Connecticut First to Protect Immigrants from Federal Deportation Policy

Connecticut is poised to become the first state to limit its participation in the federal Secure Communities program, a controversial immigration policy that turns local police against communities they serve. But it is too late for one New Haven resident who was arrested on false charges.

Josemaria Islas was arrested last year on conspiracy to commit robbery charges that were later dropped because he was proven to be in elsewhere at the time of the crime.

But the new law will not come in time to help a man awaiting deportation after being wrongly accused of stealing a bicycle.

He spent four months in jail because he could not afford to post $10,000 bond before his trial. Activists say he was arrested because he fit the description of a Hispanic male accused of stealing a bicycle. Now he is sitting in a federal prison awaiting deportation back to Mexico.

Just to be clear: Islas is waiting in federal prison to be deported after being arrested for the crime of stealing a bicycle that he did not commit. “The state has committed a great injustice,” says Islas’ sister Juana Islas. “He is not a criminal. He is just a worker, like most immigrants.”

Since his November arrest, Islas’ case has become a rallying point for immigrant rights and labor activists in Connecticut, with considerable support from politicians, including an April 18 letter sent on his behalf from U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (pictured in red tie) to the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Morton. On May 28, Blumenthal sent a second letter in light of pending legislation. “Deporting Mr. Islas or others like him while the legal basis for their deportation may yet be eliminated would be wasteful, unfair, and unduly harsh,” Blumenthal wrote.

At the heart of the controversy is the nationwide Secure Communities program. Under the program, local police detain witnesses or victims of crimes, even if they have no criminal record or have not been accused of a crime. Experts who have studied the program say it has encumbered law enforcement, because people worry they will be deported if they report or witness a crime.

The Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools (TRUST) Act says police can detain a person only if that person has been convicted of a serious or violent crime, is on a terrorist watch list, is a known member of a violent gang, or already has an outstanding deportation order.

The TRUST Act passed Connecticut’s House and Senate unanimously and will likely be signed by Governor Dannel Malloy who marched in New Haven for immigration reform on May Day.

Mike Lawlor is Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning in Connecticut. He says the TRUST Act is primarily a tool to make communities safer.

“What the governor really wants is ICE to follow its own guidelines: to only focus on really dangerous criminals and not people with minor infractions and motor vehicle violations,” he says. “Because at a certain point it undermines the relationship between immigrants and the police. If immigrants think local police are an extension of immigration, they are not going to cooperate.”

“Hispanics can’t feel safe when they see police.”

Immigration officials appeared tongue tied when asked to defend Secure Communities.

ICE spokesperson Nicole Navas passed off a request for comment to another spokesperson, Dani Bennett, who is assigned to Secure Communities. Bennett then passed off a request to Shawn A. Neudauer, who is the Midwest public affairs officer.

On the phone, Neudauer said he could not comment on pending legislation. Neudauer also refused to comment on Lawlor’s assertion that Secure Communities can in some cases undermine the relationship between immigrants and police. When pressed for a comment of any kind, Neudauer went off the record and offered little insight. Then, hours later, he sent this e-mail: “We’ve made the decision not to offer on-the-record comment until [Malloy] signs the bill.”

Juana Islas, however, had something to say about how secure she felt.

“Hispanics can’t feel safe when they see police,” she said. “Knowing that my brother was put in jail for four months and is about to be taken from us and sent back to our poor village, just because he was a Hispanic man walking back to work, how can you feel secure?”


Win Vitkowsky is a journalist who lives and works in New York and New Haven.


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