Tell politicians that immigrants are an integral part of our commonwealth

Washington State 05-01-17 May Day March

Call to oppose SB 10: 1-844-803-2258

This week, Pennsylvania lawmakers will proceed to vote on Senate Bill 10 (SB 10). The passing of SB 10 will further endanger the civil liberties of immigrants. Immigrants are an integral part of our commonwealth. Many community members, including US citizens, will become hesitant to report emergencies and crimes and to help law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of crimes; this will jeopardize public safety. In addition, SB 10 will drain local resources by diverting them towards a federal responsibility. Congress funded ICE more than $7 billion in fiscal year 2018; do the feds really need help from PA? 

Please take a few minutes to make a call to express opposition for the bill. You can utilize the toll-free number 1-844-803-2258 to connect to your local senator. Once on the line, tell them your name, enter your zip code, and tell your senator: 

“Senate Bill 10 will force local police to act as an extension of the immigration system, which drains already limited local resources and erodes community trust in law enforcement. Please oppose Senate Bill 10 because it will squander valuable resources while jeopardizing public safety. ”

Look up your senator >> http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/findyourlegislator/

After deportation, a murder in central Mexico: The case of Juan Coronilla-Guerrero

By Andy Hoover and Matt Stroud, ACLU of Pennsylvania

c’s wife told a federal judge that he could be killed if he was deported back to central Mexico. The judge decided to deport him anyway — and Coronilla-Guerrero was killed. Photo via the American-Statesman.

For a decade, irresponsible public officials and other public figures have used xenophobic rhetoric to fuel a hateful anti-immigrant movement. Some — among them, former Hazleton mayor and now Congressman Lou Barletta and former DOJ bureaucrat and now Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — have gained power by using fear of immigrants as a launching pad for their ambitions, even while their most extreme ideas continuously lose in court. That xenophobia charged our current president’s run to the White House, and its inevitable conclusion is now being seen around the country, as ICE and Border Patrol agents harass, intimidate, and arrest people wherever and whenever they can find them.

Advocates for immigrants’ rights have a fairer, more compassionate vision of America — as a place where people can seek refuge from extreme poverty, extreme violence, and political persecution.

On Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman reported about the case of Juan Coronilla-Guerrero.

Coronilla-Guerrero was arrested by agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on March 3 when he showed up for a routine court appearance to address misdemeanor charges in Travis County, Texas. That he was picked up in a so-called “sensitive location” highlights how aggressive immigration enforcement has become.

In a federal hearing that followed Coronilla-Guerrero’s arrest, his wife described the gangland environment that she and her husband escaped when they left central Mexico for Austin. She warned a judge that her husband would likely be murdered if he were deported.

The judge wasn’t moved; Coronilla-Guerrero was sent back to his home country. His wife’s warning soon proved prescient: Three months after he arrived in Mexico, Coronilla-Guerrero’s body was discovered on a roadsidenear where he lived with his wife’s family.

As immigration enforcement gets more and more aggressive, we hear stories like this — of immigrants who are essentially refugees, begging to stay in the United States, and being arrested and/or deported regardless. NPR reportedWednesday about the parents of a two-month-old being arrested by Border Patrol agents while their child underwent a serious operation. In Pennsylvania, we hear frequent stories of immigration raids, ramped-up enforcement. When Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas’s Gulf Coast, a worry among undocumented immigrants was whether or not they could go to shelters without being arrested and deported.

Under Trump, Mexicans are “rapists” and we must build a “big, beautiful wall” to keep them out. Under Trump, the problem of immigration is not how to assimilate “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but rather to lend a bullhorn to the “voices of immigration crime.”

But as that fearful, xenophobic philosophy spreads throughout federal law enforcement agencies — and as immigration-related arrests spike to record levels — the aggression of the fierce anti-immigrant movement championed by Trump, Barletta, Kobach, and their ilk creates new heartbreaking stories, new martyrs. Coronilla-Guerrero’s death shows the dangers of deportation itself. It highlights that claims that the United States is overrun by violent immigrants is a fallacy, a claim unsupported by data.

One wonders how those sympathetic to Coronilla-Guerrero will respond.

IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

The

A fascinating investigative report from USA Today delved into The Wall, and whether it’s realistic. Of course it’s not, but the details of its impossibility are fascinating. Photo via USA Today.

“‘Build the Wall.’ Three words energized a campaign. But could it be done? What would it cost? What would it accomplish? Our search for answers became this, a landmark new report, ‘The Wall.’ The task was massive. We flew the entire border, drove it too. More than 30 reporters and photographers interviewed migrants, farmers, families, tribal members — even a human smuggler. We joined Border Patrol agents on the ground, in a tunnel, at sea. We patrolled with vigilantes, walked the line with ranchers. We scoured government maps, fought for property records. In this report, you can watch aerial video of every foot of the border, explore every piece of fence, even stand at the border in virtual reality. Still, breakthrough technology would mean nothing if it didn’t help us better understand the issues — and one another.”

“The records depict a slush fund for DA and police spending that runs the gamut from the mundane to the downright bizarre, all enabled by laws that empower police to seize property from individuals sometimes merely suspected of criminal activity. In one instance, the forfeiture ‘bank’ helped top off the salary of a former DA staffer who once served as campaign manager to now-jailed District Attorney Seth Williams. (The office maintains these expenses were appropriate and eventually reimbursed.) Other forfeiture dollars paid for at least one contract that appears to have violated city ethics guidelines — construction work awarded to a company linked to one of the DA’s own staff detectives. (The DAO said it is now conducting an ‘internal investigation’ into these payments.) With little concern for public scrutiny, the clandestine revenue stream also paid for much more: $30,000 worth of submachine guns (equipped with military-grade laser sights valued at $15,000) for police tactical units; a $16,000 website development contract; custom uniform embroidery; a $76 parking ticket; $1,000 in raccoon-removal services; a push lawn mower; a pair of outboard motors; and tens of thousands in mysterious cash withdrawals — along with thousands of other expenses.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

We’ve embarked on an ambitious project

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Protesters in Phoenix speak out against ICE’s 287(g) program. Photo via Flickr user Basta287g.

If the 45th president of the United States has reminded us of anything, it’s that government agencies require as much scrutiny now as they’ve ever required before — if not much more. At ACLU-PA, we’ve taken that as a cue to more closely follow the news, to more actively track the actions of lawmakers, and to more doggedly file records requests for information such as budgets or police complaints or internal governmental communications.

When it comes to records requests, we file them not to hector public employees, but rather to engage with the governing process. Sometimes this is done in pursuit of very specific information. (One of our summer interns, Emilia Beuger, this week filed a request with the city of Pittsburgh for body camera footage related to a particular police interaction, for example.) And sometimes it’s done merely to let government agencies know we’re watching.

Along those lines, we’ve embarked on an ambitious project.

You’ve heard of the 287(g) program? It’s one of the “top partnership initiatives” of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It deputizes local police departments to act as immigration officials — to request immigration papers from individuals, and to otherwise “receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions,” according to ICE’s website. In 2012, the Obama administration scaled back 287(g) in light of racial profiling allegations. It ultimately shut the program down in 2015.

When we read that the Trump Administration planned to reinstate 287(g), we decided to find out which Pennsylvania police departments wanted to join in.

In recent months, we’ve been slowly rolling out our own program to do so — to ask whether local police departments have requested to be a part of 287(g), and, if so, what their communications with ICE have looked like. This has been no small task; there are nearly 1,200 municipal, county, and state police departments in the commonwealth. But with the help of a team of volunteers, we’re filing requests with all of them, and finding interesting information.

While ICE posts a list of established 287(g) partners online, it certainly doesn’t note who’s asking to take part, and who’s, by reasonable extension, hoping to target undocumented immigrants in their communities for arrest and deportation. We’ve not only identified departments that have made their interests in 287(g) known to ICE, we also have reason to believe that, in at least one case, our questions have inspired law enforcement officials to rethink their request to become trained as a 287(g) department.

There’s a lot more to be done. Stamping out racial profiling and civil liberties violations doesn’t start or end with identifying which police departments want to target undocumented immigrants. But letting police know that we’re here, paying attention to them if they do — well, we think that’s a step in the right direction.

If you have suggestions for other public records requests that ACLU-PA should pursue, please get in contact. I’m at mstroud@aclupa.org. Let’s file dogged public records requests together.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Port Authority’s new fare check policy implements a federal background check on individuals who don’t pay for their fare, which would be enforced by the Port Authority Police. Photo from the Pittsburgh City Paper.

  • City Paper: “Advocates are concerned Port Authority’s new fare-check policy could lead to deportation of undocumented immigrants: ‘Once Port Authority runs your name, ICE will check that name and can detain you.’”

“The new policy, which Port Authority hopes to implement in August, will have riders pay as part of an honor system. Port Authority Police officers will check riders for proof of payment on light-rail cars and at T stations, run federal background checks on riders who don’t pay, and potentially charge repeat offenders with criminal offenses. Ruiz is terrified about what might play out because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has access to the same FBI database through which Port Authority Police will run fare-evaders’ names and addresses. She says this means that forgetting to pay a $2.50 fare one time could lead to a deportation. ‘They are basically turning [light rail] into a border checkpoint,’ says Ruiz.”

  • Good Men Project: “Philadelphia Police Fatal Shooting of Fleeing Black Suspect Akin to 2014 Cover-Up”

“But despite the progress of the police department here — it’s reported that the majority of recommendations issued by the Department of Justice related to use of force and training has been adopted — what does it say about the agency when a rookie and a veteran assigned to the same Police District both use lethal force — Mr. Carrelli before the DOJ issued their report and recommendations and Mr. Pownhall, who may or may not have been equipped with a Taser, nearly two years afterwards — when their life isn’t immediately in jeopardy; no reasonable person would fear for their life when the perceived threat is retreating. I asserted the aforementioned when Mr. Tate-Brown was killed, and I’m asserting it again on behalf of the late Mr. Jones. It’s demoralizing that more than two years after Mr. Tate-Brown was unjustly murdered, there’s no justice realized or on the horizon, only déjà vu.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

The work of defending civil liberties goes on

ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford addresses the crowd at the “Show Love for the Constitution” event. | February 15, 2017. (credit: Ben Bowens)

Dear supporter,

In some ways, our country changed on November 8. The United States elected a leader who, by all measures, is hostile to the basic foundations and principles that we stand for. President Trump and his regime deserve every ounce of pushback we can gather, and the ACLU will be on the front lines of the resistance.

And yet, at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we have always taken the long view. Issues that are with us today were with us before November 8 and, to one degree or another, would have continued regardless of who was elected, including mass incarceration, police brutality, inequality for gay and transgender people, and efforts to compromise women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

You may have heard that there has been a major increase in giving to the ACLU since the election. While much of that growth has occurred at the national level, in fact, here in Pennsylvania, our membership has tripled. We saw a notable rise in donations after Election Day, but the real surge of giving happened after the weekend of the Muslim Ban. It was in that moment that many Pennsylvanians realized the significance of the threat to our values and to the people we most cherish.

You have put your trust in the ACLU in these challenging times. We are grateful for that trust and take it as a responsibility. Thank you.

The generous outpouring of support we’ve received in recent months has allowed us to think big about our work. It is my intention to add new staff to our existing staff of 22. Our current team has the talent, skills, and persistence to take on the many challenges before us. I also know that we can advance the cause of civil liberties throughout Pennsylvania by bringing even more talented people on board. The times demand it. Your support enables it.

In the months ahead, you’ll hear more about our Smart Justice campaign, our effort to reform, reinvent, and revamp the criminal justice system; our Transgender Public Education and Advocacy Project; the campaign for District Attorney in Philadelphia; the many bills we’re advocating for and against at the state capitol; and more litigation to push back against government excesses wherever they occur.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is prepared to thwart the Trump administration’s worst instincts as they play out in the commonwealth.

And state and municipal officials aren’t off the hook. We’re working with immigrant communities to monitor federal immigration enforcement tactics while also standing with municipal governments that insist they won’t bend to every demand of ICE. We’re insisting that the commonwealth keeps its commitment to open beds for people who are too ill to stand trial and are being warehoused in local jails. We’re working at the state legislature to defeat efforts to hide the identity of police who seriously injure and kill people and to hide video that captures police brutality from the public. And we are active in ongoing struggles to diminish police presence in schools, to stop rollbacks of women’s reproductive healthcare, and to fight the practice of jailing people for their debts.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has the infrastructure and the experience to defend civil rights at every turn. Consider some of our recent work:

  • Our legal team successfully freed travelers who were detained at Philadelphia International Airport the weekend of Muslim Ban 1.0, our advocacy team supported the protests at airports in Philly and Pittsburgh, and our communications staff echoed the message to #LetThemIn.
  • Two weeks ago, we settled a lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster for denying enrollment at its regular high school for older refugee students. Older refugee students will now be able to attend the regular high school instead of being segregated at an alternative school.
  • Over the last month, our legislative director has been busy at the state capitol in Harrisburg lobbying against efforts to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing, which has been suspended for two years due to court rulings.
  • In tandem with allies, our advocacy team has launched the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, an effort to push the candidates for district attorney to commit to reforming the criminal justice system.
  • Last week, our lawyers filed to intervene to defend a school in Berks County that has been sued for affirming its students’ gender identity. We’re representing a transgender student and a youth advocacy organization who would be harmed if the lawsuit successfully overturns the school’s practice.

These five examples are just from the last two months. In fact, four of them happened in the last two weeks.

My favorite playwright, Pittsburgh native August Wilson, said this about gratitude in his play Two Trains Running:  “You walking around here with a ten-gallon bucket. Somebody put a little cupful in and you get mad ’cause it’s empty. You can’t go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That’s all you need. Get you a little cup and somebody put a bit in and it’s half-full.”

Well, thanks to you, our ten-gallon bucket runneth over.

Onward!

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Donald Trump hasn’t f***ed up our plans at all. We’re pushing forward.

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lewis Black is a longtime ACLU supporter.

In late summer 2001, when Lewis Black was in the final stages of preparing to release a live, topical comedy album, the September 11 terror attacks occurred. The album was shelved; none of his jokes had the same relevance as they did before the attacks. The comedian later admitted to having a complicated reaction to this: “You know it’s a national tragedy,” he said. “It is a national tragedy. We all know it’s a national tragedy. You know that. But. Everybody in this country, as soon as it happened — everyone — had that little moment where they went, ‘Oh. Well. That really fucks up my plans.’”

“Everyone” is an exaggeration, of course. But Black was tapping into a revealing emotion there: The idea that we can sometimes dwell on our own small difficulties even as we wade in a sea of other people’s much larger tragedies. Was Black’s problem a big deal? Not really: He had to re-record his album with different material. His problem paled in comparison to the suffering that countless people experienced. But still: To him, in his little world, it was a burden. He was sidetracked.

You’d think that ACLU-PA would be empathizing with Black right about now.

When President Donald J. Trump issued his executive order on immigration, ACLU chapters nationwide had to pull some of their best people — such as Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hooper here in Pennsylvania, and many other lawyers and advocates nationwide — away from important work, so that they could confront the civil- rights-threatening commandment that Trump handed down. We suspect similar situations are going to become commonplace for the next four years, if not longer. As a result, you would think that there are very important issues — such as criminal justice reform, the protection of student rights, and issues relating to racial justice — that the ACLU won’t have the time or resources to focus attention on. You would think that it fucks up our plans.

But the truth is that we’ve been preparing for the Trump Administration since months before he was elected. And there’s plenty of room for positivity. Protests in the streets and much-appreciated donations to groups like the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Planned Parenthood, the National Immigration Law Center, and many others, have shown that support for civil rights is strong despite the actions of the president. While we will fight on the front lines of whatever civil rights battles the Trump administration decides to fight, other important issues will continue to receive attention.

  • ACLU-PA will continue working toward reducing the commonwealth’s prison population.
  • It will continue advocating for students and the LGBT community and free speech.
  • It will continue to push against civil asset forfeiture and opaque government and limits to voting rights.
  • In fact, ACLU-PA is hiring. Stay tuned for new job openings related to criminal justice and other issues on our website.
  • We’re growing. So is the movement to protect civil liberties. And just as Black re-recorded his hilarious album and released it successfully in 2002, we are continuing to do the important work that our mission has always guided us to do.

Donald Trump hasn’t fucked up our plans at all. We’re pushing forward.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Protesters gathered at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday against President Trump’s executive order enacting a refugee ban. Photo from ACLU.
  • From ACLU National: “Here Is Some of the Human Misery Caused by President Trump’s Muslim Ban From Those Most Impacted.”

“We have all documents. We are real refugees. I was waiting for five years. I have endured much but I was always optimistic that I will have a brighter future once I am resettled in the U.S. But unfortunately we were told… that the US President does not allow refugees into his country. I am shocked. I used to hear America always protects vulnerable people and cares about human rights. But I do not think that is true now as this happened to us.”

  • From The Intercept: “The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement”

“Pete Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University who spent decades studying the proliferation of white supremacists in the U.S. military, agreed. ‘The report underscores the problem of even discussing this issue. It underscores how difficult this issue is to get any traction on, because a lot of people don’t want to discuss this, let alone actually do something about it.’ Simi said that the extremist strategy to infiltrate the military and law enforcement has existed ‘for decades.’ In a study he conducted of individuals indicted for far-right terrorism-related activities, he found that at least 31 percent had military experience.”

Read The Intercept’s FBI series here.

  • From The Sentencing Project: “Delaying a second chance: “The declining prospects for parole on life sentences”

“Despite this body of criminological evidence, the number of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984 — a faster rate of growth than the overall prison population. Even between 2008 and 2012, as crime rates fell to historic lows and the total prison population contracted, the number of people serving life sentences grew by 12%. By 2012, one in nine people in U.S. state and federal prisons — nearly 160,000 people — were there under life sentences. Two factors have driven this growth: the increased imposition of life sentences, particularly those that are parole ineligible, and an increased reluctance to grant parole to the 110,000 lifers who are eligible.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

Anti-Sanctuary Policies: When State Law Interferes with Public Safety and Your Civil Liberties

By Amanda Cappelletti, Frankel Legislative Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Immigrants' rights - ICE officer badge

Immigrants’ rights – ICE officer badge

Currently, the Pennsylvania Senate is considering a bill to punish municipalities in the Commonwealth that don’t go along with the unconstitutional actions of federal immigration authorities. To achieve this, House Bill 1885 would hold a so-called “sanctuary municipality” open to civil lawsuits for the actions of individual residents. It also withholds all state money from these cities and municipalities, such as funding for drug and alcohol treatment, domestic violence centers, and other essential services that municipalities provide.

Let’s be clear: There is no such thing as a “sanctuary city.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has jurisdiction everywhere in the United States. It is their job to enforce federal immigration law. Local governments have enough to worry about without the added burden of doing the feds’ job for them.

While there are many problems with this bill, one of the most glaring is that it demonstrates a clear lack of knowledge about what sanctuary policies are and why we need them. Being in the country without immigration status is a civil offense investigated by ICE. If ICE believes local law enforcement has an undocumented citizen in custody, they issue a detainer request. This asks local law enforcement to hold that person for 48 hours past their initial release date and time.

Sanctuary policies support public safety and policing goals. Witnesses and victims of crime are more likely to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement authorities when they do not have the threat of deportation looming over them. Simply put, sanctuary policies are a way of building trust between law enforcement agents and the communities they serve. When that trust is established, police are better able to pursue all criminals, making the immediate and surrounding communities safer.

Perhaps not as glaring, but certainly more pressing is the fact that HB 1885 blatantly ignores the constitutional consequences of complying with ICE detainers. Detainers are issued by ICE agents, without any authorization or oversight by a judge or other neutral decision makers. They are not supported by probable cause or any actual evidence at all. Without the constitutionally guaranteed safeguard of a warrant, detainers can and do lead to the illegal detention of individuals who have not violated any immigration laws and are not deportable. According to its own records, ICE has erroneously issued more than 800 detainers for U.S. citizens since 2008.

ICE detainers ask local law enforcement agents to blatantly violate civil liberties and act unconstitutionally by holding individuals without probable cause. As a result, numerous civil lawsuits claiming unreasonable search and seizure have been filed against municipalities and cities. Ultimately, federal courts have ruled that ICE detainers violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. One of the leading cases in this matter took place in Pennsylvania. Since Galarza, thirty-three counties have taken steps to ensure its citizens’ constitutional rights are protected, and have policies to NOT honor ICE detainer requests.

HB 1885 is so poorly written that it even includes a fictional legal standard. The bill requires law enforcement to inquire into the immigration status of someone they’ve arrested if they have “reasonable cause” that the person is in the country without authorization. “Reasonable cause” is not a legal standard. Despite three committee votes and one vote on the floor of the state House, no one in the General Assembly has bothered to fix this obvious flaw.

And that provision- carried out in a worst case scenario- could encourage police departments to engage in racial profiling and arrest people for petty offenses (like so-called disorderly conduct) for the sole purpose of checking their immigration status.

HB 1885 will fracture the already fragile trust between law enforcement and communities. It takes away a city or municipality’s much needed state funding, while also leaving it wide open for civil lawsuits from victims of unforeseen crime. If the municipality or city complies with HB 1885, it leaves itself open to violating the U.S. Constitution and the civil lawsuits which stem from that. No matter what way you look at it, HB 1885 hurts the citizens of our Commonwealth.


Amanda Cappelletti is the 2016–17 Frankel Legislative Fellow at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. She is also a fourth-year law student and a candidate for a master’s in public health at Temple University.

Lancaster refugee lawsuit: A whistleblower speaks out

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Plaintiffs and their attorneys from ACLU-PA, Education Law Center and Pepper Hamilton, LLC.

Plaintiffs and their attorneys from ACLU-PA, Education Law Center and Pepper Hamilton, LLC.

Elise Chesson hadn’t been working more than a few weeks when she noticed refugee students were having trouble enrolling in the School District of Lancaster. Her testimony Wednesday offered further insights into how older refugee students in Lancaster, Pa. have been diverted away from a local public high school, the J.P. McCaskey Campus, and into Phoenix Academy, a disciplinary school run by private company Camelot Education.

In early December 2015, Chesson began as employment program manager for Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services in Lancaster, Pa. Among her responsibilities were refugee social services; she helped find education and employment options for refugees. That’s when she met 17-year-old Qasin Hassan.

A Somali refugee who’d come to Lancaster, with his family through Cairo, his documents showed that he neither spoke nor read English; Somali and Arabic were his means of communication. And he had no official education records.

When refugees arrive in the U.S., there’s typically a 90-day case management period when caseworkers like Chesson help them settle in, get accustomed to local culture, and acclimate to daily tasks such as going to the bank and buying groceries. Caseworkers are also often responsible for making sure they find a place to work or attend school.

Qasin had been in the U.S. for months and still wasn’t in school. The School District had thus far refused to enroll him.

Chesson took over the case from her colleague in late December and in her first contact with Qasin, school district officials doubled down on their refusal to enroll him. Administrators said, instead, that he should go to the local Literacy Council, a private organization, and take English classes there and get his GED instead.

Part of the reason for this decision, Chesson testified, was that the district official in charge of enrollment thought Qasin’s body language suggested he didn’t want to go to school.

Chesson responded by explaining that cultural barriers and differences might’ve suggested to SDOL administrators that Qasin didn’t want to go to school, but those were likely misinterpretations; Qasin wanted to go to school.

So Chesson continued to push for him. And eventually the district relented. They sent him to Phoenix Academy. Other options were not discussed — including the district’s public high school, McCaskey, which offered more English classes and a program called the “International School” specially tailored for newly arrived immigrants, like Qasin.

Other students in similar situations went to Chesson as well. She observed a pattern: older students with limited English language skills would experience delays being enrolled into SDOL. Or their enrollment would be denied outright. And when people like Chesson would speak out and push to get them enrolled, those kids would be sent to Phoenix Academy.

With a little research, Chesson learned that Phoenix wasn’t optimal. The students-to-teacher ratio at Phoenix was nearly four times the amount at McClaskey, for one. “Highly qualified teachers,” as defined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, taught 92 percent of McCaskey classes, while 0 percent taught Phoenix classes. Phoenix did not offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, and while 83 percent of McCaskey’s students were “college ready,” none were “college ready” at Phoenix.

Reading these stats, she asked to sit in on an orientation class at Phoenix. What she saw shocked her.

“I would have described it … like a detention center,” Chesson told the court Wednesday. Instead of emphasizing what kids would be taught, administrators emphasized how they would be disciplined — what tactics so-called “behavioral specialists” at the school would use to keep kids in line. They demonstrated “handle with care” tactics — which ended with kids being pressed face first against a “clean wall” with their hands restrained behind their backs. Phoenix administrators demonstrated this to the students at orientation — a gesture that amounted to an open threat.

“This was the first impression these kids were getting,” Chesson testified.

School administrators, she said, emphasized that “this is a school of last resort.”

They also discussed that there is no homework because students can’t bring anything into or out of the school. Girls weren’t even allowed to bring feminine hygiene products.

“Education did not appear to be a focus,” Chesson said.

“I was shocked. I was disappointed that these students who had been through so much were being placed in a school like this,” she said.

“We asked why they couldn’t go to international school at McCaskey,” Chesson said. “They just said, ‘This is how it is.’”

The pattern that had been established with Qasin and Khadidja, a seventeen-year-old refugee from Sudan who had been denied enrollment and then delayed admission to Phoenix for months, continued with more refugee students — delays, enrollment denials, then after extensive advocacy, they were reluctantly placed in Phoenix.

As time passed, Qasin went to school at Phoenix. Not only did he not receive adequate English language instruction, according to Chesson, he also found himself bullied — kids would yell at him, pull his hair, and use racial slurs against him. He eventually decided to stop going to school.

Qasin told her: ‘If you give me a choice between a prison and Phoenix Academy, I’ll choose a prison.”

Chesson is a lead witness in the case against SDOL. After more than two hours of testimony, it was revealed that her job was recently eliminated — and that she continues to advocate for refugee children to get an education, despite not being paid to do so. The district’s defense attorney, Sharon O’Donnell asked her about this — why she was still advocating on behalf of refugee students like Hassan and others when she had no official agency to represent.

“I don’t need an agency to advocate for what I feel is an injustice,” Chesson said.

S. 3100 Is BAD For Pennsylvania

On Tuesday, July 5, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sent letters to Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey asking them to oppose proposed anti-immigrant legislation.

READ THE LETTERS

S. 3100 would punish 32 Pennsylvania counties for upholding constitutional safeguards against unlawful detention. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s own senator, Patrick Toomey, is the sponsor of the bill.

Senator Toomey has derided Philadelphia for policies that keep local law enforcement officials out of the deportation business. But deportation is a job that should be left to the federal government. When local police and sheriffs take on immigration enforcement duties, trust and cooperation with immigrants is eroded, undermining public safety.

While Philadelphia may make for a convenient target of criticism, at least 32 Pennsylvania counties — like hundreds of other counties across the U.S. — rightly require Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to get a warrant like any other law enforcement agency if they want to detain individuals, for deportation purposes. S. 3100 would require local police to share information about immigrants in their jails, even if ICE does not have a warrant for their arrest.

As punishment for noncompliance, S. 3100 would take over $62 million in federal funding away from these Pennsylvania counties, funds that pay for low-income housing, disaster recovery, public works and economic development. This is bad for Pennsylvania.

Take action on behalf of Pennsylvania and let your senators know that this bill is no good.

Thank You, Santa’s Helpers!

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Last month, I blogged about the 41 children preparing to spend Christmas incarcerated at a family immigration detention center in Berks County. In past years, these children would have been released to stay with relatives in the U.S. while their immigration cases proceeded. But because of a new misguided and illegal federal policy of locking up asylum-seeking families as a means of deterring other Central Americans from seeking refuge in the U.S., dozens of children spent the holidays behind bars.

On December 16, the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s no-release policy. In the days after that, I worked with the Berks facility to set up an online holiday toy drive for the children detained there—just in case Santa Claus couldn’t make it past security.

You—our members and supporters and colleagues and friends—responded quickly and generously to the toy drive. Less than 24 hours after I set up the gift registry, you had purchased enough toys for every child at Berks to receive a present on Christmas. Within a few days, you had bought every last toy on the registry, ensuring that every kid at Berks would have several presents on Christmas morning. And you didn’t stop there—you asked what else they needed. So after checking with the facility, we added some more games and winter clothes to the registry. And you bought many of those, too.

The staff at the Berks Center tell me that they took great pleasure in wrapping all of the gifts you donated and delivering them to the children on Christmas morning, and that the kids loved their presents. The staff asked me to pass along their thanks. The Center’s privacy policies prohibit them from sharing any photos with the children’s faces, but today they passed along a photo from Christmas morning of one of the facility’s littlest detainees.

Thank you for brightening his Christmas by giving him new toys of his own. Your support—not only of the toy drive, but of all of our work—is humbling and inspiring. We’ll keep fighting until the children at Berks have the gift of freedom, too.

Molly-Tack-HooperMolly Tack-Hooper started at the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a volunteer legal fellow in 2010-2011 and returned in 2013 as a staff attorney focusing on civil liberties issues arising in Central Pennsylvania and on immigrants’ rights.

Does Santa Claus visit immigration detention facilities?

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Santa-Claus-Sad-icon

This holiday season, there are 41 children incarcerated at Berks County Residential Center, an immigration detention center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Some of these little detainees are toddlers. The youngest is just one year old. This year they’ll find out whether Santa can make it past security at a federal detention center.

Many of these children came to the United States with their mothers seeking refuge from the horrific violence that they suffered in Central America, and have already passed a “credible fear” determination, meaning there is a good chance that they will be granted asylum, giving them legal status to stay in the U.S.

In past years, the Department of Homeland Security typically would have released these families to stay with relatives in the United States as their immigration cases proceeded. Releasing asylum-seekers makes sense; Toy Drive families seeking asylum don’t need to be put in jail. Rarely do these women and children pose a threat to anyone, and they have every incentive to show up for court to pursue their asylum claims.

But now, instead of releasing these families as they await their asylum hearings, DHS chooses to imprison all of them, shipping them off to one of the newly created federal family detention centers around the country—the Berks Center in Pennsylvania, another facility in Karnes, Texas, and a brand new, larger facility in Dilley, Texas.

The Obama administration adopted this policy of categorically denying release to all asylum-seekers from Central America as “an aggressive deterrence strategy” after an increase this past summer in the number of Central American mothers and children coming to the United States. The idea is that keeping these mothers and children locked up for the duration of their immigration proceedings—no matter how unnecessary, no matter how unfair, no matter how traumatizing—will deter other Central American families from seeking refuge in the United States, reducing the overall number of Central American asylum-seekers. In other words, the 41 children at Berks are pawns.

The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday challenging DHS’s “no-release” deterrence policy as a violation of federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process, both of which prohibit the blanket detention of asylum-seekers for deterrence purposes.

But for the 41 children currently detained at Berks County Residential Center, litigation is far too slow a fix when Christmas is just days away. The children who are old enough to write have written letters to Santa, hopeful that he can bring them a little bit of Christmas joy behind bars.

Rather than leave matters to Santa, I reached out to Carol Anne Donohoe, an immigrants’ rights advocate who represents many of the families detained at the Berks Center, who connected me with the Center’s Recreation Supervisor, Sandy Schlessman, to help Sandy organize a toy drive for the 41 children at Berks. The Berks Toy Drive registry contains a range of age-appropriate gifts approved by the detention center and reflect what many of the children at Berks asked for in their letters to Santa. There is also a toy drive for the children detained at Karnes, Texas, organized by a local church in partnership with Immigration & Customs Enforcement.

Word has already spread around the Berks Center that Santa is coming, and the children are very excited, so please give generously to help brighten their holiday season. At ACLU offices in New York, California, Washington, DC, Texas, and here in Pennsylvania, we’ll be doing our part this December—and all the rest of the year—to ensure that the Berks Center and other federal family detention centers don’t have to become regular stops on Santa’s route.

Molly-Tack-HooperMolly Tack-Hooper started at the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a volunteer legal fellow in 2010-2011 and returned in 2013 as a staff attorney focusing on civil liberties issues arising in Central Pennsylvania and on immigrants’ rights.