Posted by on February 06, 2012 in Blog

On Saturday, February 4, 2012, the Arab American Institute hosted a town hall on racial profiling and immigration enforcement, with a special focus on the Arab and Muslim American communities in Massachusetts. The town hall was held at Boston University, allowing community members, students, and other faculty members to join in the discussion.

The speakers included Professor Susan Akram of Boston University; Shannon Erwin, State Policy Director of the MIRA Coalition; Bruce Foucart, Special Agent at ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in charge of homeland security investigations; and Dorothy Herrara-Niles, Field Office Director for the New England area ICE office. Ashraf Hegazy, member of AAI’s National Policy Council and former Executive Director of the Dubai Initiative at Harvard University, moderated the discussion.

Each panelist spoke about their experience with these issues, then the discussion was opened up to the audience for questions. Professor Akram is a law professor and works on both international policy and US domestic policy, and wrote book in 2004 on racial profiling. Akram noted that this issue didn’t start after 9/11. Regarding some of the more recent policies she says “you can’t understand the issue of racial profiling in a single state or city context, you must examine the larger context to see the reasons.” Akram looks to connect the entrenchment and “inextricable infusion of federal and local law enforcement” and see how those three have become entwined with US intelligence and data mining.

Dorothy Herrera-Niles has worked for ICE for 24 years, and her current office covers 6 states, all in New England. She noted that on her end, ICE targets criminal aliens, and keeping the community safe is their mission.

She noted that the overall removal numbers in 2011 were 396,000 nationwide, with a little over 3,000 for Boston area. The breakdown of nationalities removed (nationally) were 288,000 Mexicans, followed by 33,000 Hondurans, then individuals from El Salvador, and other Central American countries. The number of Arabs was so small that she did not have numbers on them.

Shannon Erwin began by putting the issues and progress into context. On one hand, DHS recently got rid of the NSEERS program, and has moved the administration to issue and use more prosecutorial discretion and focus on removing those individuals who have criminal histories. Despite those positive changes, there are still major areas of concern regarding ICE and DHS initiatives. One of these is the local enforcement agreement called Secure Communities. The program is active in Boston, but not in the rest of MA. Governor Deval considered it but the people said no, and he listened. Erwin noted that the impact of the program has not been consistent with the stated goals of the program. Specific problems include domestic violence victims who reported abuse – they also got fingerprinted and were then deported. Another result of Secure Communities is that security clearances can take longer for people from Muslim and Arab countries. Iraqi refugees face delays of months while they wait to be processed.

Bruce Foucart began by pointing out the difference between his office and Herrera-Niles’: his agents are investigating criminal violations of customs (contraband materials) as well as immigration violations, whereas ERO is 95% involved in administrative arrests such as when someone’s status has expired or they have violations in their background. Foucart’s focus is getting people off the street who are “public safety threat”. His office covers the entire New England area, with 250 employees and 118 special agents. Audience members immediately had questions for the panelists, ranging from policy questions to comments regarding personal experiences. One of the common themes of questions involved breaking up families or deporting individuals who were breadwinners for a family. Herrera-Niles noted that they do take family situations into consideration, and work with local groups and nonprofits to make sure children are taken care of. She also noted that putting someone in custody doesn’t necessarily mean that they are detained in a facility, and that advocacy groups routinely bring specific cases to ICE’s attention and they work through them with ICE and the org. She pointed out that they only know what the individuals tell them, so if an individual doesn’t mention that they have children, ICE won’t be aware of the real situation.

Shannon Erwin of MIRA Coalition pointed out the difficulty of getting people in touch with an attorney, because deportation isn’t a criminal procedure so the individual isn’t automatically entitled to a lawyer by the government. She emphasized the importance of knowing about local advocacy groups or nonprofits so you can quickly refer people to them. The MIRA Coalition has about 140 partners in MA, and more partners across the nation.

Prosecutorial discretion is a pilot program in which DHS takes into consideration special cases when considering removal or pursuing removal for individuals. It is not a new phenomenon, case-by-case consideration has been around for some time, and has been exercised greatly in the Boston area, but new guidelines came out in June. Issues like medical conditions, or minors in a household, are special considerations that ICE agents should be aware of, and Foucart noted that they exercise PD every day in Boston (and the greater New England area). Exceptions are usually when an individual has been convicted of a violent crime, and they have to be in custody by law, and are generally removed.

Another issue brought up by several audience members was whether there were guidelines in place regarding racial profiling. Foucart was adamantly clear that racial profiling is not tolerated by DHS. He noted there were several measures in place to ensure that  it doesn’t happen, starting with a basic training in Georgia where new agents go through 26 weeks of special agent training, with numerous hours dedicated to racial profiling. DHS offers annual retraining and there is also exterior training (sensitivity training with Arab, Muslim, Sikh community members). DOJ also gives annual trainings as well.

 “I’m sure there are rumors and misinformation where ICE agents go to places and wait for people so they can ID them and catch them.” Foucart said, “But that is absolutely false. I’m constantly going out with chiefs of police to tell them what we do and don’t do. They have the information on the person upfront, so they know exactly who they are going to pick up.”

Fourcart emphasized that he takes racial profiling very seriously, as does DHS and DOJ, but that community members need to report these instances. If they don’t report it, then the agencies can’t and won’t act on it.

Akram noted that the administration has started a nationwide initiative to train law enforcement agencies on terrorism. She explained that “one of the issues with this is the situation where local police act as local intelligence gatherers.  There are no walls between the data that can be shared. This has led to perpetuating cycle where police share their suspicions based on racial profiling to another agency that doesn’t use racial profiling but will act on their reports. How much money is put into surveillance of how people that have done nothing wrong?”

Erwin also pointed out that “Even in the absence of formal policies that call for racial profiling, you can see where if you have a local enforcement team that arrests someone and they are intercepted by Secure Communities, this leaves a gap for trainings like “The Third Jihad” and other bad policies that target mosques and Arab American communities. It can rope people into an arrest. These trainings can have repercussions throughout the system.”

Akram continued delving into the problems with FBI policies: “I love the FBI stats because my question is ‘is the percentage of terrorism associated with a certain group related to the amount of money put into it?’ The answer is no, it is very disproportionate.” Akram continues by pointing out that “Only 6% of terrorist attacks were from Islamic groups, but the other 94% were from other groups. I look at the correlation between amount of Muslim suspects or detainees versus the amount of crime really being committed.”

Shahin Shahin, a local Boston member of AAI and BRIDGES, spoke about the need for community involvement in law enforcement processes. BRIDGES (a group comprised of law enforcement, government, and community groups) coordinates with DOJ, and there is a training that has been happening since 2005 with police and TSA already. It helps law enforcement learn about Arab and Muslim cultural behavior and habits and how to effectively deal with them. Trainings have already made a difference in how agents deal with non-English speakers, and officers now learn how to deal with situations involving Arab or Muslim Americans who don’t speak the language.

Dr. Abdel-Rahman, the former BU professor and head of the Islamic Center in Boston, noted that the maximum danger is insensitive training and sometimes related to policy guidelines (specifically the one that talks about identifying a potential terrorist). “Profiling is a social process, and we as human beings process it in a certain way” Abdel-Rahman notes, continuing by explaining “If we get information that says a suicide bomber looks a certain way, it becomes a process where connections are made and sometimes wrong ways are taught. Profiling is a cumulative process, and then racial profiling becomes stereotyping and the process is no good anymore. Trust disappears in this vicious cycle.”

Overall the town hall proved to be very informative for both panelists and audience members. Clearly there is still much work that needs to be done to address the continuing problems of racial profiling and immigration enforcement, including increasing communication between government agencies and community members.

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