President Barack Obama has said we cannot “fail to recognize the humanity” of undocumented immigrants. He also said, during a trip to New Orleans, “We should be fighting to make sure everybody who works hard in America, and hard right here in New Orleans, that they have a chance to get ahead.” So why is the Obama Administration piloting a new, unprecedented and extraordinarily harsh effort to hunt down and deport thousands of hardworking undocumented immigrants in New Orleans?
Under the Administration’s new Criminal Alien Removal Initiative (CARI)–which the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice exposed at a civil disobedience action earlier this month — Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is coordinating with local law enforcement to carry out civil immigration raids on grocery stores, laundromats, apartment complex parking lots, Bible study groups, and parks. ICE arrests and handcuffs people based solely on racial profiling, without even asking their names, then relies on new high-tech mobile fingerprinting units to make immediate deportation decisions. The consequences are severe for the immigrant workers who helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and their families: many are immediately separated from their families and transported to rural detention centers for deportation.
Take Erlin San Martin Gomez, the father of two U.S. citizen children, including a 22-month-old with a developmental disability. On September 11, 2013, Erlin was leaving home to pick up his youngest child from the babysitter. An ICE agent confronted Erlin outside his apartment. When Erlin asked what law enforcement agency he was with, the agent instantly handcuffed him and brought him to an ICE van with a high-tech mobile fingerprinting unit. Erlin’s records revealed a previous deportation order. ICE agents forced Erlin into the van, ignoring his pleas to at least make a call so someone could pick up his baby.
Over the next five hours, ICE agents drove the van with Erlin in the back around New Orleans, looking for other brown-skinned people to stop
“It’s like going hunting,” one ICE agent said, according to testimony provided by Erlin.
“I like this shit,” another ICE agent said.
The agents eventually arrested five other immigrants and placed the whole group in deportation proceedings. Thanks to pressure from community organizations, Erlin was granted a temporary release. In his release paperwork, advocates unexpectedly found documentation of the new ICE program called CARI.
Our organization has documented dozens more stories like Erlin’s–all similar, and similarly grim. A man locked in the back of an ICE van with no air conditioning during a New Orleans heat wave, left in the van with other detainees while the ICE agents stopped at a bar for a beer. A 16-year-old U.S. citizen boy cuffed and thrown to the ground when he tried to help translate during his father’s arrest. A mother told to put her infant on the ground to be fingerprinted with the mobile unit.
Under the new CARI program, ICE is conducting indiscriminate raids up to five times a week in New Orleans, terrorizing a community that is asking only for the right to remain in the city it helped rebuild. This comes in the context of a deportation program that was already vastly more aggressive under President Obama, in process and in numbers of deportations, than under President George W. Bush. One might think that President Obama — a constitutional lawyer and community organizer who ran on hope and change and pledged that humane immigration reform was one of his top priorities — would moderate the aggressiveness of ICE raids and deportations. Instead he has doubled down with CARI.
It remains to be seen whether President Obama can push comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, especially with Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner saying he has “no intention” of taking up the Senate immigration bill in the House. But President Obama has the power to dial down the brutal raids and deportations of undocumented immigrants, rather than dialing them up even further. With Jeh Johson likely to be confirmed as the new Secretary of Homeland Security, as well as new leadership at ICE, now is the time for the Obama Administration to rethink how it treats the 11 million aspiring Americans who are currently undocumented in our nation — and whether our government should treat them with the humanity President Obama rhetorically espouses, or the cruelty they now face every day.
Saket Soni is Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance.