ICE agents pat down detainees. New York City recently passed legislation to protect immigrants from the Obama administrations zealous detainment and deportation policies. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey.)
In March of this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared New York “the most immigrant-friendly city in the world.” The occasion: the signing of Local Laws 982 and 989, two pieces of of legislation designed to shield immigrants from the long and overzealous arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Passed overwhelmingly by the New York City Council, the laws bar the New York Police Department and Department of Corrections from providing immigration officials with information about those arrested for minor crimes or ordered released after charges are dismissed.
In passing these laws, New York joins a small group of cities rejecting some of the harshest effects of the Obama administration’s expansion of the federal Secure Communities program. S-Comm, as the program is known, is responsible for record deportation numbers that have exceeded 1.4 million in four years, translating into a monthly rate far higher than that of President Bush. The program targets both undocumented immigrants and lawful permanent residents for detention and removal by using local law enforcement and corrections agencies to report immigrants to ICE, a process that typically results in prolonged detention prior to removal, even for those accused of the most petty misdemeanors. The Department of Homeland Security’s own numbers reveal that a mere 26 percent of those deported in 2011 under the program were convicted of violent crimes. The rest—the overwhelming majority—are dragged into detention as a result of minor infractions or none at all. In some jurisdictions, including purported liberal strongholds like Massachusetts, more than half of those deported through S-Comm have no criminal convictions of any kind.
Compared with enforcement programs such as the Bush administration’s Operation “Return to Sender,” which targeted civil immigration violators in a series of brutal home raid operations, S-Comm has been subject to far less criticism. After all, ICE has claimed, if inaccurately, to focus the program on the violent and dangerous offenders. But in New York City, where more than a third of the population is foreign-born, immigrant communities and grassroots activist organizations have fought the rhetoric, pushing the City Council to limit law enforcement officers from collaborating with ICE.
Thanks to an impressive history of grassroots organizing by immigrant activists and allies, laws to protect immigrants from some of the effects of federal enforcement are an accepted feature of New York City political life. Since the mayoralty of Edward Koch, the city has maintained executive orders barring local government and social services agencies from releasing immigration information to the federal government. Schools, health care and victims’ rights offices and the administration for Children’s Services are covered by an umbrella order to protect the confidentiality of immigration status information. A Department of Education regulation explicitly bars school officials from inquiring into or referencing the immigration status of any student or her parents. And in 2003, Mayor Bloomberg signed Executive Order 41 barring the New York City Police Department from inquiring into status “unless investigating illegal activity other than mere status as an undocumented alien.” Inquiries into the status of crime victims or witnesses are prohibited outright.
And New York City does more than defend immigrants from ICE; it takes affirmative steps to serve immigrants. The mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, established as a charter agency in a 2001 referendum, is tasked with linking immigrants, community-based organizations, and city agencies to disaster relief, health care, and education advocacy. The administration for Children’s Services has established its own Director of Immigrant Services, charged not only with attending to the special needs of families with mixed or no status but also with advocating to legalize children within its custody. Four of the five boroughs have newcomer high schools, and Manhattan’s Comprehensive Night and Day School allows older and working immigrant high-school students to obtain their diploma without having to choose between jobs and education.