Yestel Velazquez went to pick up his truck from an auto shop on a Tuesday evening three months ago. He had left it in Kenner, Louisiana, with a mechanic named Wilmer Palma, a fellow Honduran immigrant he’d met doing construction work after Hurricane Katrina. Velazquez was inside his truck, ready to drive away, when several unmarked cars pulled up and blocked the exits. He recalls men in plainclothes and bulletproof vests that said Police, along with an officer in a Kenner Police Department uniform, getting out of the cars.
Minutes later, Velazquez and Palma were lined up behind a Ford Expedition, along with more than a dozen other employees and customers of the auto shop and people from a neighboring business. They were all Latinos. One by one, the men were ordered to press their fingertips to a machine in the back of the Expedition. Palma’s hands were coated in auto grease, which briefly delayed what he and Yestel knew was inevitable.
“I always thought this would happen,” said Velazquez on the phone from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Basile, Louisiana. He spoke in a low, precise voice, as if he was too tired for bitterness. Before his arrest, Velazquez had grown accustomed to peering out the window before leaving his apartment; to keeping an eye out for the immigration agents he sometimes saw crouched behind their unmarked cars in the morning as people left for work; and to avoiding public places—even grocery stores—where other Latinos hung out, because they drew ICE like flies to honey.
New Orleans is bearing perhaps the heaviest burden of an immigration-enforcement strategy launched by the Obama administration amid the pandemonium of a presidential election. President Obama said in 2011 that he wanted to focus the government’s resources on undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions, rather than (as he put it at the time) “folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families.”
The Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, which began in the spring of 2012, was one of the formal programs inside ICE designed to carry out this goal. But in New Orleans, CARI morphed into an aggressive initiative characterized by coordination between ICE and local police, and the use of mobile fingerprinting devices wielded against seemingly random groups of Latino residents. Critics in Louisiana have dubbed ICE’s practices “stop-and-frisk for Latinos.” Immigrants report being detained at checkpoint-style operations at apartment complexes, grocery stores, soccer fields and laundromats.
Of all the people ICE rounded up at the auto shop, only Velazquez and Palma had records that resulted in their being loaded into the Expedition and taken to Basile. Even so, their sole crime was having been deported once before; otherwise, their records were clean. This makes it hard to see them as criminals, but their situation is not unusual: the deportation of people convicted of entering the country illegally has tripled during Obama’s tenure. As The New York Times reported in April, two-thirds of the record 2 million people who have been deported since Obama took office committed only minor infractions or had no criminal history at all.
For Velazquez and Palma, it made no sense. “We have contributed to lift the city up,” Palma said. “Now we’re being hunted down like animals.”
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Many of the immigrants I spoke with in New Orleans have come to think of themselves as prey. Some 33,000 Latinos came after Katrina to help rebuild the city. A large number stuck around, nurturing families and starting small businesses. Most settled on the city’s fringes, in the parishes of St. Bernard and Jefferson, a slab of two-story apartment buildings and strip malls just east of the Big Easy. Today, this area is deporting undocumented immigrants without serious criminal records at a higher rate than any other jurisdiction in the country.
The city was never entirely welcoming. Ray Nagin, the now-disgraced mayor of New Orleans, infamously asked a business group in 2005 for advice on how to “stop New Orleans from being overrun by Mexican workers.” (Most of the newcomers were from Honduras or El Salvador.) Other civic leaders also complained loudly about foreigners taking jobs from the city’s natives. In 2007, Jefferson Parish went so far as to outlaw taco trucks.
As the pace of construction slowed, undocumented workers became even less welcome. “After a lot of the work was done, there seemed to be this effort to remove people,” New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman told me at his office in June. I asked if the influx of undocumented workers had corresponded with any increase in gang activity or other crime, and he replied: “Certainly not, from my perspective.”
Gusman is an unlikely critic of ICE. A little over a year ago, he was the target of a federal lawsuit and a multiyear advocacy campaign in protest of his compliance with ICE detainer requests, in which the agency asked local law enforcement to hold arrestees beyond the time they would normally be released to allow officials to investigate their immigration status. When Gusman reversed his position last August, effectively kicking ICE out of the parish prison, he was the first sheriff in the Deep South to do so.
Now, Gusman criticizes ICE for prioritizing expediency over civil rights. “As a nation, as a community, we respect the rights of individuals—and the respect for an individual really doesn’t [depend on whether] they’re here legally or illegally. And that’s where I think ICE policy may have gone astray,” he said.
The relationship between New Orleans’s immigrant workers and law enforcement was so fraught that when organizers at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice began hearing complaints in the summer of 2012 about raids in Latino neighborhoods, vehicle checkpoints facilitated by local police and the mobile fingerprinting devices, they assumed it was simply the local ICE office “acting like the rogue agency that they are,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, the lead organizer for a Workers’ Center project called the Congress of Day Laborers, known by its members as el Congreso.
But what was happening in New Orleans was more than that. The aggressive wide-net tactics were rooted in a political desire to increase deportations—and they appear to be formal agency policy.
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In May 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that in “an aggressive effort to boost deportations,” ICE was upping the number of agents tasked with finding and detaining undocumented immigrants by 25 percent. The move was not publicly disclosed. This was the birth of CARI.
According to documents obtained by the Times, the strategy was intended to correct “a shortfall in criminal removals for the fiscal year.” According to the president of ICE’s employee union, senior-level managers told field agents that the initiative was “politically motivated to bump up the numbers during an election year for the Obama administration.” The problem is that criminal immigrants have been targeted for years, and the only way to keep the numbers up was “to go after the low-hanging fruit,” said César Hernandez, a professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. That means going after people like Yestel and Wilmer, who are a far cry from the “gang-bangers” the president claimed to be targeting. So the administration did two things to increase its harvest. The first was to grow more fruit: the administration effectively created more criminals by choosing to file formal charges against immigration violators who previously would have been deported without them. The second was the deployment of novel enforcement tactics, like the ones seen in New Orleans.
Speaking on background, an ICE spokesperson insisted that CARI was merely a national strategy designed to direct limited resources to criminal offenders. “If we’re going to remove 400,000 people, we can all agree convicted rapists should be removed,” the spokesperson said, while also denying the agency uses quotas for detentions or removals.
But e-mails between the ICE field office in Atlanta and agency headquarters in May 2012, obtained by the ACLU of North Carolina, reveal an agency scrambling to find more people to deport. “HQ has directed us to implement this plan to REALLOCATE ALL AVAILABLE RESOURCES…to attaining this year’s criminal-alien removal target,” wrote one employee in Atlanta. ICE’s assistant director of field operations, David Venturella, warned the field office that “the only performance measure that will count this fiscal year is the criminal alien removal target.”
The Congress of Day Laborers wasn’t aware of the orders from Washington. But in the months after CARI was launched, its staff started to notice what they described as systematic cooperation between ICE and local police. Organizers heard an increasing number of reports about New Orleans cops pulling over Latino drivers for minor offenses like failing to use a turn signal and then calling ICE agents to the scene. Immigrants reported that agents were entering their homes without permission, in a few instances after unlocking doors with confiscated keys. Agents rounded up whole groups of people at Bible study groups, soccer fields and other public spaces in Latino neighborhoods—and used the fingerprinting machines to figure out who had a criminal record.
By the winter of 2012, authorities in Louisiana were arresting more people for immigration violations per capita than any other state except the three that border Mexico. Still, no one had proof that what was happening in New Orleans was connected to official policy until October 2013, when a Honduran immigrant named Erlin San Martin Gomez was arrested outside his apartment in Jefferson Parish. In his release paperwork, his attorneys found a startling internal ICE memo.
“On September 11, 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials with the New Orleans Criminal Alien Removal Initiative Team (CARI) working in conjunction with the deputies from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office encountered San Martin at his residence,” the memo stated, in part. “ICE agents identified San Martin as a prior deport.” For the first time, advocates had a name (CARI) and an official summary of the patterns they’d noted in the recent raids, including collaboration with local law enforcement and the fact that San Martin had been “encountered,” not targeted, only to be identified by the biometric device afterward.
ICE objects to accusations that the raids are indiscriminate or based on race. Officially, all operations are pre-approved by field office leadership, and agents go into the field with a list of specified targets. But the spokesperson acknowledged that agents may go to locations where they have intelligence suggesting a target might be—and that they might then detain people who are “hanging around” if the agents “discover” that they have criminal records or have a reasonable suspicion that they do.
But even ICE acknowledges that agents have no way of knowing if bystanders have criminal records until after they’ve been detained and fingerprinted. “Fingerprints allow us to know who we’re dealing with. That’s why fingerprints are done,” the spokesperson explained.
In fact, 75 percent of the people fingerprinted by ICE are found not to qualify as priorities for deportation and are immediately released, the agency says. To ICE, that statistic suggests efficiency; to civil-rights advocates, it emphasizes the indiscriminate nature of the stops.
“If you’re going after a target, you go after that target. Every other police force does not need a biometric machine to go after somebody that they’re looking for,” said Julie Mao, an attorney at the Workers’ Center. “What is the definition of a bad police office? Quotas, stop-and-frisks, racial profiling, tons of money and technology, and very little oversight. You have this national enforcement system that is precisely that, but far more egregious.”
Justin Cox, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said that the way CARI has been carried out in New Orleans exemplifies the problems of an immigration policy driven by an insatiable hunger for removals. “ICE is a results-oriented agency, and they’ve shown themselves willing to use a variety of tactics and to evolve in order to reach ever-increasing numbers,” he said. “So long as they’re arresting and deporting large numbers of people, there’s not a lot of scrutiny of the means. It helps that the folks whose constitutional rights you’re violating are going to be in a detention facility in remote areas far from support networks, families, lawyers, or will be out of the country soon. They can’t vote, so they aren’t a constituency. It’s a perfect storm of factors.”
The storm came to a head in November 2013, when workers blocked a major intersection outside the ICE office in New Orleans during a protest against the raids. In December, Cedric Richmond, the Democratic congressman whose district includes New Orleans, sent a scorching letter to ICE’s acting director. “I have reason to believe that the aggressive tactics employed by ICE officials in my district are inconsistent with the national policy of the Obama administration, and are based on troubling criteria, such as the ethnic makeup of targeted persons,” he wrote.
Earlier this year, things began to change. The director of the New Orleans field office, Trey Lund, was transferred to Washington, DC, and ICE told a reporter that CARI teams have stopped going into the field alongside local law enforcement.
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Many undocumented immigrants hope the executive order that Obama is expected to issue this fall will prevent other families from being dismantled. Extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to a larger group of people—parents of US citizens, for example—would give families temporary protection from deportation, along with the ability to work.
But the aggressive enforcement patterns in New Orleans and elsewhere are a warning that what happens on the ground doesn’t always correspond to the sound-bite explanations of official policy.
Groups ranging from the ACLU to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network are pushing to end collaboration between ICE and local law enforcement, which is institutionalized through programs like Secure Communities. Advocates also want the administration to de-prioritize deportation of undocumented immigrants whose criminal records consist only of minor crimes or immigration infractions. The Workers’ Center wants a moratorium on the use of biometric devices in the field, and it also wants the federal government to hold agents who engage in racial profiling accountable.
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Without question, any action that Obama takes—no matter how modest—will provoke a furious backlash from Republicans. But the last thing that advocates want is even more immigration enforcement based on thresholds and political considerations. As long as ICE agents have few meaningful checks on their actions in the field and believe it’s their job to find as many deportable immigrants as possible, it’s hard to see how Obama’s orders will preclude localized abuses like those seen in Louisiana.
Through a combination of legal work and community mobilization, the Workers’ Center has had some success delaying deportations and even securing the exercise of prosecutorial discretion for people picked up by ICE. Several hundred members of the Congress of Day Laborers pack the assembly hall of a school in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward on Wednesday nights to speak about loved ones who have been detained or released, to tell their stories to local politicians and to share a meal. Together, they chant a rallying cry: Sin papeles, sin miedo. No papers, no fear.
But the fear lingers. After their arrest, Yestel Velazquez and Wilmer Palma filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, alleging that they were racially profiled. They were granted three-month stays of deportation pending an investigation of ICE’s practices, although they had to remain in detention in the meantime.
In early August, shortly after talking with me, their wives traveled to Washington, DC, to speak to national immigrant and civil-rights groups about ICE’s conduct in Louisiana. Velazquez participated in the discussion via telephone. The very next day, ICE revoked both stays and expedited their removal. After initially directing inquiries about the allegations against ICE directly to an ICE press handler, the Department of Homeland Security declined to respond to questions about the status of Velazquez’s and Palma’s complaints; it also declined to answer questions about what kind of policy, if any, the department has to protect civil-rights complainants from retaliation. ICE deported Palma to Honduras on August 8. Velazquez was eventually granted a one-year stay.
I asked Velazquez what the impact of his deportation would be, should it come. “They would be tearing us apart and frustrating the lives of our children,” he replied. “We came to work, and we don’t ask for handouts. We’ve done the work that nobody wants to do. There may be people out there who are against us, but they don’t know who we are. They should know we are hardworking people—and families.”