La Voz Latina - Su puente a la comunidad Hispana de Georgia y Carolina del sur

Local law enforcement officers distance themselves from ICE

  • Adelina Nicholls, Executive Director of GLAHR. Photo by Rosie Bullock.
  • John Newton, Editor.

Stop me if you've heard this one... a nun, a pastor, and a newspaper reporter walk into a bar.
It's not the setup for an old joke but really happened. Well, sort of. Actually, we walked into the Chatham County Courthouse on Montgomery Street, which is indeed home to a number of bars (in the legal sense) but none that sell or dispense alcoholic beverages.
Last month, I accompanied Sister Pat Brown (director of Catholic Charities for the Savannah Diocese) and Pastor Samuel Rodriguez (spiritual leader of the First Hispanic Baptist Church of Savannah) in a visit to the office of Chatham County's chief law enforcement officer, District Attorney Meg Heap.
We were there because fear and uncertainty have become the new normal for many of our friends in local immigrant communities. We wanted Heap to understand how those fears are creating a barrier between her office and the people she is sworn to protect and serve.
President Trump insists he's cracking down on “bad hombres” but since assuming control of the federal government in January, he has issued a series of executive orders whose clear intent is to terrorize ALL undocumented immigrants, including many who have put down roots in our community and made significant contributions to its prosperity and growth. Late night raids in February conducted locally by ICE (immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents have induced paranoia among many immigrants toward anyone and everyone in law enforcement.
Heap, who has a long history of service to crime victims and the powerless, was sympathetic to our task and mentioned the work of Tere Rivera, Bilingual Victim Advocate for her office's Victim-Witness Assistance Program. Heap's office has filed numerous U-visa requests on behalf of undocumented crime victims willing to assist her team of prosecutors.
“Tere is very active in the Hispanic community and I am very proud of her work,” Heap said. “Our job in the D.A.' s office is to make sure anyone who is a crime victim or who may have information as a witness to criminal activity feels welcome and safe in cooperating with us. We are not connected to ICE.”
Sheriff P.J. Tanner, of neighboring Beaufort County, made headlines in February when he announced that his office wants to commit five deputies to the the 287(g) program, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiative that allows state or local law enforcement to receive authority for immigration enforcement in their jurisdictions. (See story on page 14.)
Our group also sat down with Chatham County Sheriff, John Wilcher, in early March. Sheriff Wilcher expressed surprise at Tanner's actions and said his office has no plans to follow suit.
“I've got over 1700 inmates in this jail and my plate is full,” Wilcher said. “When ICE came in to our community in February, they requested we provide them with four patrol cars to transport the people they were picking up. That's all they asked for and that's all we provided. I was elected to do a specific job and immigration enforcement is not part of that job.”
ICE has also been criticized for the practice of issuing indefinite detainers on inmates they suspect of being undocumented. But under federal law, there is no legal requirement for a jail to hold anyone beyond the time when they are eligible for release from state or local custody.
“Our policy is to hold all inmates for up to 48 hours after their arrest,” Wilcher said. “After that, if they have paid their bond or ordered released pending a future court date, we don't keep them here in this jail.”
Finally, late last week, our group sat down with senior members of the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department's command staff and shared several concerns with these officers– chief among them the worry that crime victims in immigrant neighborhoods are now less likely to coperate with police for fear of being caught up in Trump's new immigration enforcement initiatives.
Major Richard Zapal, head of the SCMPD Criminal Investigations Division, assured us his officers are focused on protecting and serving all members of the community, regardless of legal status.
“We are not federal immigration agents,” he said. “Our job is to uphold the law and we're not interested in anyone's legal status unless they are the specific target of an ongoing criminal investigation.”
Zapal also expressed a desire to restart the Latino Officers on Patrol program (LOOP), an outreach effort that provides local residents with a special Spanish-language hotline number connecting them to a Hispanic officer 24/7.
The really sad thing about all of these conversations is the fact that their necessity is predicated on a demonstrably false premise– the idea that undocumented immigrants represent an outsized threat to the safety and security of our nation.
Earlier this year, President Trump called on the Department of Homeland Security to create a new office focused solely on the victims of immigrant crime and instructed the agency to “make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens.”
In reality, study after study has shown that, on the whole, undocumented immigrants are actually far lees likely to commit crimes than their citizen neighbors. According to the New York Times, “a review of census data between 1980 and 2010 that while non-citizens comprised 7 percent of the U.S. population, they comprised only 5 percent of those in America’s prisons.
This is why ICE agents have been encouraged to make so many indiscriminate arrests. The mere act of crossing the border without authorization is, in fact, a criminal act. Thus, by definition, many of the estimated 11 million living and working among us are, in fact, criminals. Never mind that many of them have been much more conscientious than US citizens to avoid breaking any laws, except for those that were sometimes all but impossible to avoid– like driving without a license.
Ironically, the push back against Trump's vision for a new and improved America has resulted in calls for undocumented immigrants to limit their cooperation with law enforcement efforts.
Adelina Nicholls has served as the Executive Director of GLAHR, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights , since 2001. GLAHR's mission is to to defend and advance Latinos' civil and human rights.
Nicholls traveled to Savannah last month to present a workshop on non-violent resistance at Pastor Samuel's church. Her advice should ICE knock on your door in the middle of the night? “If you're not sure they have a properly signed warrant, you're better off to not open the door,” she said. “If they have the warrant, they'll break down your door any way. And if they don't, they'll go away.”

Issue Month: 
Tuesday, April 4, 2017