City Council Just Says No to Federal Deportation Program

ACLU Attorney Bill Newman addressing the Northampton City Council on Thursday. (David Reid photos)

City Councilors Adopt a Resolution Refusing To Cooperate with the Secure Communities Initiative of the Dept. of Homeland Security

NORTHAMPTON — The City of Northampton on Thursday formally opted out of a federal deportation program that sends fingerprint scans of people who get arrested by state and local police to a database run by U.S. immigration officials.

The 8-0 City Council vote came after little discussion on the floor, but the resolution — sponsored by Councilors David Narkewicz and Pamela Schwartz, and by Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz — had been the subject of committee discussions for several months. (Councilor Marianne LaBarge’s name was added to the measure’s list of sponsors on Thursday as an amendment; Councilor Maureen Carney was absent.)

In short, the resolution declares that the city will, to the extent permissible by law, opt out of the Secure Communities Initiative, a program run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), a division of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS). Created in 2003, ICE is the investigative and enforcement arm of the DHS.

Scanners, Fingerprints and the Federal Database

The program relies upon the use of biometric fingerprint scanners by police.

According to the DHS, locally collected fingerprints are sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and compared with a criminal-history database. Matches are sent to a unit at DHS called US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) where they are compared to a database called IDENT (Automated Biometric Identification System) containing fingerprint records for millions of individuals with “prior immigration encounters.”

If ICE chooses to pursue deportation, the case is referred to a field office, which will “commence removal proceedings.” (For an overview of the ICE process, click here.)

City councilors listened intently Thursday as one speaker after the next spoke in favor of the anti-ICE resolution.

An earlier version of the resolution — unveiled in March by the Preserving Our Civil Liberties Campaign — contained stronger language, including a requirement that Northampton Police Department report the ethnicity of people arrested or stopped in greater detail, that police issue an annual report to City Hall regarding information shared with the federal data warehouses known as fusion centers, and that police not share information with the feds without giving 60-day notice to the mayor and the City Council.

“The resolution represents a large portion of the PCR campaign’s demands, and while we know there’s still work to do, we’re excited to see it happen,” said campaign organizer Emma Roderick.

Narkewicz emphasized that gaining the cooperation of the city’s police chief early on was an important step, and that the resolution as crafted reflects the police department’s current practices regarding federal immigration enforcement.

Frances Crowe, a longtime anti-nuke and peace activist with the AFSC, strongly urged councilors to adopt the resolution Thursday.

“It’s been a long process,” Narkewicz said. “When I was first approached by the Preserving Our Civil Liberties campaign several months ago we started a dialog; there was myself and councilor Pamela Schwartz; and Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz agreed to be part of that conversation.”

Not only was Police Chief Sienkiewicz in on the discussions and a sponsor, but it was he who rewrote the measure into its final form after meeting with sponsors and advocates.

“I enjoyed working with a group of concerned citizens over the last several months,” Sienkiewicz told Northampton Media.  “With Councilors Narkewicz and Schwartz involved, the final agreed-upon language reflects the police department’s prior and current practices of respecting existing law and individuals’ constitutional rights, and affirms our ethical and professional operations.”

In a practical sense, he said, the resolution “changes nothing from what the PD has always done.”

In urging his peers to support the resolution Thursday, Narkewicz said that Secure Communities has had a negative impact upon community-police relations, that it has failed to meet its stated goal of deporting only dangerous criminals, and that it amounts to an “unfunded mandate” from a federal agency to cities and towns.

The campaign to pass the local resolution was sponsored by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and local branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Friends Service Committee.

Federal Program Undermines Effective Law Enforcement, Opponents Say

The stated intent of Secure Communities is to deport so-called “criminal aliens” — that is, immigrants who pose a public safety threat.

“When it comes to enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) focuses its limited resources on those who have been arrested for breaking criminal laws,” the agency’s website states.

Supporters of the resolution held a rally on the steps of City Hall before Thursday's City Council meeting. (David Reid photo)

But on Thursday, opponents said that the Secure Communities Initiative encourages racial profiling, makes immigrants afraid to report crimes, and feeds information from immigrants and U.S. citizens alike into a vast database with little oversight.

Before the council meeting Thursday, about 30 people gathered to hear testimony of several immigrants who said they or their relatives had been stopped and questioned about their immigration status by police, and that those here illegally were afraid to seek police help when needed. Those who spoke wore T-shirts of ADP, the Springfield-based Alliance to Develop Power, a grassroots group that organized the rally.

After the rally, many attendees packed into the City Council chambers to urge council passage of the resolution.

Attorney William “Bill” Newman, director of the ACLU’s Western Massachusetts office, noted that Secure Communities is a program, not a law. He said that S-Comm started out as a showcase program in Boston, but that Mayor Thomas Menino within the past month had condemned the program as being an “utter failure.”

“It was supposed to result in the deportation of the worst felons and dangerous people who didn’t have the legal right to be in the United States,” Newman told city councilors in the public comment session that opened Thursday’s council meeting. “It turns out that about that 80 percent of the people deported had no criminal record or something as minor as traffic offenses. That’s what S-Comm has done.”

Newman said that the program results in a breakdown in trust between the community and the police: “It penalizes victims of crimes because it says ‘If you know someone who might be involved in this who might have an immigration issue, don’t go to the police, because you might end up getting him or her or even you deported.’ ”

Audio: The ACLU’s Bill Newman Addresses the City Council

Taryn Amina, a teacher at the Center for New Americans, spoke of a friend who was deported after revealing his immigration status to police at a traffic stop.

Currently, biometric information-sharing is utilized in 1,508 jurisdictions in 44 states and U.S. territories. By 2013, ICE says, it hopes to use this capability nationwide.

ICE estimates there are more than 10 million people in the U.S. who lack lawful status or are “removable” because of a criminal conviction. More than 77,000 immigrants convicted of crimes, 28,000 or so convicted of aggravated felonies, were removed from the United States after identification through Secure Communities, according to the agency.

But the ACLU notes that people who have never been convicted of any crime represent 52 percent of the total number of those deported under S-Comm, with a further 15 percent committing only minor offenses. The ACLU also reports that names and fingerprints from citizens and non-citizens alike are being collected at an alarming rate under the program. (Too see recent Secure Communities statistics, click here.)

In June of this year, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick refused to sign on to the Secure Communities program, joining governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Pat Quinn of Illinois. And in July, the Springfield City Council passed a resolution urging its mayor not to sign any memorandum that would commit the city to participating in the program.

© Northampton Media

Mary Serreze can be reached at mserreze@northamptonmedia.com

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