Fear Over Secure Communities: More Immigrants Will Be Lost in Detention System

City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez with Elibany Valerio (Photo: Monika Fabian)

City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez with Elibany Valerio (Photo: Monika Fabian)

This story was written with additional reporting by Catalina Jaramillo.

NEW YORK—On Sunday, New York City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez announced that he will introduce a Council resolution calling on Governor Paterson to remove New York from the controversial immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities.

Listen to Council member Rodriguez.

[audio: scomm_rodriguez.mp3]

“This is not Arizona,” Rodriguez said. “We were able to pass a resolution in the City Council against SB 1070 and we are here today ready to introduce another resolution this coming stated meeting of the Council where also we expect that all City Council members will sign it. And will we be able to send again that message loud and clear that we are against Secure Communities.”

Flanked by immigration advocates and concerned community members, Rodriguez said the program — which would require local police to share the fingerprints of individuals in custody with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — would overburden the city’s police precincts and prisons and result in insecure neighborhoods.

ICE maintains that Secure Communities is designed to find and deport undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes like murder, kidnapping, and threats to national security.

But advocates counter that 79 percent of people deported through the program from October 2008 through June 2010 had no criminal record or were arrested for minor offenses like traffic violations. Rodriguez’ resolution represents the latest effort by local immigrant leaders to pressure Governor Paterson into rescinding the state’s Secure Communities Memorandum Of Agreement (MOA) before the end of his term.  The MOA was signed in May, but New York State officials say no county in the state has implemented the program.

Advocates are also trying to inform the public about this complicated and little-known federal program.  “Despite the rapid growth of the Secure Communities program, ICE provides very little information about it,” said Almirca Santiago of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, as traffic coursed by. “The public has been left in the dark about the program costs, the error rates, the racial profiling, and the civil rights complaints.”

Listen to Almirca Santiago.

[audio: scomm_santiago.mp3]

Also present at the news conference, held in front of the 34th Precinct in Washington Heights, was a tearful young woman named Elibany Valerio. Council member Rodriguez explained that her family is experiencing a situation that could happen to thousands more if local jurisdictions activate Secure Communities.

Last Wednesday, Valerio’s father, Eligio, a taxi driver originally from the Dominican Republic, was taken into custody by immigration authorities allegedly for a 1982 gun possession case, for which he served three years probation.

Valerio said neither the police nor ICE informed her father of his rights, and instead told him that he would be sent to a Texas detention center before ultimately being deported to the Dominican Republic.

Listen to Elibany Valerio.

[audio: scomm_valeriocut.mp3]

“They tell him that he has no bail, that he’s gonna get deported to the Dominican Republic in a week, and then I, because I have some knowledge, I called and I said my father has the right for a bond hearing, so that’s why we have court on a Wednesday a bond hearing because they weren’t going to give him a bond hearing,” said Valerio.

Advocates like Angela Fernandez of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Council member Daniel Dromm say Eligio Valerio’s case is symptomatic of a larger problem, where lack of communication about detained immigrants’ rights and far-off transfers are leading to the isolation of many detained immigrant New Yorkers.

Listen to Angela Fernandez.

[audio: scomm_martinez.mp3]

“When you are detained, you can be sent to any detention center in the country. So what you have is immigration detention centers in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas that are filled with New Yorkers. So when a person is detained, not only are a person’s options limited when they’re detained, but they’re sent thousands of miles away, then the ability to be in contact with their family is completely diminished, the ability of having a family member find an attorney for them is diminished because they don’t have family down in Louisiana that can do that for them.”

Fernandez was also disturbed by the fact that family members aren’t always notified when an individual is picked up by ICE.

“I mean I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had people come into our office frantic because their loved one was arrested and then they were put into the immigration detention system and they don’t know where they are. There’s a way of finding them but you have to be knowledgeable and know how to find them so no one’s letting them know ahead of time that they’re being shipped across the country, for example.”

Similarly, earlier this month, at a Secure Communities public teach-in held in Corona, Queens, Council member Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights and chairs the Council’s immigration committee, shared an anecdote about an immigrant who was initially accused of man-slaughter but then detained by immigration authorities even after he was cleared of the criminal charges.

“A couple of months ago I had a young man about 18 years who came in my office. And he had been accused and arrested for manslaughter. They exonerated him of the charges of manslaughter in three months but while he was in Riker’s, ICE came to visit him. And when ICE came to visit him, they immediately but a hold on him. Because this young man did not know his rights. And because this young man spoke to the ICE officers, he was then put on hold and when he was cleared of the charge of manslaughter he was then sent to Texas for 18 months to stay in a deportation center,” Dromm told the audience.

Back in Washington Heights, Council member Rodriguez–echoing both Martinez and Dromm–drew the conference to a close by warning attendees in Spanish that Secure Communities could lead to many more Eligio Valerios in the system.

“Elibany Valerio’s father was taken by immigration this week—a father who was a hard worker, owned a grocery store [in the 80s], and was found to have a revolver and was at that point placed on probation. But since 1982 to the present, her father is an exemplary taxi driver from the Excellence taxi company, is a member of its disciplinary committee, actively participates in the community, is a productive individual. Yet in the same way that they took her father into custody, if we allow the governor to keep Secure Communities we will have thousands and thousands of working people like him.”

Feet in Two Worlds coverage of the New York election season is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

AboutMonika Fabian
Monika Fabian is a former Feet in 2 Worlds contributor. She is a freelance journalist who writes about New York’s Latino community and Latin American culture. Her articles have appeared in El Diario/La Prensa, Hora Hispana, Metro, New York Daily News, NYPress, and Time Out New York. Monika is a Bronx-native with roots and family in Colombia and the Dominican Republic.