Durham Officials Want to Make Sure No One Ends Up in Immigration Detention Because of Local Policies. Someone Should Tell the Sheriff. | Durham County | Indy Week
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Durham Officials Want to Make Sure No One Ends Up in Immigration Detention Because of Local Policies. Someone Should Tell the Sheriff. 

Earlier this month, a group of Durham officials toured the notorious Stewart Detention Center, known for its remoteness and the hunger strikes waged by immigrant detainees against the rural Georgia facility's conditions.

They walked the same halls as Jairo Garcia del Cid, a Jordan High student who spent ten months at Stewart before being deported in February back to the violence he fled in El Salvador. They passed the same solitary confinement cells where Wildin Acosta, a Riverside High student and one of the few people to leave the place by means other than deportation, was held in 2016, and where Efrain Romero De La Rosa, a Raleigh resident, was found unresponsive following an apparent suicide in July.

Two weeks later, it's clear the visit left an imprint on the group, who came back determined that no one end up in immigration detention because of local policies. In an open letter last week, Durham city council members Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson, DeDreana Freeman, and Vernetta Alston, county commissioner Brenda Howerton, and school board member Natalie Beyer said they "will look to all Durham residents to help us achieve this vision."

Issues at the Stewart Detention Center, a seventeen-hundred-bed facility privately run by CoreCivic, are well-documented, both by immigrant advocates and the U.S. government itself.

"You need to understand where your folks are ending up," says Caballero, the council's first Latinx member. "If we're going to have these values, we need to understand the end result of these policies locally."

A review released by the U.S. Homeland Security Department Office of Inspector General in December described "problems that undermine the protection of detainees' rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment," at facilities including Stewart. De la Rosa, the Raleigh resident, had been in solitary for twenty-one days before his death, according to The Intercept. His death was the third at Stewart in fourteen months; one man killed himself, and the other died from pneumonia.

The Durham delegation toured the medical facilities, the solitary confinement area—where at least four people were being held on suicide watch, they were told—and an empty housing pod. They did not speak to any detainees (they signed forms saying they wouldn't).

While most detainees from the Carolinas are taken to Stewart, ICE was unable to tell the group or the INDY how many people from Raleigh or Durham are detained at the facility, located in the small town of Lumpkin, Georgia, two hours south of Atlanta.

"It is in the middle of nowhere," says Beyer. "People don't have attorneys because there are no attorneys there. They're not hiring bilingual staff because there's no one. It's so remote. It's not how people should be treated."

Most of the detainees they observed wore dark blue, signifying no criminal history. Officers were armed not with guns or batons, but chemical spray, they noted.

"We're talking about immigrants who haven't been convicted of any crimes—they're civil detainees; they're not criminals—but we are locking them up in the same facility that we lock up people who have been convicted of serious crimes," says Johnson. "We are all paying to lock these people up in prison when they are no threat to anyone."

They also sat in on court proceedings and were stunned to watch nearly every man in the room—including one who said he had a newborn, U.S. citizen child—accept deportation. While there was an interpreter in the room, the judge presided via video call. They recalled that just one man had a lawyer.

"It was just really clear that there was no way these people's rights were actually going to be adequately protected," Johnson says. "They're just trying to get out of there as quickly as possible."

For Beyer, who was on the school board when Acosta was detained, it was a reminder of how few people make it out of Stewart. Last fiscal year, about 94 percent of cases that went through the court ended in deportation, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Caballero thought of her father, an immigrant from Chile around the same age as a man who visibly shook as he told the judge he wanted to be deported, even though he would be going back to his native country "with nothing" for his family. Howerton, a single mother, thought of children separated from their parents.

Freeman remembered families she works with at East Durham Children's Initiative whose relatives have been detained by ICE as far back as 2014, and what their families have gone through to pay for lawyers, phone calls, and visits, only to be separated by glass in the visiting room.

"When I left [Stewart], I had less trust in how our legal system is working," she says. "Knowing that someone is going into this system, it's going to eat them alive."

Back from the trip, the group wants to engage directly affected residents, other officials—particularly in the criminal justice system—and the public in a conversation about how to curtail the detention of immigrants in Durham. Their initial ideas include expanding language access, starting a rideshare program, creating a driving certificate to use in lieu of a license, and diverting more people from arrest.

"Once they go to the jail, they get fingerprinted, ICE has access to the records, and then they're in the system," Howerton says.

Already, the Durham Police Department has increased the number of U-visas, reserved for victims of crimes, it certifies. (Caballero and Johnson say older crimes should qualify, too.) The agency has also stopped initiating traffic checkpoints and deprioritized lesser offenses like vehicle equipment violations and drug possession. Durham public schools do not ask about a student's immigration status, and school resource officers don't have access to student information.

"Most of the things we want benefit lots of people in Durham," says Caballero. "Just because it helps an immigrant community doesn't mean there aren't going to be benefits to the community at large."

But there's one local policy that has persisted for years, landing more than one hundred people in ICE custody from 2014–17 alone: a practice at the Durham County jail of honoring nearly all requests sent by ICE to hold people in custody so ICE can pick them up.

From October 2014 through June 2017, ICE sent two hundred detainer requests (also known as ICE holds) to the Durham jail, asking officials there to hold people the agency believes to be removable for up to forty-eight hours after they would have otherwise been released so that ICE can assume custody, according to records obtained by the INDY via a Freedom of Information Act request. The Durham County Sheriff's Office declined three requests, records show.

Multiple courts have ruled detainers are unconstitutional on the grounds that continuing to detain a person after their release date amounts to a new arrest and detainer forms themselves don't support probable cause under the Fourth Amendment. Other rulings have found that local law enforcement must have probable cause of a crime—not deportability—to detain someone. While detainer requests are sometimes accompanied by warrants, they are usually administrative warrants filled out by ICE officials, not judges, attesting that a person is subject to deportation.

The records obtained by the INDY indicate that police "are systematically making unlawful arrests," says Mark Fleming, associate director of litigation at the National Immigrant Justice Center. "I don't know how else to put it. Every one of those arrests is a potential liability because it's a false arrest."

"The way I think about it is the federal government is sending over a piece of paper—the detainer—and asking the locals to hold somebody, but asking them to do it under circumstances where they don't have authority to do it," says professor Chris Lasch, co-director of the Immigration Law and Policy Clinic at the University of Denver.

While the INDY has previously reported on the Sheriff's Office's practice of honoring ICE detainers, the recently released records paint a picture of who ICE sought to detain and why. While ICE used to report much of this information regularly to TRAC, under President Trump, much of that data is being withheld.

According to ICE records, 120 people saw their detainers lifted as a result of being booked into ICE detention. Five more were transferred to other facilities. In addition to the three requests declined by the Sheriff's Office, six were dropped via prosecutorial discretion, invoked by ICE when a person is eligible for immigration relief or not considered a removal priority, and one because the person was not subject to deportation.

Another thirty-eight are simply marked "lifted" with no further explanation, including seventeen detainers prepared and lifted on the same day. (Multiple attempts by the INDY to get further clarification about the data went unanswered; the INDY based its understanding of the records on detainer request forms, interviews with experts, and reviews of ICE manuals and memos.)

None of the requests came with a warrant stating why ICE officials thought a person was subject to deportation, including six sent after a 2017 directive that all detainer requests be accompanied by such documents. Orders for removal had been issued for at least forty-nine people prior to detainers being lodged.

About half of the people placed under detainers (nearly all men) were from Mexico; others came from Central America, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, and China. Where ethnicity is noted, the only options are "Hispanic" and "not Hispanic." ICE redacted their identities, citing privacy. The data does not include whether they were ultimately deported.

Contrary to common misconceptions about immigrants, none were marked as having committed immigration fraud, none were considered part of a "criminal street gang," and just one was believed to have abused America's visa system.

About one-fifth had previously been convicted of a felony. Seventeen individuals were considered a "significant risk." Among that group was Garcia del Cid, the deported Jordan High student. He was taken into custody by ICE last year after being released from the Durham jail when a charge against him for stealing a car was dismissed. Had the charge stuck, it would have been his first conviction.

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews has said he believes not honoring detainers—something the Sheriff's Office has done since 2003—would provoke more ICE activity in Durham, putting immigrants at higher risk. (Andrews declined to be interviewed.) ICE detainers became a central issue in the Democratic primary for sheriff in May, in which Andrews lost his reelection bid to Clarence Birkhead, who pledged to only honor detainer requests with a judicial warrant or an outstanding warrant for arrest.

Agencies that systematically reject detainers have faced retribution via raids and courthouse arrests, say Fleming and Lasch. Orange County, whose Sheriff's Office has the same policy Birkhead proposes, saw two dozen people swept up in raids in April.

"The retribution has been myriad and ever-evolving," says Fleming.

Still, Caballero says she'd prefer the DCSO risk possible retribution and not be complicit in honoring detainers. Communities, she says, can protect themselves against ICE raids, whereas people under detainers can be quickly moved to detention centers like Stewart and out of the country.

But, she says, trying to convince Andrews to change his policy before leaving office feels like a lost cause—and until the practice is changed, Durham will not meet the goal that no one end up in immigration detention as a result of local policies.

"If he was going to change his mind about that, he would have already done it," she says. "We're stuck, unfortunately, with these detainers."

Based on last year's numbers, fourteen people could be taken into ICE custody via detainers before Andrews's term is up in December.

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