When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he vowed to end the crisis of inequality that had created what he called New York’s Tale of Two Cities. Yet a new report argues that the city’s immigrant communities continue to be trapped by the social divides wrought by biased policing and oppressive immigration policies. Rights groups say the de Blasio administration is marginalizing immigrants by allowing federal authorities to use people’s past records in the criminal justice system to undercut their constitutional rights.
According to the report by Families for Freedom and New York University Immigrant Rights Clinic, the city’s collusion with immigration authorities has led to the unjust detention and deportation of noncitizens as the police and the feds blur the lines between Homeland Security and Zero Tolerance.
Generally, local authorities do not have to enforce immigration laws on behalf of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but the Secure Communities Program (S-Comm) enables local and federal sharing of immigration and criminal databases. Once data from ICE, the FBI and local precincts are meshed together, federal agents can easily nab someone on an immigration charge and a criminal charge that counts as a “deportable offense.” This can conveniently result in someone being banished from the country without going through the normal criminal process.
So the promise to end the tale of two cities rings hollow to New York immigrants who live in legal limbo under the cloud of their conviction history. In one case of a Dominican Republic–born legal resident, documented in the report, a misdemeanor drug offense from over a decade ago placed him at risk of deportation and made him frightened to come forward to naturalize, or even to travel outside the city. But at the time, “nobody, including his defense attorney, had said anything about immigration consequences when he pleaded guilty.” He eventually managed, with the help of a lawyer, to have his old conviction vacated and changed to a non-deportable offense. But had he had a run-in with ICE earlier on—if his workplace had been raided or he got pulled over by a mean cop—he might have gotten kicked out of the country before getting his second day in court.
The endemic inequities in the city’s criminal justice system are worsening the problem, says Families for Freedom Executive Director Abraham Paulos. “A lot of us came to New York during the 1980s and ’90s, and that was at the height of the war on drugs,” Paulos tells The Nation. “So now you’ve got a whole population of green-card holders here, or even undocumented folks, that have these convictions [and are] essentially in limbo.” Typically, he explains, a green-card holder with prior crimes on her record—perhaps just the result of plea bargaining to avoid the trouble of a trial—may be frozen in a legal no man’s land, he explains, forever subject to deportation and barred from naturalization: “I can’t apply for citizenship, because I have a felony, I won’t get it. But…[at the same time] any contact that I have with the NYPD might get me into the detention and deportation system.”