Her story — told in the bright living room of a low-rent Madison apartment decorated with a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe — comes out in fragments, punctuated by bitter laughter and tears. The tale is confused by Maria’s shaky grasp of the U.S. legal system, and complicated by the need for an interpreter to bridge the gap between Spanish and English. But the gist of it is this:
A month earlier, Diego, Maria’s husband of 20 years, was turned over to immigration authorities by the Dane County Jail and deported, or “removed,” in government parlance, back to Mexico. Maria was off work after an injury, and his deportation left her and their two daughters with no source of income. Isolated and fearful for her family, she is telling her story on the condition their real names not be used due to fear of immigration authorities.
When Diego was taken into custody from the jail by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — a division of the federal Department of Homeland Security known best by its acronym, ICE — he joined more than 200 noncitizens taken from the Dane County Jail in the past three years. Many of them were deported.
Federal immigration authorities knew of undocumented inmates due to a Dane County Jail policy of notifying ICE whenever a noncitizen is booked. The policy, critics say, breeds fear in the immigrant community, separates families and hampers law enforcement. These concerns were aired in recent months at a series of forums in Dane County, where emotions sometimes ran high as immigrants spoke of lives infected with fear of deportation, and dreams of a better life diminished.
“I don’t think people realized that fear is such a significant factor for so many families in Dane County,” says Luis Yudice, a retired Madison Police Department captain who chaired a Dane County Immigration Task Force formed to investigate whether deportation fears keep immigrants from accessing social services.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, who literally has become the face of the jail’s ICE policy in caricatured signs brandished at immigrant rights rallies, says the fear in the Latino community has been stirred up by overzealous advocates. Those fears are not supported by the facts in Dane County, says Mahoney, who was on the task force. He flatly rejects the specter of deputies as deportation agents, as raised in some testimony, and he asserts that a noncitizen booked into the jail is not destined for deportation. But the evolved jail policy and stepped-up enforcement by immigration authorities mean a noncitizen entering Dane County Jail without papers is more likely today to be detained by immigration authorities than a few years ago. The odds may get higher still.
That is how it should be, say the many supporters of Mahoney’s policy. Arnold Harris of Mount Horeb thinks immigration laws should be enforced like any other and that the sheriff is obliged to do what he can to help. The outpouring of opposition to the ICE reporting policy troubled him enough that he came to testify in its support before the task force. “I thought the sheriff as an elected official was being put under undue pressure for ideological reasons by people who want uncontrolled immigration in this country,” he says.
The Dane County Jail reported noncitizen inmates to authorities for years without attracting much attention. Former Sheriff Gary Hamblin, who went to the Wisconsin Department of Justice in 2007 after not seeking re-election, recalls that the practice during his tenure was to notify the consulate of the home country of a foreign national being taken into custody. Immigration authorities, too, sometimes were notified, he said in a recent interview, “but I don’t recall the guidelines.”
Jail booking policy today calls for reporting directly to immigration authorities any inmate who can’t produce proof of being in the United States legally. Flagging undocumented prisoners for ICE is not required by law, but Mahoney says he needs to do it to keep the jail community safe. It is not so much criminal conviction information that is received in return from ICE, but “intelligence” about inmates that clues deputies into any risk they pose, he says. Most jails in the state report inmates to ICE at least periodically, and 4,000 local jails and state prisons have participated in the federal Criminal Alien Program to net noncitizen criminals in the country illegally, says an agency spokesperson.
Controversy over the Dane County Jail reporting practice erupted in 2008, after local defense attorneys sounded the alarm that more clients were opting to take minor cases to court to avoid guilty pleas and a stay in jail that might expose them to immigration authorities. Advocates of Dane County’s fast-growing Latino immigrant community have tried since then to negotiate a change in jail policy with Mahoney. The issue was politicized by the Immigrant Workers’ Union, a grass-roots workers rights group that organized rallies against the practice.
The Dane County Immigration Task Force in May recommended an end to routine reporting to ICE at booking. Weeks later, the Madison City Council went on record in overwhelming opposition to the jail reporting policy, recommending that only inmates charged with felonies be flagged for ICE.
Mahoney says he won’t change his policy. “I have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure the security of everyone in my institution,” he says.
Last year, the Dane County Jail released 149 inmates to ICE, according to information provided to The Capital Times under an open records request. That means that after they did their jail time, these inmates were not freed, but transported to the Dodge County Jail, which contracts with federal authorities to house prisoners on immigration “detainers.” The number of inmates turned over to ICE increased 57 percent from 2007, when federal authorities began to devote more resources to detaining and removing immigrants in custody on criminal charges.
Federal authorities now are vowing to further ramp up pursuit of criminal aliens. As the federal Department of Justice prepared to file suit last week challenging a controversial Arizona state law it says pre-empts its authority to enforce immigration law, ICE enforcement chief John Morton told agents in May to focus on criminals and terrorists.
Local professionals who work with undocumented immigrants, mostly Latinos, speak passionately of how fear of deportation because of the jail policy affects lives of immigrant families.
The fear can paralyze, says Prudencio Oyarbide, coordinator of Clinica Latina at Mental Health Center of Dane County, a nonprofit agency serving low-income people. He says that some of his clients greatly fear making a misstep that brings them to the attention of police, to jail, and then to deportation: “They have significant impairment. They can’t work, they can’t sleep, they obsess all day long about making a mistake that ends life as they know it.” He estimates that 10 percent of his caseload of 45 to 55 clients shows fear that rises to this level of disorder.
Amy Kucin oversees Mental Health Center programs for adults with drug and alcohol issues. She sees how the fear of deportation complicates the challenges of kicking a habit. “I have a client who was arrested for drinking and driving and is working on sobriety,” she says. “He has so much fear about being out in public that he has to remind himself that his problem is drinking and driving — not looking Latino in public. The anxiety around that is really a struggle. He drives to work and goes home. Other than that, he does not go out.”
A volunteer at UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence noticed late last year that a growing number of women calling in to the nonprofit agency that serves Spanish-speaking victims of domestic violence were conflicted over whether to report an abusive partner and risk his deportation. Word of the jail policy, and its effect, was getting around. “I advise them to call the police, but I have to tell them that deportation is possible,” says executive director Cecilia Gillhouse.
The prospect of losing a husband to deportation is especially frightening for immigrant women, because “many times the man is the only one working and the only one who speaks English,” she says. Immigrant women may not have access to or even know about their husband’s bank account. Many are isolated and have few contacts outside the home.
It can be difficult to make a by-the-numbers accounting of the demand jail-based deportations puts on local services. Fabiola Hamdan, a social worker with Dane County’s Joining Forces for Families, says that she confronts families in crisis over deportation — or fear of it — daily. “Parents come to see me with a sense of sadness and fear for what could happen at any time,” says Hamdan. “Children are without a doubt emotionally affected by their parents’ sense of fear.”
Teachers tell her that more elementary schoolchildren are unable to concentrate and show behavioral problems related to family stress caused by the fear of deportation, she says.
Meanwhile, Dane County Department of Human Services Director Lynn Green acknowledges a deep concern over deportation in the Latino community but says she has no evidence the department is being overtaxed as a result.
Amy Christenson, coordinator of ESL/bilingual education for the Madison Metropolitan School District, says kids have trouble getting to school if an immigration enforcement matter — or fear of one — sends parents into custody or underground. “It’s been individual, isolated cases” so far, she says, except when a rumor of ICE home raids flew through the community a few years ago and many kids were kept at home. Some parents plan for a deportation, drawing up documents stipulating who would raise a child who is a citizen born in the United States if the parents are deported. “It tears families apart when you’ve got people who are U.S. citizens and people who are not, “ Christenson says.
Jon Hawkins knows that being undocumented, and fearing deportation, shapes the lives of immigrant students he knows as a Wright Middle School teacher. A member of the Immigration Task Force, he hoped they would testify to their experiences before it, but had to admit he couldn’t guarantee that coming to a public forum was safe. To give them a voice, Hawkins recorded and entered into the task force’s record first-person stories of five students, whom he calls by such generic names as “Primo” and “Hermana” (“cousin” and “sister” in Spanish). One 15-year-old girl tells of her family being extorted out of their home on a threat of being turned in, and her parents so fearing police that they did not report it.
A boy who has been in Madison more than 10 years since his family illegally crossed the border says he has no license but drives to work anyway. “I hope I don’t get pulled over. I could get into big trouble,” he says.
It was a traffic stop that brought Maria and her husband, Diego, to the attention of ICE. They were driving on East Washington Avenue, Maria behind the wheel, when a Madison police officer stopped their car with its expired license plates. Maria, who with Diego entered the United States illegally — “wetbacks,” she laughs scornfully through an interpreter — does not have a driver’s license and cannot get one under state law.
The officer spent a long time in his squad car with her ID, she recalls, and when he returned, he called her husband by name and asked for an ID, then put him under arrest. “I was driving, so they shouldn’t have stopped us for something that he did,” Maria protests. How did she follow what was happening with her limited English? “I had my translator,” she says with a sad smile about her 11-year-old daughter. The girl, Ana, explained to her mother through tears that police were taking her father away. Maria got a $375 ticket.
“It’s hard, because I wasn’t working,” says Maria, who has recently started working at a fast-food place after a long hiatus from employment following an injury on the job for another employer.
After her husband was taken to jail, Maria embarked on a dizzying quest to learn the charges against him, whether she could get him out on bail, and finally, whether deportation could be avoided. She never consulted an immigration lawyer, but what information she could get through community service agencies suggested that as someone who entered the country illegally, Diego was out of luck. He was transferred to Dodge County Jail, where Maria paid $50 to get a call through to find out what was going on. There was no question he was going. Six weeks after the couple’s car was stopped, he was deported. Maria says she has no one here in Madison to help her and their daughters.
An unscientific analysis of court records of inmates turned over to ICE by the Dane County Jail in 2009 shows that the vast majority were Latino, and all but a couple were men. As for the charges that brought them into custody, neither the picture of a hapless driver stopped for a minor violation, as painted by opponents of the jail reporting policy, nor that of a serious criminal, posed by some immigration hard-liners, is accurate.
A few came into jail with multiple charges of driving without a license. Some were sex or drug offenders. Many others faced charges of theft, disorderly conduct or battery of varying levels of violence. A few were jailed on serious crimes, including a man who pled guilty to charges in connection with the death of his daughter. One man taken into custody briefly by ICE after posting bail on a battery charge now is being sought by Madison police in connection with a fatal shooting in May. Overwhelmingly, the charge that brought inmates turned over to ICE through the doors of the jail was drunken driving — at least the second occurrence and often the third or fourth.
ICE places holds on local jail inmates as they are taken into custody, is notified when they are approaching release, and has 48 hours to determine whether to detain them. It ultimately decides whether to deport them. How many Dane County Jail inmates were deported is not known, because ICE does not keep statistics at that level.
Mahoney says it does not matter for his goal of jail safety whether someone is merely charged with a crime or convicted when reported to ICE. But the practice of turning over people only charged with a crime was challenged by local critics of the jail policy. “It’s a question of due process,” Yvonne Geerts of the Immigrant Workers’ Union told the task force. A coalition of national civil rights groups last month wrote to ICE chief Morton demanding an end to the detention and removal of people arrested or charged but not convicted.
Police chiefs from across the country recently told U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that having cops ask about immigration status erodes community trust and their effectiveness. That’s a familiar concern in Dane County, even though both the Madison Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office have a policy prohibiting immigration queries while interviewing or arresting someone. That doesn’t mean people don’t think it will happen.
Madison Police Chief Noble Wray told the Immigration Task Force that having community trust is key. “It is critical that citizens can step forward. We need the community to help us succeed,” he said. But the chief has been circumspect in his remarks about the sheriff’s policy of reporting jail inmates to ICE, focusing instead on his department’s strategies to overcome mistrust, like Amigos en Azul (Friends in Blue), a program that builds relationships in the Latino community.
Former police captain Yudice is blunt in his assessment of the sheriff’s policy: “I think it’s counterproductive. It creates not only fear and distrust of law enforcement, but we have people who are afraid to step forward and be witnesses or report crimes when they are victim of crimes. It also marginalizes a segment of our community, and I think that that’s harmful. It is forcing people underground.”
Local attorneys and social service workers say they tell undocumented immigrants headed to jail they should expect ICE to tag them. But even if an immigration hold is issued, whether ICE follows up, takes into custody and deports an inmate seems random, says Catherine Dorl of the Public Defender’s Office in Madison.
“It seems to ebb and flow with policy changes and where local resources are deployed,” says Dorl, who reports that she has not seen the uptick in cases brought to trial that was predicted because of stepped-up immigration enforcement at the jail.
Diego’s brushes with the law were more serious — and more numerous — than Maria seems to have known. Court records show that when the couple was stopped there was a warrant out for his arrest triggered by failure to show up for a court hearing for a drunken driving charge, his second. Today Diego is in Mexico, where Maria speaks with him by phone.
How is he doing? “So-so,” says Maria. “He says that I should go back to Mexico, but my daughter doesn’t want to go.” Maria wants to stay here and build a life for Ana. It hurts her, too, when Ana cries over the loss of her father. Maria’s other daughter, Danila, 20, says she understands money is tight, but she has not been able to find a job.
Critics of the Dane County Jail policy weren’t able to rewrite it but say an important function was served by putting the controversy before the public. “We tried to get people to stop and think about a complex issue, and it seems more people are thinking who were not aware of it before,” says Hawkins. The issue also failed to make its way into the November sheriff’s election. Mahoney opponent Shawn Haney says the ICE reporting policy may be the only thing on which the two candidates agree.
Controversy about local jail reporting policies could be beside the point by 2013, when ICE plans to implement nationwide its Secure Communities program, which would feed fingerprints of everyone booked into local jails directly to ICE. Congress has mandated participation by local law enforcement agencies, says an ICE spokesperson, but several communities already are balking.
Mahoney says he is not eager to see the program implemented in Dane County. “There are already inaccurate perceptions of what the Sheriff’s Office is involved in,” he says.