Friday, September 4, 2009

Davidson County sheriff may drop deportation program

By Travis Loller • ASSOCIATED PRESS • September 4, 2009 Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall is balking at renewing his department's participation in a program that lets local authorities enforce federal immigration laws because new rules could keep secret basic information about who's being detained. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is changing the program known as 287(g) after a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found widespread differences in how it is implemented by local law enforcement agencies and a lack of oversight. Under a new agreement that local agencies are being asked to sign, ICE is expanding its authority over records created as part of the program. Information about suspects and cases would be part of a broad category of information that the new agreement says "shall not be considered public records." Other sheriffs have raised complaints about language in the new agreement that specifies that they are to focus on arresting illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes rather than rounding up people only because they entered the country illegally. But Hall, one of the first to participate in the 287(g) program, is troubled by the information controls and says he will stop participating if the public records provisions in the new agreement aren't eased. "I really do not have any idea why they would not want the public to see the data and know about what we do," Hall said. "It flies in the face of what I think is good policy." ICE wants paper trail ICE spokesman Matthew Chandler said the new agreement is designed to "protect information whose release would violate privacy laws or hamper the outcome of a law enforcement investigation." Even information defined as not public record could be released through a Freedom of Information Act request as long as that release did not violate other laws and policies, he said. According to the Department of Homeland Security, local officers trained to enforce immigration laws have identified more than 120,000 people as illegal immigrants since January 2006. Advocates say the immigration detention system is already secretive, and it is possible for people to disappear if information about who is being held isn't available to the public. They point to the case of Pedro Guzman, a mentally ill U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2007 by the Los Angeles County sheriff's department on a misdemeanor trespassing charge. Omar Jadwat, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said deputies participating in the 287(g) program mistakenly flagged Guzman as illegal and deported him to Mexico before his family knew where he was. "This is a guy who ... he disappeared," Jadwat said. "It took a long time to figure out what had happened to him." According to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, Guzman survived the three months he was lost in Mexico by eating out of garbage cans and bathing in rivers. "It's important to figure out, 'How did this happen?' " Jadwat said. To do that the family needs access to the paper trail that led up to Guzman's deportation — information that could be even harder to get under the new agreement. The limit on public access to information wasn't part of Nashville's previous agreement with ICE, although Chandler says it was in some agreements with other agencies. According to the new agreement, the information that is considered not public record includes any documents created by a participating law enforcement agency that "contain information developed or obtained as a result of" participation in 287(g). Examples are program protocol and information about suspects and cases, Chandler said. Currently, information about who is booked into the Davidson County jail and what charges they face is publicly available. Free speech at risk? Immigrant rights and free speech advocates are worried. "There's a very important factor here going back to colonial times, which is knowing who is in custody," said Gene Policinski, executive director of the Nashville and Washington, D.C.-based First Amendment Center. "We don't 'disappear' people in America," he said, referring to a practice often associated with dictatorships in which people are detained by authorities who refuse to divulge where they're held or even if they are in custody. Joan Friedland, immigration policy director of the National Immigration Law Center, said the language in the new agreement is vague but clearly intends to limit access to information under state law and perhaps under the federal Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA. "We find that disturbing" she said. Under the new ICE agreement, some information would still be considered public — primarily statistics — but local agencies would have to coordinate its release with the ICE Office of Public Affairs. Jadwat said ICE routinely fails to respond to requests for public information in a timely manner. "I think I still have FOIAs (requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act) that have been pending for years," he said. By contrast, requests for public information under Tennessee state law must be addressed within seven business days. It generally is easier to get public records from local officials than those in Washington. Solution is possible Hall said 287(g) works. He reports a 46 percent decline in the percentage of illegal immigrants committing crimes over two years of participation. More than 5,300 illegal immigrants identified by Hall's department have been processed for deportation. Hall says he would like the agreement to allow local law enforcement to release records in accordance with state laws. ICE seems to be listening. Hall said Metro Nashville attorneys are discussing possible changes to the agreement that would allow local agencies to follow state laws for releasing public information. Chandler would not comment on whether the agency was negotiating changes to the agreement with Nashville, but he said, "We work with all partner agencies in order to ensure the agreements work for ICE as well as the local agency."

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