer was put on him because of a misdemeanor drug arrest from 1997. He was able to avoid deportation after that case was reopened and the charge taken down to disorderly conduct.
"They say they're trying to arrest only criminals," he said through a translator at Wednesday's hearing. "It is not fair that people who have these small convictions are deported."
Critics also worry what the future holds as the Secure Communities program, a more extensive immigration enforcement effort not yet in use in New York City, continues to be implemented around the country as part of a national rollout planned by 2013.
There is confusion over whether localities can opt out of the program, under which the fingerprints of anyone arrested for anything from a traffic violation to a violent crime are automatically checked against federal immigration records.
Arlington County, Washington and Santa Clara County voted recently to opt out the program, saying it could lead to racial profiling, and San Francisco officials tried — with no luck — to drop it.
"I understand that the goal of the relationship between ICE and the Department of Correction is one that is based on the goal of public safety, and keeping New York City residents safe from individuals who are criminals and could do harm," Council Speaker Christine Quinn, among New York's most powerful politicians, said Wednesday.
But, she said, "many appropriate concerns have been raised that the way the Department of Correction is working with ICE is in a way that has granted them such latitude that the implementation of this program goes far beyond."