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Crime-stopper faces deportation

Image: Abel Moreno
Abel Moreno could face deportation after he called 911 to report a crime. He was snagged by a provision that deputizes local authorities to enforce federal immigration law. Davie Hinshaw / The Charlotte Observer
/ Source: and NBC News

Just like the police tell you to do, Abel Moreno called 911 when a man began assaulting his girlfriend. Before the end of the year, he could be deported to Mexico for his trouble.

Moreno, 29, of Charlotte made the call Dec. 29 because, he alleged, a Charlotte police officer was trying to fondle his girlfriend after a traffic stop. The officer ordered Moreno to drop the call and arrested him and his girlfriend for resisting arrest.

Several things then happened. Five other women came forward to allege that the officer, identified as Marcus Jackson, now 26, had tried to molest them, too. Moreno was released after investigators debunked the resisting arrest charge. So was his girlfriend.

Jackson was fired and faces 11 counts of sexual battery, extortion and interfering with emergency communication. Police Chief Rodney Monroe admitted that Jackson should never have been hired in the first place because of previous charges related to a restraining order filed by an ex-girlfriend. The local 911 system is under review because Moreno’s call wasn’t acted upon.

And Abel Moreno now has a six-month deadline to show why he shouldn’t be deported, even though police acknowledge that his 911 call was crucial to their uncovering a dirty cop, and even though they agree that he shouldn’t have been arrested.

That’s because the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the county jail where Moreno was held, is one of 67 local law enforcement agencies in 24 states that have signed up under Section 287(g) of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows some local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws during the course of their normal duties. While he was still in jail, Moreno was found to have been in the United States illegally for the past six years, working at a restaurant so he could send money back home to his mother and his five brothers and sisters in Acapulco.

A judge granted Moreno a six-month deferment on his deportation because he is a witness in the criminal investigation. But that reprieve runs out in November.

Moreno’s attorney, Rob Heroy, said he was confident Moreno would eventually be granted a so-called U visa, which allows illegal immigrants who are victims or witnesses in criminal investigations to stay in the country for up to four years. But only 10,000 such visas are available in any year, and while that process works its way through the system, Moreno remains in limbo.

“Now I’m unemployed,” Moreno said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “I don’t have any money, not even for rent, not even for my phone — anything. ... The truth is I’m scared.”

Section meant to target threats to securityIn many respects, Section 287(g), which has been around for 15 years, is similar to the law Arizona enacted last month obligating police to question people about their immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that they are in the country illegally.

The federal law, however, has a crucial difference, according to U.S. Immigrations and Custom Enforcement. While the Arizona law targets anyone without acceptable registration documents, Section 287(g) is meant to identify “foreign-born criminals and immigration violators who pose a threat to national security or public safety,” the agency says.

Nationwide, about 120,000 people have been deported under the provision in the last three years, said John Morton, the deputy secretary of homeland security for immigration.

“The fact is, the 287(g) program works,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, author of the original 287(g) legislation 14 years ago. “Thousands of illegal immigrants apprehended for other crimes are being identified and deported.”

But because it could lead to the deportation of someone like Abel Moreno, who came to the attention of police only because he did the right thing, the provision is intensely controversial among not only immigrants’ activists but also police agencies themselves.

The American Civil Liberties Union and immigrants’ rights groups have denounced Section 287(g) as an open invitation for local police to try to cleanse their communities of illegal immigrants under the pretext of enforcing minor infractions, like traffic violations. They claim that is what is happening to Abel Moreno, and they say it is also what is happening to Jessica Colotl.

Colotl, 21, a senior political science major at Kennesaw State University in Marietta, Ga., has lived in the United States since her family moved to Georgia from Mexico when she was 11. After she was stopped on campus in March for driving without a license, she was turned over to federal immigration authorities and held in a detention center in Alabama for 35 days because the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, which participates in the 287(g) program, determined that she was in the country illegally.

After ICE released Colotl and deferred her case for a year so she could finish her studies, the Cobb County sheriff charged her with providing a false statement to law enforcement when she was arrested, which is a felony.

The “false statement” was giving an old address that matched the one on her car registration. Colotl’s attorneys said she provided it in addition to her current address. But Sheriff Neil Warren maintained that Colotl had behaved with “blatant disregard for Georgia law.”

“Often individuals have different perceptions or personal definitions of criminal activity,” Warren said. “I follow the Georgia Code and enforce those statutes.”

Charles Kuck, one of Colotl’s attorneys, said Warren’s pursuit of charges “has nothing to do with public safety or upholding the law,” a view echoed by the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, which accused him in a statement of having “embarked on a witch-hunt, wasting money and county resources for political gain.”

In an interview with msnbc television, Kuck asked, “Are we going to deport all ... 300,000 children like this who have been brought here as young kids, who are engaged in our education system, who are graduating, who are wanting to go to college?”

“We have a national crisis in immigration, and Jessica is a symbol of that,” he said.

John N. Shofi, the acting head of ICE’s state and local outreach programs, called the federal-local partnership “a force multiplier to help combat crime in local communities.” But many police agencies disagree and have declined to join the program.

“The reality is that undocumented immigrants are a significant part of the local populations that major police agencies must protect, serve and police,” Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said, testifying before Congress last year on behalf of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents the 56 largest police departments in the United States.

Local police agencies “have worked very hard to build trust and a spirit of cooperation” with immigrant groups because their cooperation is vital “when an immigrant — whether documented or undocumented — is the victim of or witness to a crime,” Manger said.

But if an illegal immigrant can be turned over to immigration authorities for doing what most Americans would see as his or her civic duty — aiding the police in solving a crime — then “the hard-won trust, communication and cooperation from the immigrant community would disappear,” he said.

‘Class of silent victims’That kind of divide between police and immigrant groups would lead to more crime, not less, Manger said, creating “a class of silent victims” not only in immigrant communities but in the broader community, as well.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, acknowledged those concerns in March, when its inspector general’s office released a report concluding that the program had not been “focused on aliens who pose the greatest risk to the public.”

Of particular concern, the report said, is the opportunity for “racial profiling and intimidation by law enforcement officials.” It disclosed that ICE had entered into 287(g) agreements with an unspecified number of local agencies “that have checkered civil rights records,” at least two of which were defendants in past racial profiling lawsuits. Two others, which were not identified, are defending against lawsuits brought against them for actions while working under 287(g) jurisdiction.

Most striking is the inspector general’s disclosure that ICE had approved 16 local agencies for participation in the 287(g) program “despite objections from the [ICE] field units responsible for providing direct program supervision.”

The report called on ICE to enact 33 reforms to “ensure that its 287(g) efforts achieve a balance among immigration enforcement, local public safety priorities, and civil liberties.” To date, ICE has accepted 32 of the recommendations — it balked at collecting “objective data” on 287(g) activities “and their effect on civil liberties.”

Fostering fear of the police
Rob Heroy, the attorney for Abel Moreno, specializes in immigration law. He does not endorse calls by immigration activists to repeal 287(g) entirely, saying it “does go a long way toward identifying dangerous repeat offenders and people who have been deported before.”

But he said the law can be and has been abused “when it’s used to pick up people for minor things.” That was what made Moreno’s 911 call such an act of courage, he said.

Generally, “Hispanics who are present in the United States are afraid to call the police in the event of a crime for fear of ending up in an immigration proceeding,” Heroy said. And if a criminal case proceeds to trial, “witnesses have a fear [that] they would show up in court and someone from immigration would be there with handcuffs for them.”

“It does create a chilling effect,” he said.