Five years ago, the Department of Homeland Security established a program that forwards local arrest records to a national immigration database. If an individual is suspected of being in the country unlawfully, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or "ICE", may ask local law enforcement to hold the individual until officials can investigate his or her immigration status. These requests are known as ICE holds.
For years, New Orleans police cooperated with ICE on these requests. Immigration activists fought back. In 2011 two day laborers sued Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman for holding them in jail unconstitutionally for months.
This past August Sheriff Gusman announced that he would no longer comply with ICE holds, making him the first sheriff in the Deep South to adopt a policy of non-compliance. The Sheriff recently visited a meeting of the Congress of Day Laborers, where he was greeted with loud cheers and chants of “¡Sí se pude!”— Spanish for “Yes we can!”
Sheriff Gusman has gone from defendant in a civil rights lawsuit to honored guest at a meeting of mostly undocumented immigrants. One important figure in this transformation is a woman named Delmy Palencia, from Honduras.
In May 2011 Delmy and her husband had a domestic dispute. She locked him out, and he called the police to help him get back in the house. When the officers showed up they were unable to communicate with Delmy and her husband, and they arrested Delmy for domestic abuse, forcing her to leave her 3-month-old son. She went jail, with no idea why.
Delmy says she couldn’t contact her family while she was in jail — she was completely out of touch. With no translator at her first hearing, she couldn’t ask anyone about her case. Even if she was being held for being undocumented, immigration-related jail holds are only supposed to last 48 hours.
Eventually, the Congress of Day Laborers helped her navigate the court system. After 45 days Delmy was released from jail.
She says the first thing she did wasn’t eat or take a shower — she went straight to city hall. Delmy’s case became a spark for protests and pressure to reform police treatment of immigrants. The Congress of Day Laborers met with city council members, and this past May the council unanimously passed a resolution asking Sheriff Gusman to limit cooperation with ICE.
“It seemed very unfair to look at the person and decide they should be held. It’s the worst form of racial profiling,” says City Councilmember James Gray, explaining the rationale for the the resolution.
In August, Sheriff Gusman announced his policy change. His office would not keep undocumented immigrants in jail on ICE holds, unless they were arrested on a violent crime. And this isn’t about the jail’s budget. Gusman says he would not comply with ICE, even if he were provided with more resources to do so.
“I think that that would be cooperating with something that I thought — that I think now is fundamentally wrong,” said Sheriff Gusman.
The Sheriff’s ICE policy revision marks a major shift. But it’s only one facet of the issue.
The police are still working with ICE. Last month ICE detained six men in New Orleans with the cooperation of NOPD. Karen Sandoval’s husband Enrique Morales was one of them.
Sandoval says she and her husband were passengers in a friend’s car when he got pulled over by NOPD for unknown reasons. They were going the speed limit and wearing their seatbelts. Suddenly, seven unmarked cars pulled up and ICE detained her husband, Enrique. Neither he nor the driver were ticketed or arrested by NOPD — the ICE officials detained them.
Enrique was recently deported back to Nicaragua, leaving Sandoval with their US-born children in New Orleans.
Jacinta Gonzalez is the lead organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers. The group recently held a meeting with NOPD about their cooperation with ICE.
“From what we can tell, ICE decides to do an operation and then calls in NOPD for support. And so what we’re requesting is that if there is no warrant, or there is no court order, then that the police just simply say no,” Gonzalez says.
The day laborers have New Orleans City council seemingly invested in their community. Councilmembers LaToya Cantrell and Kristin Palmer recently paid a visit to the Congress of Day Laborers.
“We are united as one in this fight and we will not give up! And the next step is New Orleans Police Department!” said Councilmember Cantrell as the crowd broke into cheers.
Representatives from ICE declined to comment. In an email NOPD Communications Director Remi Braden said they’re reviewing the proposals discussed with the Congress of Day Laborers and evaluating their options.