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Heavy Police Tactics A Reality For Immigrants, Latinos Too

Some Latinos and immigrants have lived with heavier police tactics that experts attribute to increased criminalization of immigration.
Gregory Bull / AP

Hundreds of miles separate their plights, but when violence erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., Latinos in the New Orleans area who have been part of a high-tech local and federal law enforcement dragnet understood.

"It is something we are dealing with in our streets and in our homes, said Fernando Lopez, a community organizer at the New Orleans-based Congress of Day Laborers. The Congress holds weekly meetings where hundreds of area immigrants show up to tell stories of who was caught in the latest roundup.

Immigrants tell of being visited at home by officers who claim to be looking for someone else but end up coming back and handcuffing them and arresting them as family and children look on, Lopez said.

The African-American and Latino and immigrant community "have different examples of what criminalization and discrimination look like. It could be someone getting shot. It could be someone arrested at Home Depot," Lopez said. Either way, "we live in a system where in most of these actions, where someone gets shot or gets criminalized, these actions are somehow legalized and get justified."

Latino communities say the increased policing in their communities and use of military-grade equipment has come as local officials have taken on more of the role of enforcing immigration laws, either through state policies or federal-state partnerships.

Mobile fingerprinting equipment used by local and federal officials at immigration stings in the New Orleans area were used in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to documents obtained by the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. The group has said the equipment has been used in raids on Latino businesses and communities. Latinos are rounded up and fingerprinted and those with previous deportation orders or other warrants are arrested.

Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, led by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, was one of the local agencies that received military grade weapons through a Pentagon program now under review. The office was found by the Justice Department to have violated the civil rights of Latinos and a judge ruled the office racially profiled Latinos.

For years, immigrants and people assumed to be immigrants by law enforcement have contended with Secure Communities, the federal fingerprinting program used by local officials to root out those in the country illegally, many after being pulled over on traffic stops.

"It’s really concerning because there’s also no accountability for these agencies," said Lopez. "Who is policing the police, who is holding them accountable for what is happening in the streets?”

Immigrant groups also cite laws such as Arizona’s SB1070, annual deportations of hundreds of thousands, and Latinos being stopped and asked to show papers or identification.

So while calm has come to Ferguson, immigrant advocates are gearing up for a national protest on Thursday that they have labeled “National Day to Fight For Families.” The protests are aimed at President Barack Obama who is considering using his executive powers to defer deportations of some immigrants here illegally and at House Republicans who blocked advancement of immigration reform legislation.

Events are planned around the country, but the centerpiece is a rally in Washington, D.C. that organizers hope will draw 2,000 and will lead to about 200 taking part in civil disobedience.

The organized protest starkly differs from the outbreak of violence and the subsequent marches that broke out in Ferguson after Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer. But both communities have mounted resistance following the deaths of African American men and boys and deportations of Latinos, and social media has instantly broadcast them.

“In the black community and in the Latino community, what you see now are protests against the way we have been dehumanized. That dehumanization is reflected in state policies and over policing,” said Ian Haney-López, a professor at the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law and an expert on the evolution of race relations since the civil rights era.

In Ferguson, protestors wore T-shirts with the civil rights era slogan “I Am A Man." When Latinos and immigrants talk about families, they are trying to do the same, to make others see them as people, not criminals, Haney-López said.

César Cuahutemoc García Hernandez, who publishes a blog on the intersection of criminal and immigration law, said that for decades entering the country illegally was not prosecuted as a crime, though that has changed.

“The very same policing initiatives that are justified on the basis of going after criminals are also used to pick up immigrants and put them in the deportation pipeline, even if they never end up in criminal proceedings,” said García Hernandez, a visiting professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law.

In addition, said UC-Berkeley's Haney-López, politicians have come to understand "they can whip up panic in the general population by talking about the threat the Latino immigrants represent." He said that the 2001 terrorist bombings helped spread such fears beyond the Southwest and transfer sentiments against people of Middle East descent to other brown people in the U.S.

There are police forces that seek to avoid such harsher tactics. A number of sheriffs and police and other law enforcement have campaigned for immigration reform and have refused to hold immigrants for deportation unless they are serious criminals.

The Obama administration issued guidelines to the ranks of immigration enforcement officers, setting priorities for who should be apprehended and deported. But their implementation has not been uniform across the country and still sweep up immigrants with only immigration violations.

There are those that disagree that enforcement has toughened. Conservatives and immigration hawks argue the president has weakened interior immigration enforcement and border security.

Yet Latino and immigrant groups say that due to increased enforcement, being Latino in some places is enough to be pulled over under the guise of a minor traffic stop and be asked to prove American citizenship.

Gail Christopher, who leads the America Healing initiative that promotes racial healing and racial equity, said immigration issues have historically been racialized and criminalized, just as crime has been racialized.

“We (the U.S.) didn’t deal with the false belief that there is a hierarchy of human value based on physical characteristics, largely based on skin color. We built our nation on those beliefs," said Christopher, who is vice president for program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

But with demographic change in the U.S., there is increased movement that is "helping to bring these issues out of the darkness into the light,” Christopher said.