Blog Archive

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Insecure Communities: An ICE dragnet in Bedford County targeting Latinos wasn't subtle — which may have been the point

By Jonathan Meador
Nashville Scene
September 29, 2011

In The Godfather, hotheaded Sonny Corleone refers to war with a rival crime family as "going to the mattresses." It's not often that a quote from a mob movie applies so literally to federal anti-immigration activities, but maybe that's just how Immigration and Customs Enforcement rolls.

A recent spate of federal patrols in nearby Bedford County shocked and awed the immigrant community into meek subjugation two weeks ago as agents of ICE's fugitive operations unit made their presence known at multiple Latino-frequented businesses. Among these was Corsicana Bedding Inc., a mattress supply store, where ICE personnel allegedly scared the daylights out of the store's manager and employees during normal hours of operation.

Witnesses and media reports describe the spectacle of government vans and SUVs, windows tinted and teeming with federales, storming local homes, businesses, and area Lowe's and Walmart department stores. Reportedly they were searching for four Latinos accused of violating probation related to their immigration status.

The high-octane dragnet was cast over a sustained three-day period beginning in the early hours of Sept. 17 — one week after a consortium of local immigrants-rights groups held a hearing detailing racial profiling of Latinos by the Bedford County authorities. It ultimately succeeded in apprehending three of its targets, albeit with a cool-headed subtlety worthy of Sonny himself.

But members of the activist community are left wondering if ICE's cowboy behavior — a marked break from its mass Bush-era factory raids — is either retaliation for the Sept. 12 hearing, mere coincidence, or some combination of the two.

"That's definitely the conclusion one can draw from the situation," says Bill Geissler, a member of Latinos Unidos de Shelbyville (LUS), one of the hearing's organizers. "Of course, [ICE] denies it. But honestly, even if this was coincidental, it was, at the very least, utterly inefficient. All of that bluster to arrest three people who violated their probation? Clearly, they wanted their presence felt, to be seen, and it worked. This is a small town, and people are terrified."

Maybe for good reason. According to a report released at the hearing, "The Forgotten Constitution," Shelbyville Latinos are already hounded by local law-enforcement agencies more than any other ethnic group, based on research conducted and compiled by several area organizations, including LUS, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), among others.

According to the report, out of 74 reported arrests for traffic violations in the first quarter of 2011, 26 were Latinos. And even though Latinos comprise 20 percent of Bedford's 45,000 inhabitants, "approximately 39 percent of arrests for driving license violations were arrests of Latinos."

The report also criticizes the Bedford County Sheriff's Department — who declined to comment for this story — as "a zealous participant" in DHS' Secure Communities program, a full-fledged bureaucratic deportation machine created under Bush II and injected with steroids by Obama. What's more, it lambasts the department's mishandling of the so-called "Tennessee Jailer Bill," a state law that permits local authorities to detain suspected illegal immigrants on ICE's behalf for up to 48 hours.

"As a result," the report finds, "immigrants have languished in Bedford County jail for days and weeks longer than non-immigrants, without access to legal council, even when their only crime was driving without a license. Many are ultimately removed by ICE, even though the Bedford County jail had detained them illegally. Only after systematic advocacy and legal education by community members have officers begun to allow immigrants to post bond."

Although the Bedford County Sheriff's Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment, Capt. Tony Bennett recently told the Associated Press, "We're doing exactly what the immigration department has asked us to do."

Geissler, who often visits Bedford County's jail on behalf of incarcerated Latinos, finds Bennett's comment amusing, if not troubling.

"I don't know why he says those things," says Geissler, laughing.

Nevertheless, ICE spokesman Temple Black issued a statement to dismisses claims of federal retaliation as "without merit."

"ICE did not attend the [hearing], track participants or target supporters," Black says. "Rather, wholly apart and distinct from the meeting, ICE identified and arrested three convicted criminals who were living at large within the community. These arrests are in line with ICE's focus on convicted criminals and public safety threats, recent border violators, and those who game the immigration system."

Despite such assurances, the disconnect between ICE's public statements, its internal machinations and its public performance is pronounced enough to warrant sufficient skepticism.

A March 27, 2010, Washington Post article revealed that internal documents circulated among ICE's field offices sharply contrasted with the official line espoused by ICE chief John Morton. As Morton and the Obama administration sought to decrease the number of deportations nationwide, local ICE units adopted a different policy, setting quotas for detention and deportation.

And for the second time in less than a year, the 7,000-strong ICE agent's union unanimously passed a no-confidence in Morton, whom they criticized for a June 2011 memo that binds the tactics of the agency with something resembling the rule of law.

Officials within the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security who attended the Shelbyville hearing could not be reached for comment on this story, leaving the seemingly schizophrenic relationship between ICE's rhetoric and ICE's deeds — as well as federal opinion on Bedford County's apparent proclivity for profiling — up for debate.

But the chilling effect that ICE's actions have had on Shelbyville residents is hard to deny.

"The underlying impression that I have, and this is just my personal opinion, is that there is a lot of fear in the community regardless of your document status," says Noel Johnson, president of SOCM and an eighth-generation Bedford County resident. "People are feeling unwanted. They feel that no matter what they do, there is a risk they will be pulled over, so they're driving less, which makes it more difficult for them to get access to health care, to food, to basic services. I certainly don't have any facts or figures to report, but that to me definitely seems to be the case."