The Fight Against ICE Holds


On March 12 this year, the Public Safety Committee of the Philadelphia City Council held a public hearing to review the practice of detaining undocumented immigrants in what are known as “ICE Holds.”  An ICE Hold, or civil immigration detainer, is a request from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to local police to detain an individual in police custody for 48 hours longer than they otherwise would to facilitate the transfer of the individual to ICE facilities.  An ICE Hold is neither a warrant nor a judicial order; local law enforcement voluntarily1 detains individuals that ICE suspects of being deportable.  Local police agree to allow ICE access to a database that records the country of origin of people in police custody and provides the fingerprints of all arrestees.

In testimony at the Council hearing, immigrant rights advocates, organizers, allies, and other residents of Philadelphia described the devastating effect of ICE Holds on their communities.  Teresa Flores described the deportation of her son as a result of Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) collaboration with ICE:

My son was deported for being a person of good heart and helping a friend.  [He] loaned money to an American friend.  When [he tried] to collect the money that he had loaned . . . the American called the police and accused him of having threatened him with a weapon. . . .  [P]olice arrested my son and . . . ICE immediately put a hold on him.  [He] was in jail for six months waiting for his trial . . . and deported.  He . . . grew up [in the US], [and] had dreams of studying to be a pilot and [serving] this country.  After my son was ripped from our home, we . . . fear that we cannot call the police if we need help.  The connection between the police and immigration has created terror in our communities and makes neighborhoods more dangerous because it is very hard to report crime or ask for help if we are victims.

Indeed, a 2013 report published by the University of Chicago analyzing Latino perceptions of police involvement with ICE found a “diminished sense of public safety” in many Latino neighborhoods.  People in Latino communities reported that “criminals [were] moving into their neighborhoods . . . because [they] know residents are less likely to report them to police.”  The report also found that forty percent of Latinos were less likely to volunteer information about crimes and that many feel “under suspicion and . . . afraid to leave their homes.”

Written testimony submitted by the New Sanctuary Movement to the City Council hearing argued that PPD collaboration with the federal immigration enforcement agency destroys families, creates economic hardship, erodes community trust in the police, and wastes tax dollars by holding people in jails longer than necessary.  According to the testimony,

[W]e see the effects of deportation via compliance with non-mandatory ICE holds every day.  Our community has been ripped apart by the collaboration between the PPD and ICE [which] results in children who may never see their parents again, spouses left without partners, and our members deported to countries they fled because of death threats, violence, and deep, systemic poverty.  This comes at the expense of Philadelphia taxpayers.  By using local tax dollars to deport immigrants out of Philadelphia, the City of Philadelphia prioritizes deportation and family separation while cutting the real essential services that all Philadelphians need to survive.

According to a 2010 report issued by the Center for American Progress, the cost of the apprehension, detention, legal processing, and deportation of one undocumented immigrant amounts to $23,482 (based upon annual spending by US Customs and Border Protection [CBP] and Immigration and Customs Enforcement).  Nicole Kligerman, an organizer with a Philadelphia-based immigrant rights group, noted that in a time of steep cuts to essential services like public education, the PPD is not reimbursed for expenditures related to ICE Holds and that those funds should be “be put back into the essential services that all Philadelphians need.”

The March 12th City Council hearing was preceded by an announcement that Mayor Michael Nutter planned to sign an executive order ending ICE Holds for those not charged with first or second degree felonies involving violence.  However, the Philadelphia Family Unity Network (PFUN) said that Nutter’s executive order did not go far enough, and that ICE Holds are unnecessary even for those charged with a felony since bail is set very high for serious crimes keeping defendants in the custody of the criminal justice system.  Police Departments in 17 cities have established policies to refuse requests by ICE to detain people picked up for minor criminal offences, including New York City, Newark, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

The ideology and rhetoric of ICE, that it prosecutes “dangerous criminal aliens,” both generates and sustains xenophobic, nationalist, anti-immigrant hysteria “by propagating such images as ‘out-of-control borders’ and ‘invasions of illegal immigrants.'”  A spokesman for ICE-Philadelphia justified ICE Holds, claiming that ICE Holds “ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities.”  According to ICE, such civil immigration detainers are meant to prioritize the deportation of “individuals who present the most significant threats to public safety as determined by the severity of their crime, their criminal history” or their repeated violations of immigration law.  But reporting by the Transaction Records Action Clearinghouse (TRAC) analyzing federal data demonstrated that in 2012 and 2013 the overwhelming proportion of ICE Holds, about four out of five or 82 percent, “were issued for individuals who either had no convictions (47.7 percent), or had at most been convicted of a misdemeanor or petty offense of some type.  Traffic violations, including driving while intoxicated, were the most common offenses.”  Of the 347,691 individuals held through civil immigration detainers, only 12 percent were for those who had been convicted of a serious offense.  TRAC’s analysis of ICE data also found that if “traffic violations (including driving while intoxicated) and marijuana possession are put aside, fully two-thirds of all detainees had no record of a conviction.”

Immigration and the Global Economy

The collaboration between Philadelphia police and ICE can be understood as a tactic in the overall strategy of global capital to ensure a massive, mobile, and cheap workforce and to use deportation as a means of disciplining labor.  The work of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the anti-immigrant hysteria it generates, and the issues surrounding immigration reform reflect fundamental changes in the constitution of the global political economy.  To understand the contradictions involved in erasing borders for capital and commodities while enforcing them for people, it is essential to focus on the role that migrant workers play in the global capitalist system and to grasp the US economy’s increasing dependence on immigrant labor.  The sociologist William Robinson has drawn attention to the ways in which US immigration enforcement agencies “undertake ‘revolving-door’ practices — opening and shutting the flow of immigration in accordance with needs of capital accumulation during distinct periods.”

Why people immigrate, what causes them to decide to uproot and relocate to the United States, is the very basis of the story.  In his testimony at the City Council hearing, Angel Pelaez, an immigrant from Ecuador, spoke about the root causes of immigration.  The rise in undocumented immigration to the US, he said, reflected economic and political policies that the US has enforced in other parts of the world.  “Specifically,” he said, “it can be clearly seen how . . . undocumented immigration to the U.S has increased from Latin American countries due to the passage of NAFTA [and other free trade agreements modeled on it].  The free trade agreement has hurt the most vulnerable populations of our countries . . . often times its agricultural workers.”

Hundreds of millions of people have been dispossessed of land and jobs, stripped of their ability to sustain their families, and forced to join a vast pool of migrant labor at the disposal of a global capitalist economy that is no longer bound by national borders.  Mechanisms like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which redistributed wealth and income to a tiny global corporate elite, forced millions of Mexicans and other Latin Americans to seek work in the United States.

NAFTA has had a devastating effect on Mexico, which after India is second largest source country for immigrants to Philadelphia.  Signed in 1993, NAFTA promoted the interests of global corporate elites over ordinary working people and transformed a system of national economies into a single integrated global economy.  As a model for subsequent trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership which is currently being secretly negotiated (for a comparison between the two trade agreements see here) and CAFTA-DR, NAFTA allowed US corporations to enter Mexican markets, extract Mexican resources, and degrade the Mexican environment.  At the behest of the US, the Mexican government changed its Constitution, dismantling land reform and allowing lands held in common for small farmers and indigenous people to be sold as private property.  NAFTA smashed rural economies by permitting the US to sell heavily subsidized agricultural products at prices that made it impossible for Mexican farmers to compete.  According to an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy report, between 1994, when NAFTA was enacted, and 2000, Mexican farmers came to be paid 43 percent less for their products, while the price of tortillas, the most important staple food in Mexico, rose 571 percent.  By 2007, the price of tortillas had tripled again.  With no other job prospects in rural areas, millions of Mexican small farmers were forced off the land to resettle in urban manufacturing zones.  And, although NAFTA was touted as an agreement that would result in job creation, many Mexican companies went out of business because they could not compete with US imports.  This resulted in a net loss of jobs and sharply diminished economic prospects for Mexican workers.  The 700,000 manufacturing jobs that were estimated to have been created by NAFTA did not absorb 2 million displaced farmers and the 130,000 jobs lost when goods formerly produced domestically were replaced by US imports.

William Robinson has theorized that the integration of all corners of the world into the global capitalist system was accomplished through free trade agreements like NAFTA, along with foreign invasions and occupations, social and economic policies that favored the super wealthy, and financial crisis.  This process of globalization displaced hundreds of millions of people from rural areas in the Global South, forcing them to migrate in order to survive, thereby providing a massive pool of exploitable labor.  In Robinson’s words, immigrants “are sucked up when their labor is needed and then spit out when they become superfluous or potentially destabilizing to the system.”

The NAFTA-induced poverty of rural Mexicans — by 2010 half of Mexico’s population was living in poverty — created a huge surge in migration to the US.  According to the World Bank, in 1990 there were 4.5 million Mexican-born people in the US.  By 2008, the number of Mexican immigrants peaked at 12.6 million (less than half of whom arrived with a visa).  Raul Delgado Wise, a social scientist at the University of Zacatecas, has argued that one of the most significant results of NAFTA was Mexico’s absorption into the orbit of the US economy as an exporter of massive numbers of low-waged laborers whose initial training and socialization costs were not borne by public school systems in the US, but by Mexican society.

Although some anti-immigrant rhetoric claims that undocumented immigrants are stealing jobs, depressing wages, and eroding the middle class, the economist Giovanni Peri’s research found that “immigrants expand the US economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity.”  Similarly, according to the Brookings Institute, the U.S economy is dependent upon immigrant labor, particularly in private households (where 49 percent of all workers are foreign born), accommodation (where the foreign born comprise 31 percent of all workers), and construction, food services, and agriculture where foreign-born persons comprise one-fifth of the workforce.

From the point of view of commodities and capital, NAFTA erased the border.  But, for people, the border remains in force, much more highly militarized than it was in the days before NAFTA.  In 2012 the US government spent $18 billion funding its primary immigrant enforcement agencies — CBP and ICE — more than it spent on all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined (including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms).  Since 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the federal government has spent an estimated $187 billion on immigration enforcement.

CBP and ICE refer more cases for prosecution than all federal law enforcement agencies combined, and there are more detainees in ICE facilities than people serving sentences in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.  The average numbers of people detained in ICE facilities on a daily basis increased 5 times between 1995 and 2011, from 7,475 to 33,330.  On an annual basis, the total number of ICE detainees increased from 85,730 to 429,247.  Indeed, since 1990 over 4 million people have been deported from the US.  Every day about 1,000 people are deported.

In 2013, according to the US Department of Homeland Security, ICE conducted 368,644 removals (ICE lingo for deportations).  Ninety-six percent of all deportations concerned people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Jamaica, most of which are countries in free trade agreements with the US, with the exception of Brazil, Ecuador, and Jamaica.  Mexicans accounted for 65 percent of all deportees, followed by Guatemalans (12 percent) and Hondurans (10 percent).

ICE Holds do not make sense unless you understand them as a tactic in the overall strategy of global capitalism to ensure access to a massive, cheap workforce.  Although ICE claims that it is upholding public safety by prosecuting dangerous criminal aliens, analysis of federal data, as mentioned above, shows that the vast majority of ICE Holds involve petty crimes and misdemeanors.  To repeat, nearly half of ICE Holds were issued for individuals who had never previously been convicted of anything at all.

ICE Holds make more sense as a means of disciplining labor in the context of the US economy’s increasing dependence on immigrant workers.  The threat of deportation destabilizes immigrant families and communities, and creates quiescence among immigrant workers who are made afraid to speak up about issues like wage theft, occupational safety, and the inadequacy of the minimum wage.  Policing immigrants, then, becomes a way of policing progressive movements fighting for human rights and economic and social justice.  But as the struggle against ICE Holds in Philadelphia makes clear, immigrant families and communities and their allies are joining together to insist that ICE Holds cease.  As Father John Olenik, pastor of a Philadelphia church, said in his testimony, “…[d]ivine acknowledgement of the human rights of all people should [spur] us on to discontinue the unjust agreement between the city and ICE.”

1  According the National Immigrant Justice Center, ICE Holds violate the Fourth Amendment because it does not follow procedural protections to make a showing of probable cause when issuing immigration detainers, or ICE Holds.  ICE Holds violate the Fifth Amendment because ICE fails to provide notice of the detainer (or hold) and an opportunity to challenge.  And ICE Holds violate the Tenth Amendment, which contains separation of powers limits that prevent ICE from coercing state and local governments into enforcing federal immigration law.

Wende Marshall is a cultural anthropologist and a Fellow with the Media Mobilizing Project ( working on public access television episodes about labor and immigration struggles.

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