Whitman College report on Latinos calls for fair treatment for all people

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On Feb.16 Whitman College released the 2012 "State of the State for Washington Latinos" research report. The U-B covered this event with its story "State of state' highlights worries, positives for Latinos."

Many have welcomed our new information about the challenges ahead as we strive to include everyone in our rapidly changing communities. Some online responses to the story, by contrast, expressed antagonism toward immigrants and confusion over our findings.

When readers of this paper take the time and effort to engage in public discussion about difficult issues like immigration, it's important that people understand clearly what our research found.

Our report examined local perspectives on immigration policy and law enforcement in Benton, Franklin, Yakima and Walla Walla counties. The issue: recent changes in federal immigration policy, especially the new "Secure Communities" program, involve local law enforcement and local jails more heavily in the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Federal authorities say this program will rid our communities of violent criminals.

But members of Latino communities here in Eastern Washington say that instead, the program is breaking up families by deporting people arrested on minor charges. They also say Secure Communities is making them wary of contacting the police to report public safety problems, unless something very serious has happened.

Two colleagues and I interviewed 32 members of the Latino community, three immigration lawyers, three sheriffs, a police captain and a social service provider. While our research questions were inspired by concerns raised by OneAmerica, Washington state's leading immigrant integration organization, we conducted our research as independent scholars.

While it's true that citizens have little to fear personally when federal and local officials cooperate to increase the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants, many families in the Latino community have mixed documentation status.

Families can be a combination of citizens, legal residents, and undocumented immigrants. The people we interviewed were afraid not just for themselves but for friends and loved ones as well.

Our report does not recommend special treatment for anyone. Instead our report calls for just treatment for everyone. As the law is written, immigrants charged with crimes face the same potential punishments for those crimes that everyone else does.

The problem is that because the Supreme Court does not classify deportation as punishment for a crime, there is no protection against a kind of double jeopardy, and no safeguards to ensure that punishment is proportionate to the crime committed. This means that minor infractions like driving without a license (which for a citizen in the state of Washington would generally result in a $250 fine) can result in deportation. And of course, Secure Communities deports plenty of undocumented immigrants who are charged with crimes but not convicted.

Our findings suggest that greater discretion needs to be used by jail officials and ICE agents because Secure Communities, as implemented in Eastern Washington, is not only unfair in these ways - it also is detaining and deporting a lot of small fry who are not dangerous criminals. Residents of Walla Walla and the other places we studied also should be concerned about public spending on Secure Communities. The immigration lawyers we interviewed stated that local jails often hold undocumented immigrants longer then the 48 hours for which ICE will reimburse them. This means that local tax dollars are being spent to detain people who might not even have been convicted. More research needs to be done that examines the full financial costs of the program.

We should also be concerned about other costs to our community and our economy that stem from deportation. This year alone, farmers all over Eastern Washington have reported a labor shortage. States such as Alabama and Arizona with truly draconian immigration laws have seen billions of dollars in lost revenue as many Latinos (not just undocumented immigrants) left the state because they felt unwelcome and racially. Many of the undocumented community members we interviewed had contributed to their local communities for years. They clearly identified themselves as Washington residents. In Walla Walla, all undocumented interview subjects had lived in Walla Walla for over fifteen years.

We all know that Washington is not, and won't become, another Arizona or Alabama - symbols of intolerance and fear. But because public officials have made so little public information available about Secure Communities, and because of the program's real effects, Latinos are concerned that Secure Communities might be a step towards harsher anti-immigrant laws.

What both our documented and undocumented interview subjects wanted was more outreach from law enforcement and information about immigration enforcement in their communities. They also urged public officials not to use the pretext of minor infractions to deport hard-working people who have lived here most of their lives and contribute to the community.

I urge all readers to read our report at walatinos.org and to continue this valuable discussion in the upcoming weeks.

Daniel Merritt, a junior at Whitman College, is a student researcher: He can be contacted at merritde@whitman.edu and Professor Paul Apostolidis can be reached at apostopc@whitman.edu

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