Friday, May 28, 2010

Massachusetts: The New Arizona?

Taking a cue from the pages of Arizona, our Commonwealth has now joined the fierce anti-immigrant wave hitting the nation. First, gubernatorial candidates Charles Baker and Timothy Cahill told the public that they want to give police in Massachusetts more authority to arrest and charge people with immigration violations. Then, our state senate voted 28 to 10 to take away public health care, housing, and higher education benefits from people who can’t prove they are here legally.

What’s going on here? Advocates have worked for decades to ensure that Massachusetts remains true to our immigrant roots by providing a welcoming place for newcomers. As one of the most diverse states in the nation, we have always been ahead of other states in ensuring that immigrants are treated fairly. We got rid of the so-called 287(g) agreements between local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement when we realized that they were just making people afraid of their local cops. Many of our representatives in Congress have been leaders in ensuring that there are laws that protect immigrant rights. The community’s work following the New Bedford raids has become a model around the country. The Boston City Council called for a boycott of Arizona after their draconian law was passed. We cannot let the latest anti-immigrant fad change who we are as a state.

This Saturday, please join me in standing with our immigrant friends at a rally at noon on the Boston Common. Bring your friends and family. We cannot allow these anti-immigrant policies and laws to stand without a fight!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

True confession and what it means to be "illegal" in America

Contributed by Carol Rose, of the "On Liberty" blog

True confession: I love my hate mail.

Okay; I can do without the ad hominem stuff – which generally reflects on the author more than the target. But I appreciate the serious questions and critiques.

Let’s take the notion of being an "illegal” immigrant, for instance. In a recent “On Liberty” post on immigrants, a lot of readers took issue with my failure to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants to this country when I suggested that the new Arizona law requiring police to stop people to ask for their identity papers seems a bit too East-German-Stasi for my tastes. Does anyone really want to turn America into a country where guys in jackboots walk around demanding your "papers, please"? No thanks!

Still, a lot of people raised the valid question: what does it mean to be in America illegally?

Arguably, the passengers on the Mayflower, NiƱa, Pinta and Santa Maria weren't carrying visas when they entered the New World, so all of us with Daughters-of-the-American-Revolution credentials might want to sit this one out. Many of the Italian and Irish immigrants who came to our fair Commonwealth a century or two later also didn't have legal immigration papers. Neither did the thousands of people who came in the years leading up to 1986, when Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Control and Reform Act granting broad amnesty to everyone then in the country.

Even today, it's hard to figure out who is here illegally just by looking at them or even looking at their papers. I asked a few immigration lawyers I know and, let me tell you, it's complicated stuff!

Did you know that it is against the law for the U.S. to turn away a person who may be tortured if he is returned to his home country? So, it's possible that a person can be in this country without a visibly legitimate visa, but still be here legally while her application for asylum is processed.

Our laws also protect victims of domestic violence so that violent spouses can’t threaten to take their status away from them. You wouldn't know by looking at the papers. Or what about people from Haiti and other places who can’t return because their homes were devastated in a natural disaster? Their faces may show their suffering; their papers won't.

And then there are those who are just waiting to be processed. There are such backlogs in the immigration system that people who have applied for legal status by meeting all the requirements, filling out the requisite paperwork and paying the fees, could be waiting months or years for their legal papers to arrive.

That's not being illegal; it's being in limbo.

There are dozens of other types of immigration statuses and laws about visas that, thankfully, I have not had to master as a generalist civil rights lawyer.

But I know enough to realize that immigration law is complicated and that asking our local police officers to act as immigration cops is a bad idea for a whole bunch of reasons.

First, it is likely to lead to the racial profiling of many citizens and non-citizens who may have a legal right to be here. It's just wrong to create a law that requires police to stop people based on their skin color.

Second, it will make us less safe. Enforcement schemes based on people's appearances (rather than their actions) will widen the gulf between community public safety officers and the communities they are supposed to serve and defend.

If police become the "enemy" of all brown-skinned people, then law-abiding members of that community would be foolish to turn to the police to solve real crimes. Such policies discourage people from reporting to police suspicious behavior or people who may pose a true danger to the neighborhood. After all, any interaction the police -- no matter how well-intentioned -- could draw attention from immigration authorities.

At the heart of this discussion, of course, is the obvious need for comprehensive immigration policy reform. In particular, we need to face the fact that we permit capital to flow freely across our borders and then criminalize the labor flows that chase it.

We also need to acknowledge that undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollar of taxes into social security that they will never get back because they can’t apply for Social Security benefits. In fact, their
contributions to Social Security at last count added up to the difference between what the system currently receives in payroll taxes and what it doles out in pension benefits! (Thanks guys!)

I’d welcome a policy debate on immigration that includes a discussion of how our foreign policies can promote regional economic growth in ways that permit people to stay in their native countries and still feed their families (and still keep Social Security afloat of the rest of us here in America).

It's complicated stuff and it's going to take time and open-minded public debate to reach a solution. But let’s not assume that this or other difficult social problems we face will be solved by simply redeploying the police to do immigration work or filling our already-overcrowded jails with people who could be out there paying taxes for our social security benefits. We need to rationalize our immigration system, not criminalize it.

Police officers have tough enough jobs keeping us safe from gun violence, rape, and robberies -- and I'm grateful to them for putting their lives on the line for me and my family. Let's honor and support their work. But it's unfair and unwise to turn them into immigration agents as well.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Anti-immigrant backlash that starts in Arizona should stop in Arizona

Contributed by Carol Rose, ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director and "On Liberty" blogger

Unless you are Native American or a descendent of slaves, your ancestors most likely were immigrants to this country.

Perhaps your family came here seeking religious liberty or fleeing persecution. Or maybe they came for economic reasons -- because staying home meant a life of grinding poverty, at best, and starvation at worst. Whatever the specific reasons, those who came to these shores were in search of a better future for themselves and for their children. They ended up building a nation -- for all of us.

Given this common American experience, it always strikes me as odd (or at least exceedingly ahistorical) when our nation falls under the grip of anti-immigrant hysteria.

The most recent incarnation of anti-immigrant backlash was the passage in Arizona ofbone-headed legislation that will require police officers to ask people for their papers based on some undefined "reasonable suspicion" that they are in the country unlawfully.

It's a law that invites racial profiling in the worst way. On what other basis than race will a police officer suspect that someone is not legally present in the United States? The Arizona law will lead to targeting of Latinos (including American citizens and lawful permanent residents) with mass sweeps and enforcement operations.

So it was heartening to see the Boston City Council and Mayor Tom Menino take a stand against the Arizona law last week -- denouncing Arizona's race-baiting policies, while reaffirming our city's commitment to America's values of fairness and equality. The Worcester City Council is considering a similar measure, and, while opposing a boycott,Governor Patrick blasted the Arizona law.

If only all Massachusetts politicians were so enlightened!

In contrast to these patriotic stances -- and in a classic example of political pandering -- Massachusetts State Rep. Jeff Perry, last week filed a budget amendment that would have prevented anyone from receiving any federal, state or municipal public benefits without first having their lawful presence in the U.S. verified. Perry, who is vying for the Republican nomination to succeed Congressman William Delahunt, apparently thought that an anti-immigrant bill would boost his political fortunes among voters who forgot that their ancestors also were immigrants to this country.

Not to be out-dumbed, gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker tried to get in on the anti-immigrant action by announcing his support for a plan to require homeless people to show proof of residency before they could stay at a homeless shelter or take advantage of any public benefits. Baker had to back away from this scheme when someone pointed out that homeless people, by definition, don't have residences. Baker later said his shelter position was misrepresented, although it is hard to imagine how to represent it as anything other than crude political pandering.

Of course, Perry and Baker are also part of another American tradition: the one that coined the phrases: "No Irish Need Apply" and "Round up the usual (Italian) suspects".

These days, anti-immigrant sentiment directed against Irish and Italians would be political suicide. But Perry and Baker know that each new wave of immigrants faces persecution for a generation of two, and during that time short-sighted politicians can gain short-run votes by pandering to base anti-immigrant sentiments.

Fortunately, the Arizona law already is being challenged by a range of civil rights groups including the ACLU, as well as by businesses, citizens, and sports teams that understand and believe in the American dream.

So when Arizona says "show us your papers," let's show them our Constitution -- and ensure that what started in Arizona, stops in Arizona.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Untested information + No independent oversight = Government Gone Wild

BPD Suspicious Activity Reporting privacy policy released to ACLU of Massachusetts through FOIA

By Kade Crockford

As part of our Sunlight on Surveillance campaign here at the ACLU of Massachusetts, we have submitted numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and public records requests to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies about government surveillance activities. As we receive documents back from the government, we will highlight some of them here, and post all of them at our Spy Files site.

We recently received a document entitled “ISE-SAR Privacy, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Protection Policy,” from the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), a fusion center run by the Boston Police Department out of their headquarters in Roxbury.

The document essentially sets out the privacy policy that governs BRIC officials when they create “Suspicious Activity Reports” and send them to the federally-run “Shared Spaces” server, accessible to thousands of law enforcement personnel at all levels nationwide. The SAR program is troubling in itself because of the broad definition of what constitutes a “Suspicious Activity.” (For a thorough analysis of the SAR program, I encourage you to read Political Research Associate’s latest report, “Platform for Prejudice”.)

While it attempts to set out guidelines for the protection and validation of personal information in its systems, the privacy policy falls far short of realizing that goal. There are many problems with the BRIC privacy policy, among them: the lack of independent oversight, the absence of clear authority to discipline officers who misuse the data systems, and the fact that information about individuals need not be acknowledged, disclosed to the subjects or even corrected if demonstrated to be inaccurate or obsolete.

But the most disturbing issue with BRIC’s policy is that it fails to guard against false information submitted by other agencies. And this is a real and current threat: as the national ACLU reports today, the FBI has admitted that half of the arrest record information kept in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is inaccurate or outdated.

The FBI’s irresponsible handling of information in the NCIC affects Massachusetts residents in multiple ways. The federal/state/local Information Sharing Exchange - Suspicious Activity Reporting (ISE-SAR) program incorporates NCIC data, as well as data from hundreds of federal, state and law enforcement agencies, allowing for Commonwealth residents to be wrongly suspected or targeted by the federal government and state and local police.

NCIC’s participation in ISE-SAR undermines the legitimacy of the data BRIC consumes from the system, since BRIC explicitly states that it is the responsibility of the contributing agency to validate information, taking their word “based on a good faith” belief that the information is accurate and was acquired lawfully.

If you are wrongly surveilled or targeted as a result of incorrect data, you most likely will never have the right to view the evidence against you or correct the erroneous information. The BRIC privacy policy states that subjects of investigations or SARs may request to view the information held about them, but that the agency has the right to deny any request. Further, the agency need not change information contested as incorrect, nor must they even disclose the existence of a SARs file to the subject in question.

The problems with the privacy policy mirror the problems with the overarching ISE-SAR program. Oversight of information entered into or obtained from the Shared Space by BRIC personnel rests with law enforcement agencies. The fox is guarding the chicken coop. As the NCIC data-accuracy crisis shows, a lack of independent oversight leads to system-wide corruption. Inaccurate data can lead to false arrests and illegal surveillance.

Compounding matters, since the ISE-SAR Shared Space is accessible to thousands of law enforcement officers nationwide, incorrect information entered about you in California could result in a wrongful arrest in Kansas.

Given that the FBI has such a poor track record of maintaining accurate records, should BRIC and Boston Police trust Shared Space SARs information in “good faith”?

We don’t think so, but without strict mechanisms to guard against allowing incorrect information into the system, the BRIC’s privacy policy leaves the door open for myriad abuses. We in Massachusetts, the cradle of liberty, deserve better. Public safety and individual liberty demand it.

If you suspect incorrect law enforcement information has been or is being used against you, please get in touch with us. We’d like to know about it. Thanks!