Author Archives: Alice Speri

NYPD Gang Database Can Turn Unsuspecting New Yorkers into Instant Felons

Keith Shenery was hanging out with friends in the courtyard of a Harlem public housing project when police saw him remove a small bag from his pants. When police approached him, he told them that it was “just weed.” When the officers searched him, they found a small bag of marijuana and a folding knife, a gift from his grandfather. Shenery, 21 at the time, was arrested and indicted for unlawful possession of marijuana and felony possession of a weapon — an unusually severe charge. Prosecutors asked for his bond to be set at a whopping $10,000. Shenery, they claimed, was a “known” gang member.

Shenery, who had only three nonviolent misdemeanor arrests on his record from when he was a teenager, could have been released that night on his own recognizance with a misdemeanor charge. He had no idea why prosecutors would call him a gang member and strongly denied the accusation. But as his case has dragged in court for nearly two years, prosecutors labeled him a gang member over and over — telling a judge, but providing no evidence, that he belonged to Harlem’s Cash Money Boys, “a violent narcotic sale crew based out of 1990 Lenox,” according to court files.

More than a year after his April 21, 2017, arrest, Shenery learned that prosecutors appeared to be basing their accusation on his inclusion in a database of more than 42,000 New Yorkers that the New York Police Department considers as “gang members.”

As The Intercept has reported, the NYPD’s gang database was massively expanded in recent years, even as gang-related crime dropped to historic lows. The information on the secretive list is available to prosecutors but not to those named in the database, who often learn that the police have labeled them gang members only if they are arrested and slammed with inexplicably harsh charges or excessive bond. The database has been widely criticized as arbitrary, discriminatory, and over-inclusive — with no clear process in place to discover or challenge one’s alleged gang affiliation. Like Shenery, an overwhelming majority of people in the database are young black and Latino men.

Last year, the Legal Aid Society, one of several New York organizations that have demanded greater transparency from the NYPD about the database, launched a website to help New Yorkers file public records requests to learn whether they are listed in it. So far, more than 300 people have filed such requests — but police have denied every one of them.

Shenery, who learned of the existence of the gang database after prosecutors called him a gang member in court, filed a Freedom of Information Law request last July to understand what earned him the label. Within a day, the NYPD denied his request. Shenery appealed and then sued in November after the NYPD responded that it had found “responsive records” for him but refused to turn them over.

Shenery declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesperson for the NYPD did not respond to a series of questions by The Intercept about the gang database and Shenery’s lawsuit, but wrote in an email that the department “maintains among the nation’s most rigorous criteria for identifying an individual as being a member of a known criminal group.”

A spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Shenery’s criminal case because it is still open, but referred to court documents in which prosecutors making the bond request cited his record, as well as previous failures to appear in court and a recommendation by the Criminal Justice Agency, an independent city agency that evaluates whether an individual is a candidate for release.

The spokesperson added that the DA’s office does not have direct access to the NYPD’s gang database and wrote that “our prosecutors would not have referenced inclusion in the NYPD’s gang database, standing alone,” and that “any reference to a defendant’s membership in a Manhattan-based gang would have been based on independent analysis from our Office, including our Office’s own independently-gathered intelligence.” Prosecutors’ claim that a defendant is a “known” gang member, the spokesperson added, is based on “information from community members and other law enforcement agencies, and our office’s own independently-gathered intelligence.”

Attorneys argue that calling someone a gang member, and providing no evidence, immediately impacts a defendant’s right to due process.

“The mere use of the label renders you guilty in the eyes of the court,” said Anthony Posada, a supervising attorney with Legal Aid’s Community Justice Unit, who is representing Shenery in his lawsuit against the NYPD. “We’re seeing people being criminalized, found guilty by association, in court, where you’re supposed to be presumed innocent until you’re proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. What is happening is a practice by which assistant district attorneys are relying on the gang database to label people and prejudice their cases.”

Smoking While Black

Although the NYPD has said little about how it uses the “criminal group database,” as the database is known internally, it is no secret that the department shares information about alleged gang membership with prosecutors and other law enforcement agencies. It’s also clear that designation as a gang member, even when based on questionable evidence and without that evidence being disclosed to the accused or their attorneys, can have a profound impact on one’s fate in court. While gang association by itself is not a crime, prosecutors regularly use it to bolster their cases.

That’s exactly what happened to Shenery.

Earlier this year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced that it would no longer prosecute the possession of small quantities of marijuana, calling on legislators to legalize and regulate its use and citing the lack of “moral justification for the intolerable racial disparities that underlie enforcement.” Shenery’s arrest preceded the policy change, but in a city where marijuana use was already effectively legal for most people, he fit the profile of the New Yorker most likely to be prosecuted: young, black, and from a poor neighborhood. Before the DA’s announcement, black New Yorkers were arrested for small marijuana possession at eight times the rate of white New Yorkers. In Manhattan, black residents were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at 15 times the rate of white residents.

“Gravity knives,” as prosecutors call the commonly used kind of folding knife that police found in Shenery’s pocket, have also been a controversial issue in New York City — with critics noting that criminalizing them has led to the arrest of thousands of working-class individuals, mostly people of color. While the gravity knife ban was originally intended to target dangerous switchblade-style knives, it has since been applied to even the most widely used pocketknives, common especially among manual laborers.

The DA’s spokesperson told The Intercept that the office either dismisses the cases of individuals found in possession of these knives for work purposes, if they are not re-arrested within six months, or offers them a disorderly conduct plea. But attorneys say that workers continue to be arrested and prosecuted over the knives.

While Shenery’s case highlights some of the city’s most intractable issues regarding race and policing, he would have been unlikely to receive a felony charge and an exorbitant bond had he not been identified by police as a gang member. “For almost anybody in New York, this would have been a misdemeanor arrest,” said Jane White, an attorney with Legal Aid who has been representing Shenery in his criminal case. “They don’t do this to most defendants, but they do it when they want to slam somebody, when there’s information that they want to get from somebody, or when they think somebody’s a so-called person of interest.”

In its response to Shenery’s request for records, the NYPD claimed that it could not disclose any records alleging his gang affiliation without revealing “non-routine” investigative techniques. But Legal Aid attorneys shot back that the techniques used by the NYPD to determine who is a gang member have already been discussed publicly, and that they are deeply problematic.

At a city council hearing last June, NYPD Chief Dermot Shea testified that individuals can be added to the database if they “admit” to being members of a gang or if they are identified as such by “two independent and reliable sources.” In the absence of identification, the NYPD may choose to add an individual to the list if they meet at least two of a wide-ranging list of criteria that include one’s presence at a “known gang location,” association with “known gang members,” social media posts, scars, tattoos, and the use of gang “signs” and “colors.” One document published by The Intercept in June showed a list of colors that the NYPD considered to be associated to gangs: black, gold, yellow, red, purple, green, blue, white, brown, khaki, gray, orange, and lime green.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 27: NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea speaks during a press conference about gang violence at New York City Police Department (NYPD) headquarters, June 27, 2018 in New York City. Law enforcement officials announced the arrest of alleged members of the Bronx-based Mac Balla gang following a months-long investigation. The NYPD is also currently investigating the Trinitarios gang, who were responsible for the recent murder of a 15-year old in The Bronx.  (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea speaks during a press conference about gang violence at NYPD headquarters on June 27, 2018.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Earning a spot on the list requires no evidence of criminality, but Shea said that the department has “instituted oversight mechanisms” to ensure that the recommendation to enter someone in the database is “backed up by evidence.”

Despite Shea’s testimony, when the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or LDF, filed a public records request to obtain those criteria, the NYPD responded that it could not locate any. “Instead, the NYPD officer charged with responding to our requests insisted that NYPD personnel communicate this information verbally,” Marne Lenox, an assistant counsel at the LDF, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “This, apparently, is the NYPD’s sophisticated ‘oversight mechanism’ to ensure the reliability of its database.” Shea did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about his testimony.

The problem with such vague, broad, and apparently unwritten criteria, critics say, is that it criminalizes perfectly innocuous behavior — like having friends in one’s neighborhood — and does so in a way that is discriminatory.

Because the NYPD is not complying with Shenery’s FOIL request, he and his attorneys don’t know what criteria put him on the list. “The DA and the NYPD, they share this information openly with each other and they just will not turn that over to us, which is absurd,” said White. The DA spokesperson told The Intercept that “the Office meets and exceeds its legal and professional obligations with regard to disclosures to criminal defendants, including in this matter.”

What is clear is that Shenery was targeted because he lives in a certain neighborhood and knows people in that neighborhood. After his arrest, prosecutors offered him a one- to three-year sentence, then told him that it could be significantly reduced if he gave them information they needed. “They wanted him to give them information that he didn’t have,” said White. “He has always said, ‘I’m not what they’re saying.’ He’s in the street hanging out because that’s what kids do in New York.”

Precision Policing

Prosecutors and police have regularly defended their enforcement practices as precise and surgical — even when they have led to mass raids and indictments. In law enforcement lingo, gang policing and prosecutions in the city have been “intelligence-driven” and “proactive.” But what that means in practice is that one need not have committed or intended to commit any serious or gang-related crimes in order to get swept up by law enforcement’s gang policing efforts.

A set of documents used by the Manhattan DA’s office for training purposes, obtained by The Intercept, shows how the “gang” label, an unproven allegation, can trigger a series of consequences and enhancements for individuals coming into contact with police over sometimes minor violations. In a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the office’s Crime Strategies Unit, as well as in a report by the office about investigative innovations, prosecutors lay out how, when an arrest alert is shared between police and prosecutors across jurisdictions, an individual’s presence in a series of law enforcement lists, including the gang database, is also flagged. The slides also list, under the header “case enhancement,” elements like suspects’ social networks or their nicknames. The DA’s spokesperson said that “case enhancement” can refer to identifying potential investigative steps or informing bail and sentencing recommendations.

Shenery’s case is a textbook example of how this works in practice.

“So he comes in on a marijuana charge,” Posada said, “and immediately under this form of policing that they have, what they call precision policing, they’ll dial up the charges on him and bump up his knife to a felony.”

“[The gang label] was weaponized in court, so the district attorneys could add more weight to their case,” he added.

Legal Aid is not the only group using the courts in an effort to force the NYPD to be more transparent about its gang policing efforts.

The LDF and the Center for Constitutional Rights have sued the department over its failure to comply with public records requests about the database. Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney at CCR, called the NYPD’s gang policing practices “a black box that, like stop and frisk before them, have subjected thousands of young people of color in New York City over the past several years to police surveillance, harassment, and worse.” The LDF also filed a similar records request with the Manhattan DA, and another one with the New York City Department of Education.

The gang database came under heightened scrutiny earlier this year at a city council hearing during which the NYPD disputed The Intercept’s reporting and the figures we cited about the database — even though those figures were released by the NYPD itself in response to yet another public records request.

Council Member Brad Lander, who has long advocated for police oversight, told The Intercept that the hearing “raised more questions than it answered,” prompting him and others to call on the Inspector General for the NYPD, which is tasked with independently monitoring the department’s work, to investigate its gang policing practices. After the hearing, the Inspector General indicated to stakeholders that it was considering an investigation — but has yet to announce one. BuzzFeed News reported that the office was “discouraged” from scrutinizing the database by Department of Investigation head Mark Peters, who was recently fired by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Department of Investigation, which oversees the Inspector General for the NYPD, declined to comment.

“We don’t yet have a public commitment from them to do that investigation, but we have asked them to, they are taking the request seriously, and I hope they will in the near future,” Lander told The Intercept. “I had hoped that they’d move very quickly.”

“It says a lot about policing in general, but policing on this issue specifically, that the police want to operate with as little transparency as possible,” Josmar Trujillo, a community organizer who has long advocated against the NYPD’s gang policing practices, told The Intercept. “That’s generally how they like to operate but in this regard, they are creating an infrastructure that affects thousands and thousands of people, including young people who are middle-school age. The public has almost no means other than suing them in order to get it.”

Trujillo noted that the discriminatory and unchecked policing tactics the database is built on are nothing new, but the technology behind the NYPD’s growing emphasis on data-driven, proactive policing is unprecedented.

“People have a street sense that police can use this gang label, that an individual cop can just put a label on you and that prosecutors can pretty much do whatever they want in court. They know that from their experience and generational memory of what policing and prosecution is in communities of color,” he said. “I think what they don’t know is the extent to which police have codified it and what technology has allowed police to do. They’re not aware of how much infrastructure, how much investment, has gone into this type of policing for the future. You ask 100 New Yorkers and I think 99 of them won’t know what predictive policing is.”

“That doesn’t have to do with the public’s ignorance, that has more to do with the secrecy the NYPD has been allowed to operate under,” he added. “We have concerns now based on the little we know. Can you imagine if we knew the full extent of what the police is doing?”

But while much about the database and how it is used remains secret, its impact is already being felt.

Two years of fighting his charges has left Shenery exhausted and discouraged — so much so that at one point, he considered simply taking the felony conviction. He ended up pleading guilty, but under the terms of the agreement, the felony will be reduced to a misdemeanor after a year if he meets a series of conditions. But that means he’s regularly back in court. His next hearing is on Thursday.

“It’s been hard for him to have to hear these things said about him and know this case has taken the long path it’s taken because of this view of him that is just false,” said White. “He thinks it’s unfair and unwarranted and that they really have no basis to do what they’ve done, but he also feels that it’s a fruitless fight, and that the police will continue to treat him like a gang member when they see him.”

The post NYPD Gang Database Can Turn Unsuspecting New Yorkers into Instant Felons appeared first on The Intercept.

An Immigrant Journalist Faces Deportation as ICE Cracks Down on Its Critics

A Tennessee-based journalist who was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after being arrested while covering a protest won temporary relief from deportation through the end of the month. But Manuel Duran, who was arrested in April and remains in ICE custody while a court reviews an appeal in his case, believes he was targeted because of his coverage of law enforcement’s collaboration with ICE in Memphis’s Latino community. He and his supporters say his case is emblematic of a nationwide trend of officials cracking down on journalists and activists who are critical of immigration enforcement policies.

Over the last year, a handful of activists from New York to Washington state have found themselves in the crosshairs of ICE. In some cases, like Duran’s, they’d had little to no contact with the agency for years, then found themselves facing deportation shortly after vocalizing criticism of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant crackdown.

Duran’s case also highlights the controversial relationship between ICE and local law enforcement, and the ways in which ICE can call on local police to aid immigration enforcement efforts even in the absence of formal partnerships. While the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office that detained him claims not to collaborate with ICE, Duran was transferred to immigration custody in response to a “detainer” request by the agency — a controversial policy Duran himself had reported on.

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Department did not answer The Intercept’s questions about its cooperation with ICE detainers, referring instead to a statement released at the time of Duran’s arrest. “By State law, whenever a person is booked into a jail, the person is asked about the country of birth and citizenship,” the statement said. “Information must be provided to ICE if the jailer cannot determine the person’s citizenship status or if the person appears to be in violation of the Immigration and Naturalization act.”

Bryan Cox, a spokesperson for ICE, did not answer a question about allegations that the agency is retaliating against activists and critical journalists. With regard to Duran, he said, “Claims his arrest was retaliatory in nature are patently false. Hyperbole aside, the actual facts of this case are not in dispute. He was criminally arrested by local police, he is in the U.S. in violation of federal law, and he is subject to an outstanding judicial order of removal issued by a federal immigration judge.”

But Duran and his supporters have little doubt that he was singled out because of his work.

“Manuel’s case is part of a disturbing pattern of ICE retaliating against those who speak out about its policies and practices,” said Michelle LaPointe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, which is representing Duran, on a recent call with reporters. “Many other noncitizens across the country have experienced retaliation from the government for exercising their First Amendment rights. If the government feels free to treat noncitizens like this, the constitutional rights of all us are at risk.”

April 3, 2018 - Memphis, TN: Ashley Cathey gets ready for the protest at 201 Poplar that was a part of the Rolling Block Party organized by members of C3 coalition, Fight for $15 and Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz (C.U.U.V) Photo by Andrea Morales.

Protesters at 201 Poplar, part of the Rolling Block Party organized by members of C3 coalition, Fight for $15, and Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz on April 3, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn.

Photo: Andrea Morales

“Get Him, Guys”

Duran was arrested on April 3 in Memphis, while covering a protest to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. in that city. Local activists had staged a demonstration the day before the anniversary, role-playing as immigration detainees and an ICE guard holding them in chains, to call out local police for its collaboration with immigration enforcement and private investment in the detention industry.

Video of the incident taken by citizen journalist Gary Moore shows officers closing in on peaceful demonstrators. While several reporters and photographers were covering the protest, including some who were standing on the street, Duran, who was wearing a press badge, was the only reporter who was arrested, along with several activists. In Duran’s own livestream of the protest, one officer can be heard saying, “Get him, guys,” and pointing in Duran’s direction, right before they grab him and his camera lowers to the ground. As officers dragged Duran away, two activists wearing blue ICE inmate uniforms tried to shield him. One, Yuleiny Escobar, repeatedly screamed at the officers, “He’s a reporter,” before being arrested herself.

“I am saying very loud and clear, he’s a reporter, he’s a reporter,” Escobar told The Intercept in a recent interview. “And fine, it was a lot of people getting arrested, and commotion, but once you have him all cornered up, you should have seen he had a press badge.”

Escobar, who knew Duran’s work for Memphis Noticias, the Spanish-language news site he founded, said that police had actually reached out and asked to meet with him after he had published a series of articles detailing their apparent collaboration with ICE. “They knew exactly who he was,” said Escobar.

Duran’s detention has left a hole in the coverage of Memphis’s Latino and immigrant communities, Escobar added. While Duran’s partner, Melisa Valdes, has tried to keep the site alive, she does so while working another job and fighting for his release. “It’s not the same. That’s what Manuel did. He was manager, producer, reporter, everything,” said Escobar. “Now that he’s gone, we have nobody reporting on these cases and the community is not informed.”

Duran founded Memphis Noticias after settling in Tennessee in 2006. He had been an investigative reporter in his native El Salvador, writing about corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary, but fled after his reporting earned him death threats. “From the moment that I left my country, it was because I was being persecuted in response to my work. I left my country to the United States thinking this is the right country to keep working as a journalist,” Duran said in Spanish during a recent call with reporters. “Because this country respects the rights of information and of a free press. I was going to feel safe here.”

In Memphis, Duran returned to investigative journalism, this time focusing on immigration issues and relations between law enforcement and the city’s Latino community. In the months before his arrest and detention, he reported on the stories of people who were arrested by police and later ended up in immigration detention, despite Memphis officials repeatedly saying that the city was not cooperating with ICE. Police asked Duran to take down that story, according to Escobar.

Duran also reported on the mishandling by police of a murder investigation and on a surge of workplace raids in Tennessee and across the country. “He was there, he was reporting, he was informing,” said Escobar. “We strongly believe that he was targeted because he was informing the community.”

“I was pulled away from my community and the community I love serving,” said Duran. “Because I was doing my job, that’s the reason why I’m going through this. I was doing the right thing.” In detention, Duran never stopped reporting. He and others were treated like criminals, he said on the call with journalists, and in the months he spent at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center, he collected enough stories of injustice and abuse inflicted on detainees to one day write a book about them. “I hope that one day I have the chance to write these stories and let you know about them.”

April 10, 2018 - Vigil for Manuel Duran at El Mercadito.

Melisa Valdez, Duran’s partner, center, and other supporters hold a community vigil for Duran on April 10, 2018.

Photo: Andrea Morales

Coordination With ICE

After his arrest, Duran was taken to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. That night, Valdez, his partner, posted his $100 bond, but Duran was not released. According to court documents, a clerk later brought him documents in Spanish that said the Department of Homeland Security wanted more information about him, and documents in English that he did not understand and refused to sign. Spencer Kaaz, who was also arrested at the protest, said he saw the paper and remembers it being an ICE detainer — a request that local authorities provide 48-hour notice before releasing from their custody a person suspected of being in violation of immigration laws. At the time, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office denied that a detainer had been issued. In the statement it provided to The Intercept, the sheriff’s office claimed that Duran “declined to accept” his bond and therefore was not released.

On April 5, Duran went to court and his case was dismissed, but instead of being released, he was taken back to his jail cell. Within two hours, Shelby County jail authorities handed him over to ICE, who shipped him off to Louisiana that same day. For the duration of the eight-hour bus ride, Duran was shackled by his wrists, ankles, and waist.

“The Shelby County Sheriff’s Department claimed that he was not held on a detainer. Now we have a record that shows that there was a detainer lodged for him by ICE,” said LaPointe, Duran’s lawyer at the SPLC. She added that sources in Memphis reported that ICE was in the courtroom when Duran’s charges were dropped. “There’s obviously some level of coordination going on between the two entities,” she said.

Cox, the ICE spokesperson, confirmed to The Intercept that ICE lodged a detainer request with Shelby County, adding that Duran has “been in the country as an immigration fugitive for more than 10 years.” He did not respond to a question about whether ICE was present during Duran’s criminal court proceedings. The sheriff’s office confirmed that ICE was there.

Duran fled his native El Salvador 12 years ago after facing death threats for his work as a journalist. He was apprehended and then released by Customs and Border Protection officers upon his entry into the United States. In early 2007, Duran was ordered removed in absentia, but he says he never received proper notice of his immigration court hearing.

Four days after he was detained by ICE, Duran filed a motion to reopen his January 2007 removal order in the Atlanta Immigration Court. Duran argued that violence against journalists in El Salvador had increased since he left, so he should be allowed to apply for asylum.

On April 24, a court denied Duran’s motion to reopen his 2007 case, and his lawyers again appealed. “Cases like Mr. Duran Ortega’s implicate not only his individual rights, but the basic First Amendment freedoms that apply to every person in this country regardless of their immigration status,” his lawyers wrote in the appeal. “His removal would chill other immigrant journalists from exercising their rights.”

On May 29, the Board of Immigrant Appeals issued a stay of removal, meaning that ICE could not deport Duran so long as his case was pending. The BIA rejected Duran’s request in October and dissolved the stay of removal, upholding the findings of the immigration court. Duran’s case is now before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has said that he cannot be deported before November 30.

“We’re encouraged that the 11th Circuit seems to want to take the time to at least consider arguments carefully about the harm that Manuel would face if he’s deported, and also the First Amendment concerns that his case raises,” LaPointe said in an interview the day after the court’s ruling. “It’s obviously a reprieve, so we still have a lot of hurdles to go through, but I think that we’re cautiously encouraged.”


Manuel Duran, left, interviews Comunidades Unidas En Una Voz organizers Yuleiny Escobar and Veronica Castillo at a “Desayuno con Libros” event in March 2018.

Photo: Andrea Morales

Targeting of Activists

A number of press freedom groups, including the Freedom of the Press Foundation, have gotten involved in Duran’s case. In August, 11 press freedom groups filed an amicus brief in Duran’s support, arguing that his arrest and detention were carried out “as a means to silence him from speaking further.”

“It is certainly a trend and a pattern,” said Andrew Free, a Tennessee-based immigration attorney who has represented individuals facing deportation across the country. “And it has the potential to stifle dissent and has the potential to kill speech, and to make it so that those who would have criticized the abuses that have been documented, and that are happening, might be less likely to do so.”

Perhaps the most prominent case of apparent retaliation is that of Ravi Ragbir, a leader in New York’s immigrants’ rights movement whose January arrest by ICE garnered national coverage. Ragbir had been under an order of removal for 11 years, but ICE largely ignored him until his organizing at the New Sanctuary Coalition helped generate public criticism of the agency. Ragbir is, like Duran, fighting his deportation on First Amendment grounds.

Ravi Ragbir, center, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, walks with hundreds of supporters as he arrives for his annual check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Thursday, March 9, 2017, in New York. The Trinidadian immigrant works with an interfaith network of congregations and activists working to protect New York's immigrant families from detention and deportation. Ragbag says he could face deportation. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Ravi Ragbir, center, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, is accompanied by hundreds of supporters as he arrives for his annual check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on March 9, 2017, in New York.

Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP

Just last month, three groups based in Washington state — Northwest Detention Center Resistance, Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites, and the Detention Watch Network — filed a lawsuit accusing ICE of systematically surveilling, detaining, and deporting “immigrant activists who speak out about immigration policies and practices.”

One of those named in the lawsuit is Maru Mora-Villalpando, an activist with the Detention Watch Network. “Journalism has been a tool to expose what’s happening, and I think especially since the Trump administration came into office, there’s been … an incredibly high level of engagement from the media and from investigative journalists on what is really happening with the administration,” said Silky Shah, the group’s executive director.

Though the volume of apparently retaliatory immigration arrests has increased since Donald Trump took office, a recent lawsuit suggests that those actions were also taking place under the Obama administration. On November 14, the Vermont-based group Migrant Justice sued DHS, ICE, and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, alleging that those agencies have been targeting and retaliating against activists since at least 2014.

In 2013, Migrant Justice worked to pass Vermont’s Driver Privilege Card, allowing state residents to obtain driving privileges, regardless of immigration status. “Documents obtained through public record requests show that when the plaintiffs submitted their DPC applications, the DMV sent their personal information directly to ICE, which compiled dossiers on Migrant Justice leaders, including their social media pages and media appearances,” the plaintiffs wrote in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “The records show DMV workers shared the plaintiffs’ information with ICE for discriminatory purposes, out of racial and anti-immigrant animus.”

The plaintiffs in that case are making three First Amendment arguments, explained Angelo Guisado, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who is involved with the lawsuit. The first is based on free expression, namely that the individual plaintiffs have suffered harm for their relation to Migrant Justice. The second is based on free speech and the freedom to petition the government. By surveilling and harassing individual activists, the plaintiffs argue, the government has interfered with their rights to express themselves and to organize. The third argument is about the government’s alleged retaliation against the Migrant Justice activists for exercising their rights to free speech.

“The federal government and its law enforcement arms have been targeting and retaliating against activists of color, progressive voices, since pretty much forever,” Guisado said. “When I first got involved, it became very clear to me that not only are ICE — and, at certain points, CBP and the state DMV — interested in retaliating against them because of their anti-Latino and anti-immigrant animus, but that it’s a labor organizing advocacy collective made it particularly clear that they were going to face retaliation.”

April 7, 2018 - Cathedral to City Hall march.

Members of the community protest outside of Memphis City Hall on April 7, 2018.


ICE in Tennessee

Before Duran’s arrest, Memphis officials had insisted that the city’s law enforcement did not collaborate with ICE — a claim Duran’s own reporting called into question. While the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office does not formally partner with ICE under the widely criticized 287(g) program — which deputizes local law enforcement officers to ask people booked into local custody about their immigration status and hold undocumented individuals for ICE — Duran was transferred to ICE custody in response to a detainer request.

In fact, even in the absence of formal cooperation, ICE often asks local law enforcement to place someone on an “immigration hold,” detaining them for 48 hours after their release date to give ICE time to decide whether to take them into federal custody. Detainers are administrative warrants, not judicial ones, but there is much misinformation around them, and law enforcement officers don’t always understand that they are not required to honor them.

“We knew that if he was placed in jail, there was a possibility that ICE could issue a detainer for him, so we launched a campaign to let the Shelby County sheriff know that he did not have to honor that detainer,” Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told The Intercept. “Unfortunately the sheriff didn’t listen.”

Months after Duran’s arrest, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office stopped honoring ICE’s detainers, but a new state law slated to go into effect in January will require local law enforcement across Tennessee to honor such detainers. The Anti-Sanctuary bill, as the legislation is known, was approved by the state’s legislature last April, despite warnings by some sheriffs that detainers conflicted with individuals’ Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Critics have also long argued that collaborating with ICE both puts an enormous drain on local law enforcement resources and severely damages their relationship with the communities they serve. In Tennessee, that comes at a time when a wave of ICE raids has disseminated panic in many immigrant communities.

“Collaboration is not in their interest,” said Sherman-Nikolaus, referring to local law enforcement. “It risks public safety, because communities are less likely to participate as victims or witnesses when they are afraid of local law enforcement.”

The post An Immigrant Journalist Faces Deportation as ICE Cracks Down on Its Critics appeared first on The Intercept.