Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Advisory council member cautious about Nashville's immigrant processing proposal

"A person that has lived and worked here for a decade without committing a crime has proven to share our values as Americans."

"Once we single out a portion of our population and determine that they are unworthy of basic human rights, it becomes easier and easier to justify."

Part 2 of 2; read Part 1

Tomorrow: Interview with Sheriff Hall

HNN: You say that you think 287(g) is a weapon in a war of attrition. What do you mean, and why is that a problem?

Actually, I believe I said that an improper application of 287(g) could reduce it to a weapon in a war of attrition. It is my hope that the intentions that brought 287(g) here were aimed toward removing those from our communities that are proven threats. I was skeptical at first because virtually every police department in the country has access to a pretty reliable database that assists them in gathering information about a person’s prior criminal activity. At first glance, it seemed like reinventing the wheel. While it’s true that the NCIC database does not track immigration offenses, in many cases, neither does the ICE database. That’s because if an undocumented immigrant has had no prior brushes with the law, he or she does not exist in any legal sense. As I said before, with the suspension of the Driver Certificate program, and the use of police dragnets in specific areas of town, we are likely to expend precious police resources dealing with those whose only crime is driving to work. So the time and effort spent on arresting, interviewing, and ultimately deporting a person found driving without a license, is time, energy, and resources not applied to the apprehension of dangerous criminals.

HNN: Why is it bad for a person in your example with 10 years of working and contributing to the community to be deported if that person is here illegally?

Well, let’s look at that. For years, though we have had an immigration policy in this country, we have employed a sort of “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” approach towards enforcement of that policy. Our country’s remarkable economic expansion was in no small part fueled by an abundance of affordable labor. Our politicians have for years avoided revamping our immigration policies so that those wishing to come here and work and contribute can do so. Again, silence is tacit approval. A person that has lived and worked here for a decade without committing a crime has proven to share our values as Americans. How is it that we benefit by removing him or her from their family?

HNN: You mentioned "obvious human rights issues" and "indefinite detainment and separation from loved ones" - is that the problem, or is there more to it? If that's it, what exactly are the human rights issues? Don't we routinely imprison people and separate them from their families when they commit legal infractions? Or is there a concern that the punishment is somehow unwarranted?

The phrase “human rights” is indeed applicable. While it is true that we are a nation of laws, it is critical to remember some of the important cornerstones of our legal system, for instance, the right of due process, the right against indefinite detainment, the statutes of limitations, and the notion that the punishment should fit the crime. To specifically answer your question regarding the routine incarceration of those who commit infractions, I would have to ask you for evidence of this. To my knowledge, we do not routinely jail those who jaywalk, litter, or trespass. At this time, mere presence without documents is not a crime, but is equivalent to a civil infraction like those listed above. We pride ourselves on our fair and just legal system, and rightly so, which is why we should seek to uphold the founding principles of it, even when, in fact especially when it is inconvenient. A good example of these are the abuses of Guantanamo Bay. Many of us were alarmed that our country had embarked down the slippery slope of abandoning our constitutional principles because we felt threatened. As the old saying goes, you can’t get a little bit pregnant. Once we single out a portion of our population and determine that they are unworthy of basic human rights, it becomes easier and easier to justify.

HNN: Is your concern for human rights violations why you mentioned that the African-American community should be at the table?

It is my belief that what affects one segment of our population affects us all. I grew up during this country’s civil rights movement. Even then most Americans knew that the segregation and exploitation of our African-American citizens was morally unacceptable, and Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds participated in the protests that ultimately brought about change. A less lofty rationale might, for instance, be that an increased police presence in poorer neighborhoods will certainly impact many African-American families, and they should be included in the discussion.

HNN: Is it good that the Sheriff is consulting with the federal government, instead of trying to implement immigrant-related changes on his own?

Tough call. On the one hand, yes, at least there would be some safeguards with respect to constitutional violations I suppose, but I would of course have preferred the Sheriff to form or join a coalition with other law enforcement agencies to petition the government to enact comprehensive immigration reform this year. I wonder why we can't revamp our criminal justice system to be more effective against the Gustavo Reyes sort, without the need to run every detainee through a Federal database to determine status. I see no correlation between status and likelihood of criminal activity.

HNN: You said that perhaps as an advisory council member you could at least ensure that information about the program was available to the immigrant community unfiltered. What kind of unfiltered information are you talking about?

Let me preface this answer by stating that thus far there is no evidence of this, but if for instance the program is implemented without addressing the concerns of civilian community leaders, those on the council would know this first hand. It is a constant struggle for me to temper my cynicism and participate in this with an open mind and with the expectation and belief that the sheriff’s department will negotiate in good faith. That is because I grew up in an area whose Hispanic population knew that the sheriff’s deputies patrolling our neighborhoods were less than ethical when enforcing the law. Almost everyone knew of someone who had suffered at the hands of rogue police officers. Again, it is important for me to make clear that so far there is no evidence that this behavior is prevalent in either the Metro Police or the Sheriff’s Department.

HNN: When HNN asked for comment from Chief Serpas, his office said that it does not have anything to do with the implementation of 287(g), that its race- and culture-neutral policies will continue unchanged, and that I should direct my questions to Sheriff Hall (whose interview appears tomorrow). But isn't Serpas' police department involved in the discussion about 287(g) already, and for reasons including but not limited to discretion exercised by the police at the street level?

Again, in the strictest sense, he is correct that his department has nothing to do with the implementation of 287(g). That’s a little bit like saying that the pizza delivery person has nothing to do with the consumption of pizza. I find it a tad disingenuous that his office would seek to minimize the implications of his participation in the council. When a company invests in an expensive piece of equipment and also spends time and money training its employees to use it, there is a natural expectation for that company to expect results. Without the police, Sheriff Hall and his deputies might as well use their new computers to bid for items on Ebay. In my old line of work, there is a saying, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something,” and that is applicable here. Until a Metro Police Officer arrests someone, 287(g) lies dormant. So I would argue that the Chief’s involvement in the council is as important as Sheriff Hall’s.

HNN: You mentioned the need for policies that will outlast Serpas - requiring a minimum amount of bilingual deputies on duty each shift, and at the very least, cultural diversity training for those officers who are not bilingual, and in addition, clear-cut provisions that determine who is detained and who is issued an NTA, and civilian oversight - who can implement those policies?

Again, I believe I said that this program will outlast both Chief Serpas and Sheriff Hall. That is why I believe so strongly that we need to slow down and think this through. As I mentioned before, now that the press conferences have been held and we have pointed at our shiny new machine, the public is going to expect results. The current political climate combined with the onslaught of nativist rhetoric coming from talk radio could have the effect of a “body count” mentality seeping in to our collective mindset. The people of Tennessee may open their newspapers and read that “x” number of people were held for deportation in a given time period with no idea whether or not it was the right people who were held and deported. This may soothe their fears in the short run but does nothing to make their communities any safer. And isn’t that the point? We need to be prudent and conscientious when drafting the Memorandum of Understanding. If we expect the support and cooperation of the immigrant community, they must be convinced that their rights will be protected. If the immigrant community feels that they must avoid interacting with the police for any reason, then all of us are less safe.

HNN: Will your suggestions be brought to people who can implement them? Is it Serpas, Hall, the Metro Council, the State, the Federal Government, or someone else?

Of all the people listed in that question, you seem to have omitted some very important people, and that is the people of Tennessee. I believe they have both a moral and a civic responsibility to look beyond the propaganda offered by all sides and educate themselves about this important debate. Absent that, it is conceivable that Tennesseans may find themselves mired in abuses reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, and we still deal with the shame and resentment from that disgraceful period in our history. So yes, specifically, Chief Serpas and Sheriff Hall have important roles in how this program is implemented and administered, the state’s responsibility is to acknowledge that until we finish sorting through meaningful immigration reform that working families have a right to drive to work, and the federal government has a moral responsibility to rise above political expediency and draft fair, realistic, and viable immigration policies. I would like to thank you for doing your part to cover this issue in depth. It is sometimes quite difficult to elaborate due to the constraints of traditional media. This issue cannot be properly addressed with ten second sound bites.

Tomorrow: interview with Sheriff Hall

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