Organizing to Promote Community Safety and Peace
By Anna Alicia Chavez, JSRI Migration Specialist
Recently more than 25 community leaders from the Catholic Church in Louisiana gathered in Grand Coteau for a state-wide meeting regarding Justice for Immigrants. The purpose of the meeting was to promote statewide collaboration on the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) postcard campaign advocating for comprehensive immigration policy reform. The participants sat attentively listening to the speakers but when the leaders were invited to ask questions concerning the details of the campaign, the meeting took a different focus. Leaders began to speak up about their concerns regarding the social injustices and inhumane treatment of immigrants living in their respective communities. As the conversation unfolded, it became evident that there is a pressing need for local faith communities to organize on behalf of the immigrant families. These are families who are suffering greatly due to the increasing law enforcement strategies that our federal and state governments are jointly employing to identify undocumented immigrants, arrest them, and eventually deport them.
The leaders are concerned about immigrants—both documented and undocumented—being stopped by local police and federal agents on the street and on their way to church and school for no other reason than their color of skin. Immigrants are losing their jobs, and without a job they cannot feed their families. Many more are being torn apart from their families. Others are unable to access basic needs for themselves and their children. They are afraid to leave their homes, and their children are having nightmares because of the real fear of losing their parents.
The concerns voiced by these leaders in Louisiana are heard by many community leaders nationwide. Most of these incidents are the result of the more recent initiatives of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE is the largest investigative agency of Homeland Security and its charge is to detain and deport immigrants. ICE has developed various programs and services with the goal of using local criminal justice systems—the courts, jails, and police—to detain and remove people deemed to be "criminal aliens. " These programs are under the umbrella of what ICE calls ACCESS, an acronym for “Agreements of Cooperation in Communities to Enhance Safety and Security. ”1 ICE enters an agreement with state and local law enforcement agencies that allows these agencies to carry out immigration law enforcement functions that are otherwise exclusive to the federal government. As the name suggest, the goal is to keep communities “safe and secure” from criminal aliens and potential terrorists.
Ironically, findings from recent studies2 indicate that ACCESS programs are flawed and have served to create the opposite effect, namely communities ridden with fear and mistrust of the local enforcement agencies. These programs create economic stress on the local community. ACCESS is intended to increase resources for ICE; however, the programs can deplete the resources of the local law enforcement agencies due to the high demand placed on local enforcement for additional resources. Increasing ICE cooperation with local law enforcement agencies is a breeding ground for crime because ICE involvement in the community discourages victims to seek help from the police due to their fear of being arrested and deported. This fear encourages predators to prey on the vulnerability of immigrants. They are at risk of being exploited and becoming victims of crimes such as armed robbery and assault, hate crimes, domestic abuse, human trafficking, and other crimes.
Local police officers are not given proper training and often fail to understand immigration policy, and issues that pertain to immigrant rights. Findings show that local police officers often abuse their power by engaging in racial profiling. They disproportionately target people of color for pretext stops, investigations, and enforcement. While the programs under ACCESS are aimed at apprehending, detaining, and deporting high risk criminal immigrants, studies indicate that the most common charge for those arrested and incarcerated is a traffic violation. One report found that 55 percentpercent of immigrants incarcerated were charged with traffic violations.3
Indeed the present situation in which our immigrant family finds itself in is a piercing reminder of the urgent need for a comprehensive immigration reform. While we continue to advocate for political reform, we are also faced with the challenge of creating more peaceful communities where the human dignity of every member is safeguarded and family unity is not threatened. ICE ACCESS programs disrupt the peace and sense of security of local communities. These initiatives cause undue social and economic hardship to families, and overall, result in further disparities and inequalities in the community. Such treatment of immigrants, even those who are undocumented, offends the Church’s basic teachings on human dignity. “These [sinful inequalities] are in open contradiction of the Gospel: 'Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social … peace.'”4
Immigration advocates across the country have found a need to organize to create safe communities where citizens and non-citizens alike are protected and all feel a sense of pride in their community. Community organizing to keep the functions of local and federal law enforcement distinct can enhance safety and security and ultimately create a more peaceful community. Local communities have taken up the task of community policing and public safety. One such project is the Hispanic Public Safety Initiative in New Orleans where faith and civic leaders have partnered with the local law enforcement in an effort to build and sustain healthy relationships of mutual trust between the community and law enforcement officials (read more about this initiative on http://puentesno.org/our-programs-public-safety.html). These relationships are intended to promote community policing which involves educating the community on issues of public safety, citizen rights and responsibilities, immigrant rights and worker rights.
Law enforcement officials benefit as well from education on cultural awareness. Also, addressing the language barrier is essential for building strong alliances. In New Orleans, leaders provided a certification process for 30 candidates to become certified interpreters for the legal system. Finally, creating opportunities such as sports events and cultural festivals for the community to engage with police officers will build healthy relationships that will foster an environment of safety.
Community leaders are encouraged to advocate for keeping ICE ACCESS out of the local community. Reach out to the community for support. Educate the entire community on the ACCESS programs. Build relationships of trust between community members, the business sector, and local law enforcement officers. To help you get started, visit the websites listed below for ideas, tools and case studies to help you get started.
- National Immigration Forum offers an array of resources for community organizing around protection of immigrant human rights.
- VERA Institute highlights two specific programs on community policing and offers a model for moving forward.
- National Immigration Law Center offers an overview of key immigration issues facing the immigrants’ rights movement. The list includes the information on the federal law immigration enforcement initiatives and issues regarding agreements with the local law enforcement. This includes sample documents with helpful language for drafting agreements with law enforcement agencies.
- Advocates for Human Rights has an entire immigration library where you can find helpful tools for organizing to protect immigrant rights. This site also offers a sample of an agreement in Minnesota.
- Catholics in Alliance offers a tool kit for grassroots organizing grounded in Catholic Social Teaching and the common good.
 The National Immigration Forum, “Summaries of Recent Immigration Enforcement Reports” http://www.immigrationforum.org/images/uploads/2010/EnforcementReportSummaries.pdf . For a fact sheet on Secure Communities, http://www.immigrationforum.org/images/uploads/Secure_Communities.pdf (accessed on April 9, 2010).
 Catechism of the Catholic Church #1938, citing Gaudium et Spes 29 # 3.