Magazine article Reason

Muddled Masses: The Immigration Detention System Treats Suspected Illegal Aliens like Criminals, but with Fewer Rights

Magazine article Reason

Muddled Masses: The Immigration Detention System Treats Suspected Illegal Aliens like Criminals, but with Fewer Rights

Article excerpt


One Saturday morning in May 2010, Francisco Gomez Escobar was walking just yards from his apartment building, chatting with his roommate and friend Edith Santiago. Gomez, a 35-year-old landscaper from Mexico, and Santiago, a 51-year-old janitor born in Camden, New Jersey, were trying to decide when to meet after he went to a flea market and she visited a thrift store. A police car pulled up.

It's not clear what the police were doing there. Santiago's lawyer says the two officers told him they were investigating a loud party from the night before, while a police spokesman says Gomez had seen the officers minutes earlier and aroused suspicion by trying to avoid them. Santiago, Gomez, and a neighbor say the cops immediately started asking Gomez about his immigration status, then roughed him up and arrested him. They apparently were suspicious about a blender, a boombox, and CDs that Santiago and Gomez were carrying. Santiago and Gomez say they were taking them to sell at a flea market, and the police spokesman says the officers did not have probable cause to charge them with any crime related to the items. The incident nevertheless landed Gomez in an immigration jail two states away, where he has been confined for nearly a year while he waits to see whether he will have to leave the country where he has lived for at least the past 15 years.

This encounter did not take place in Arizona, where a controversial law enacted last year, on hold as a result of a federal injunction, requires police to question suspected illegal immigrants about their citizenship status. It happened in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Police Chief Harry Dolan has spoken out against the Arizona law. Raleigh police are not even among the 70 or so municipal law enforcement agencies in 26 states that are trained to enforce federal immigration law by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That program, authorized under Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, has expanded dramatically since 9/11.

For Gomez, it didn't matter that Raleigh police don't participate in 287(g) because the Wake County Sheriff's Department, which runs the local jail, does. The department was also the first agency in North Carolina to sign onto the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities program, which means deputies have ready access to ICE databases and electronically alert the agency when an unauthorized alien has been fingerprinted in the jail. That's how Gomez ended up behind bars.

Secure Communities and 287(g) are supposed to focus the federal government's immigration enforcement powers on "criminal aliens"--illegal immigrants who commit crimes and thus come into contact with local cops performing their regular duties. In practice, however, many noncriminal aliens, whose lawbreaking is limited to the civil offense of living in the United States without permission, get swept up in this dragnet. As a result, they are treated like criminals, but without the legal protections that criminal defendants enjoy. They are subject to indefinite detention, and they can be ordered out of the country based on a legal process much less rigorous than a criminal trial.

In the post-9/11 political climate, local cops are tasked with enforcing civil immigration laws, whether they've been trained for it or not. Rogue officers can set an immigrant on a path to detention and deportation even if immigration enforcement is not within their authority. While detained, suspected illegal aliens may suffer from medical neglect and physical abuse. Their freedom, health, and safety depend on the whims of police, federal agents, judges, and jailers.

Federal Law, Local Enforcement

The overall number of noncitizens apprehended by federal authorities fell by almost two-thirds between 2001 and 2009, from about 1.6 million to just over 600,000. Yet the number detained in ICE jails during this time rose by 85 percent, from 209,000 to a record 383,500. …

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