Anything but “Secure”

Last week, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a small policy change in its Secure Communities Program (discussed below, in a news story from the current issue of Ms. magazine). The new policy would ensure that immigrants charged with minor traffic violations would not be flagged for deportation–unless they’re convicted. Immigration rights activists called the action “inadequate” and “underwhelming.”

One evening last May in New Orleans, Delmy Palencia locked her domestic partner out of the house after an argument. As he was trying to get back in, the police showed up. Palencia, an undocumented immigrant, tried to explain that it was all a misunderstanding, but she was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence and jailed for 45 days while the District Attorney’s Office decided whether to pursue prosecution.

Palencia, who was separated from her 3-month-old nursing infant, was devastated. “I felt like my world was crumbling around me. …I felt like my heart had been ripped out.” A public defender told her to simply wait and see if the charges would be dropped.

Meanwhile the local sheriff, as required under the federal Secure Communities Program, sent Palencia’s fingerprints to the Department of Homeland Security, which determined that she had violated immigration law. Even though the district attorney didn’t ultimately decide to charge her with domestic violence, she was still subject to a 48-hour immigration hold. This was thrown out only after a judge determined that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials had failed to follow the rules.

Fifteen days later, ICE showed up. “They told me I had to go with them,” she says. “They didn’t care that I had my baby in my arms.” She was once again torn from her child, this time spending three weeks in a federal detention center. The Congress of Day Laborers, part of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, as it had done with the immigration hold, lobbied for her release. In the end, she was given a six month stay but was ordered to leave the country by Feb. 20.

This case illustrates the impact of immigration laws on women and families. While much attention has been devoted to draconian laws implemented in Alabama and Arizona, lost in the discussion is Secure Communities, under which the fingerprints of those arrested by local police are cross-checked with immigration databases. Since the program’s inception in 2008, 226,000 undocumented immigrants have been deported under its auspices, out of a total of more than 1 million deportations that have taken place since President Obama took office. ICE Director John Morton defends the record numbers as “smart immigration enforcement” focused on criminals.

Designed to deport those with serious criminal records, Secure Communities has transformed minor infractions into a source of immigration surveillance. The result: fear among undocumented immigrants that contact with law enforcement (even to seek protection) could mean detention or deportation. In November, the Obama administration directed ICE to expedite deportations of serious criminals and halt deportations of those without criminal records or those who have strong ties to the U.S. The retraining of all ICE personnel on how to implement the new policy was scheduled to be completed Jan. 13, but has been delayed.

Palencia, who came to the U.S. in 2007 to find work to support her two daughters and mother in Honduras, was fortunate to find advocates. Since her arrest, she has joined the Congress of Day Laborers in the fight to protect the rights of the undocumented. “Inside the jail, I met many women who are going through something similar. We have to support each other as women.”

Excerpted from the Winter 2012 issue of Ms. magazine. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, join the Ms. community. Comments on this piece? We want to hear them! Send to To have your letter considered for publication, please include your city and state.

Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York. Her first book, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (Routledge 2005), won the John Hope Franklin Prize awarded by the American Studies Association. In 2006-2007 she served as first Visiting Endowed Chair of Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College. A longtime community activist and scholar, she has worked with numerous social justice organizations, including Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She has written for Feminist Studies, the Women’s Review of Books, Race and Reason, Ms. Magazine, and the Progressive Media Project.  She is currently writing a book on the history of domestic worker organizing in the United States.

Photo from Flickr user Fibonacci Blue under license from Creative Commons 2.0

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