Civil rights groups charge Obama with hypocrisy over Alabama immigration law

The Obama administration is facing charges of hypocrisy for fighting a controversial Alabama immigration law while using the measure to arrest and deport illegal immigrants in the state.

Civil rights and Latino advocacy groups laud the Justice Department’s (DOJ) lawsuit challenging Alabama over its newly enacted immigration law, which allows state law enforcement officials to require suspected criminals to show proof of their immigration status.

But the groups blasted the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) continued use in Alabama of the Secure Communities program, which transmits the immigration status records of people arrested in the state to federal authorities. The new state law subjects the Latino community to racial profiling and the Secure Communities program places illegal immigrants who are arrested in line to be deported by DHS, the groups said.

ADVERTISEMENT
“You have two agencies that are pursuing courses that are inconsistent with each other,” said Joanne Lin, a legislative council for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in an interview.

“In Alabama, DHS is continuing to operate its immigration program, which means you have people who are definitely being processed and referred for deportation. DHS is actively pursuing a program that, in my view, undermines DOJ’s litigation.”

Matt Chandler, a spokesman for DHS, said that the department was keeping close tabs — through its Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties — on whether the civil rights of those arrested under the new law are violated.

“We will closely follow this monitoring to ensure that local law enforcement in Alabama, and elsewhere, are not leveraging Secure Communities in a way that threatens individuals’ civil rights or civil liberties,” said Chandler in a statement to The Hill.

While the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have called for a suspension of the Secure Communities program in Alabama until the constitutionality of the new state immigration law is determined by the courts, the National Council of La Raza and the immigration reform advocacy group, America’s Voice, said the White House needs to better organize its approach.

“There needs to be a coordinated federal response to address the humanitarian crisis we’re seeing in Alabama,” said Laura Vazquez, a legislative analyst for La Raza, in an interview.

“We’re concerned that DHS hasn’t changed its operations and that they are picking up people that are being detained under the very law that DOJ is challenging.”

The groups balked at the overwhelming silence emanating from Capitol Hill lawmakers and the White House on the issue of the new state law. In comparison, a similar law passed by Arizona last year raised a tumultuous furor of objections from President Obama and Democrats on the Hill. Arizona’s law has since been blocked through efforts of the DOJ’s.

“There’s a deafening silence coming from not just Capitol Hill but also the president and his cabinet,” said Lin. “I think there are members of Congress whose impulse is that this is a terrible law and want to condemn it, but the silence from the White House makes it more difficult to do that.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has called on DHS to suspend the deportation of illegal immigrants with no other criminal histories, participated in one of the first rallies in Birmingham on Saturday objecting to the law.

Gutierrez, who is the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), pointed to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s announcement in August that the department is shifting its priorities of deportations to focus on illegal immigrants with other criminal histories.  The initiative has garnered a great deal of criticism from Republicans who say it is a backdoor amnesty policy.

“Nowhere is it more important for federal authorities to exercise prosecutorial discretion than in Alabama where a state has taken it upon itself to round people up or drive them out because of their appearance, accent, or lack of identification,” Gutierrez said in a statement.  “If Secretary Napolitano is serious about implementing a policy that targets real criminals, she must push back on a state that has decided to target everyone instead.”

But the ACLU worried that under the new Alabama law, actions that were not crimes before are now felonies for illegal immigrants and people charged with those crimes could rise to the top of DHS’s deportation lists.

“There are new crimes in Alabama now; it is now a felony if you’re an undocumented person to be engaging in any sort of action with a government agency,” said Lin.

“That includes a public utility company, the state park system, etc. If they get booked into a Secure Communities jail, their fingerprints are automatically going to be forwarded to DHS. That person is going to be going to DHS as a felony arrestee. That’s going to be a high-priority person for them.”

DHS said that was not the case and that people arrested under the new Alabama law would not be subjected to Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) increased focus on dangerous criminals unless they have prior criminal records.

“The new criminal offenses created by Alabama do not involve threats to public safety or other priorities, and, as such, individuals convicted of such offenses are generally lower enforcement priorities for ICE, provided there are no other aggravating factors,” said Chandler.

Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, said while he expects congressional objections to increase in the coming weeks, lawmakers and Obama are going to feel the protests from the Latino community. 

“I think Gutierrez will come back and probably get the Hispanic Caucus fired up and then others will get fired up,” said Sharry in an interview.

“The silence has been painful. Activists and the Latino immigrant community feel abandoned by the president, feel a tremendous outrage and anger at DHS, and love the Justice Department for what seems like their isolated efforts to do the right thing. And that may be exaggerated but this is an emotional time. It may not be entirely rational and fair, but it is entirely true and growing.”