The bad immigrants

Few immigrants make the connection between their immigration status and the potential for deportation if they came into contact with the criminal justice system.

Abraham Paulos on a New York street. Image: Anakwa Dwamena.

The last time Abraham Paulos was arrested by the NYPD was in the early morning hours of October 23, 2010. He was walking home around 2:30 a.m. from his late shift at Franklin Park Bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. On New York Ave. and Dean St., two blocks away from a robbery that had occurred on Nostrand and Pacific, he was stopped and interrogated by patrol officers. Paulos, now Director of Communications for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), was a graduate student at The New School, and recalls being preoccupied by his upcoming midterms at the time of the stop.

“What was really funny is that I could have been on that corner. So I’m like, well I’m really happy that I didn’t get robbed. But on the other end, now I’m being arrested for a robbery. I was confused,” he said. The victim identified him as possibly one of three assailants that had assaulted and robbed him.

Despite mentioning that he had proof of his clock-out time back at his workplace, and possible CCTV footage from a bodega up the street, he was handcuffed and informed he would have to go through the system. After almost a day at the New York Police Department’s 77th Precinct where he was fingerprinted, questioned by a detective, and informed of his charges — four felonies and two misdemeanors — he was taken some blocks away to Central Booking, a holding facility attached to the court where his arraignment took place.

At the time, immigration activists in the city and state were pushing then-Attorney General and Governor-elect, Andrew Cuomo not to implement Secure Communities — an Obama-era program that allowed the fingerprints taken from all bookings, regardless if you were charged or not, to be forwarded to the FBI and shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE could then request local law enforcement to detain an arrested individual if there was any suspicion of an immigration violation.

“Had it been implemented, it is really a wonder if I would be here or not,” Paulos said, “because my fingerprints would have made it to immigration, my previous contacts from more than a decade ago would have come up and there would have been questions.” But it was in Central Booking that the question of where he was born first came up.

Like Paulos, few immigrants at the time made the connection between their immigration status and the potential for deportation if they came into contact with the criminal justice system. Although Paulos’ family came to the US legally as refugees from Eritrea, he was still just a permanent resident. Therefore, contact with the criminal justice system could have put him on ICE’s database and flagged for deportation.

At his hearing, Paulos’ public defender was confident he would be released on his own recognizance. But the judge ordered that he post bail after noting previous convictions on his record, including jumping a turnstile and stealing books from a public library in his teens. Unable to pay the bond, Paulos found himself on a bus to Rikers Island prison, which, like the precinct and Central Booking, was mostly full of black and brown people, or as Paulos describes it, “the immigrant makeup of New York.”

A fellow prisoner at Rikers, realizing Paulos was not a US citizen began to impress upon him the urgent need to get out of Rikers. “He’s like yeah you need to get out of here,” Paulos said, “And I responded, ‘clearly I need to get out of here for a myriad of reasons.’ But he insisted I needed to find a way to leave immediately because ICE is going to try and deport you.” “ICE? You mean INS?,” Paulos inquired, recalling many years of dealing with bureaucrats from the Immigration and Naturalization Services as a refugee. “No ICE. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

As an immigrant with a record who escaped the clutches of ICE at Rikers, Paulos is constantly reminded by immigration advocates of how lucky he is, and how unique; like an “albino rhino in the jungle,” he said. His roommates eventually raised $2,500 for his bond. As he was leaving Rikers he walked past two ICE officers coming into the building. After his release, he began to volunteer with Families for Freedom helping to inform and assist immigrants like himself who were caught up in the criminal justice system.

Paulos and his colleagues are dedicated to eradicating police practices such as racial profiling and broken windows — a policing philosophy that emphasizes prevention of low level violations in order to reduce overall crime rates. Critics of broken windows policing, which was embraced by the NYPD in the 1990s, have long-argued that it disproportionately impacts communities of color. Black and brown New Yorkers also still find themselves overwhelmingly the targets of stop and frisk policing, even though its use has been reduced in recent years.

As a result of these policies undocumented people of color in New York City have a higher chance of having contact with the criminal justice system and thus possible deportation. A 2016 report from BAJI and New York University Law School’s Immigrant Rights clinic showed that while Black immigrants comprise 5.4 per cent of the unauthorized population, between 2003 and 2015 they made up 10.6 percent of all immigrants in removal proceedings. In 2013 three quarters of the immigrants removed on criminal charges were black, compared to less than half of all immigrants overall.

Since Paulos was arrested some local and national reforms have been implemented in an attempt to limit the connection between the criminal justice and immigration systems. In November 2014 the Obama Administration introduced the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), to replace Secure Communities. That same year, the New York City Council, as part of its sanctuary city policies, passed legislation removing ICE from Rikers Island, as well as legislation to not honor detainer requests from ICE. A detainer means that a person is held in jail after completing their sentence so that ICE has time to transfer them to another facility and begin deportation proceedings. The exception to this is that NYC honors detainer requests in cases where the charged individual has committed a violent and serious crime in the previous five years, and there is a warrant from a judge. According to the NYC Council, not honoring detainers has protected over 3,000 New Yorkers per year from deportation.

And yet the problem of information sharing with ICE still haunts sanctuary cities like New York. An arrest can put an immigrant who doesn’t hold citizenship on ICE’s radar because they are fingerprinted upon entering a police station — whether they are eventually charged or not. According to Connor Gleason from the Bronx Defenders, even without programs like Secure Communities these fingerprints that are sent to a FBI database can be accessed and scanned by ICE.

In 2015, when the legislation to remove ICE from Rikers Island was enacted, home raids went up in New York City since ICE no longer had a presence at Rikers from which to conduct operations. In general, about 950 out of 1250 ICE pick ups in a typical week in 2016 were from arrests by local police and sheriff departments through information sharing according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. “So just to let people know exactly what New York City is really about,” Paulos said, “the NYPD and the police policies that are here have actually been the greatest incubator feeder into the deportation system.”

Law enforcement and city officials maintain it is more complicated than that. An NYPD-wide email from Police Commissioner James O’Neill emphasized the Department’s commitment to “maintaining a welcoming environment for immigrant communities while also maintaining public safety for all.”

The NYPD, attributes New York City’s historically low crime rates, in part to the success of practices such as broken windows policing. But critics of broken windows maintain that the increased potential for contact with the immigration enforcement system is one of the consequences of aggressive policing of low level infractions. Yet there is a hesitation to move away from a system that Mayor Bill de Blasio, a former public advocate, has embraced saying that it is “still the right approach.”

“The bottom line is do the New York police want to do the job of federal immigration officials or city police?” said Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If the latter, then how they relate to all communities is important — do the citizens in those communities trust the police and are they willing to engage with them?”

It’s an important question in a city where over half of the population is either immigrants or the children of immigrants and more than 500,000 undocumented immigrants live in the city.

The NYPD points out that it doesn’t inquire about the immigration status of people its officers interact with. “But from a city police effectiveness perspective, the police shouldn’t care where those citizens come from; only that they trust police enough to work with them and embrace a lawful culture,” Professor Kenney, asserts.

For Council Member Carlos Menchaca reforming the NYPD’s policies is one of several changes that are needed if New York is to achieve its stated goal of being a sanctuary for vulnerable immigrants.

“Just as broken windows isn’t one specific law or practice, sanctuary and criminal justice reform must be accomplished by several means,” said Menchaca who chairs the Council’s Committee on Immigration and represents Brooklyn’s 38th District. “Engineering sustainable change in New York City is a challenge that must be met with a combination of advocacy, protest, legislation, budget priorities and policy reform.”

For Abraham Paulos, New York is a sanctuary city for those who don’t have contact with the criminal justice system. “The thing about criminalization in New York City, and nationwide is that it is a process,” Paulos said, “You might not have a conviction today, but what about tomorrow? We are talking about a conviction machine that is on 24/7 and a lot of those who were “good immigrants” before, are now “bad immigrants” because they have had contact with the criminal system.”

Connor Gleason, from the Bronx Defenders, cautions against making assumptions about NYC’s sanctuary city status. “It is not as if when you cross the border into our city you are safe,” he said.

To create a more robust sanctuary city, members of the New York City Council have taken two related approaches aimed at reducing the number New Yorkers who are deported. One is to reduce the number of people who have contact with the criminal justice system, the other is to support people who have already had contact with police.

The first strategy, announced on June 13th 2017 as part of the Criminal Justice Reform Act is to make infractions such as public drinking, public urination, excessive noise, violations of park rules and carrying open containers of alcohol, civil tickets rather than criminal summonses. The City’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings anticipates this change will divert 100,000 people from criminal court each year. Likewise, the Manhattan District Attorney has announced his office will direct fare evasion cases — like Abraham Paulos’ original crime — into community service. The Brooklyn and Queens District Attorneys will monitor the Manhattan example, with an eye to implement similar programs. Last year the police arrested around 24-thousand people for fare evasion and issued over 67-thousand civil summons, sending the civil offenders to the Transit Adjudication Bureau to pay a $100 fine.

For the second strategy NYC has set up a publicly funded immigrant defense fund. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), started in 2013 with $500,000 to provide immigrants with removal orders a public defender to enhance their fighting chance. According to Peter L. Markowitz, the director of the Immigrant Justice Center at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and one of the leaders of the initiative, the program has helped 2,348 detained immigrants.

This year, Mayor De Blasio  proposed $16.4 million to support the program, but with the catch that people convicted in the past five years of any of 170 serious crimes (including murder, rioting, rape, patronizing a prostitute, manslaughter, and possession of a controlled substance) would not be eligible. Numerous members of the City Council, including the Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, opposed the carve-out. The Mayor’s office and the City Council are still negotiating the details of the program.

Of the 325 clients served by the NYIFUP from December 2016 to May 10, 2017, 63, or 19 percent, had convictions on the list of 170 crimes. The NYC Council is also working with the state, according to Council Member Vanessa Gibson, to address the presence of ICE agents outside courthouses — an issue outside the control of the Council since the courts fall under state jurisdiction.

Connor Gleason, among the first lawyers involved with the NYIFUP, believes it is an indispensable program, but maintains that the Council could do more to help people with convictions. “A lot of these convictions, many of them nonviolent, stem from many years ago and are a consequence of broken windows policing,” he said, “and the criminalization of low income members of our communities.”

The tools at the city’s disposal are the ability to, “work with the court system, fund programs for immigrants, and inform immigrants about their rights,” Council Member Gibson says. She argues that comprehensive immigration reform is what is ultimately necessary, but she doesn’t expect, “that is going to happen with this President.”

For Abraham Paulos, “it is about the preexisting pattern of criminalizing black and brown communities in general.”

“My biggest fear,” he adds, “is that we will not learn from (the last election). My fear is that we are just going to continue to do the same thing. And if we continue to do the same thing it is going to be a situation where I won’t be the only one with unnecessary fear in the community.”

* This story was originally published by Feet in 2 Worlds, an award-winning news site and journalism training organization based at The New School in New York. For the past 13 years, Feet in 2 Worlds has brought the work of journalists from a broad range of immigrant communities to public radio and the web.

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