Delegation Day 4: Culpability

On the morning of June 4th, our group met with two men from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (more commonly known as ICE), Rick and Rich.  ICE is one of the twenty-two agencies within Homeland Security, which was created in 2002 as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Within ICE, there are two departments: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO).   Rick and Rich for HSI, which investigates human smuggling, gangs, drug smuggling, employers that knowingly hire undocumented workers, weapons smuggling, money laundering, and many other crimes.  They essentially investigate and control what enters and leaves the United States, from people to pharmaceuticals to child pornography, receiving much of their information from informants and cooperating witnesses.  ERO, on the other hand, maintains the custody of undocumented immigrants and physically deports them.

Surprisingly, I agreed Rick and Rich in their assessment of some of the legal problems concerning immigration. They admitted that the U.S. has made it so difficult for people to cross legally (since there is a 10-12 year backlog on visas) that they are forced to cross illegally.  This is certainly true, which is why I am frustrated when some Americans voice that undocumented immigrants should just “wait in line” instead of crossing the border illegally.  While in an ideal world the government would have proper documentation of everyone who is in the country, I do not think it is just nor reasonable to expect some people to wait more than ten years to come to the U.S. when each day they are struggling to provide for their family.

Rich and Rick’s analyses of the drug war was similarly logical; they acknowledged that the increasingly militarized border has escalated drug cartel violence.  Since drugs have become more difficult to smuggle, cartels are willing to go to extreme lengths to protect their precious cargo.  Rick also rightfully professed that they have not managed to greatly reduce the supply of drugs in the United States, indicating that there needs to be a focus on adjusting U.S. demand for drugs rather than just cutting off supply.  Essentially, our government’s tactics in the “war on drugs” are not only ineffective but are also in part culpable for the rise in the horrific tactics used by the cartels.  By focusing their efforts on the root cause of the drug trade in the United States (i.e. the fact that we demand drugs), our government could be far more effective in their mission of reducing drug use.  Shrinking demand would also effectively dry up much of the funding and power of the cartels.

Yet beyond these two areas of agreement, the men from ICE and I hold very divergent views.  They continually stressed that they are law enforcement officers, and as such it is their job to arrest people coming into the country without documentation (even though they feel the immigration system is broken).   I could not understand how someone could work to perpetuate a bureaucracy they saw as flawed, to enforce laws that they did not see as effectively solving the problems at hand. Perhaps it is the naive young adult in me that aspires to work for an organization that helps rather than hurts, that favors confronting root causes over avoiding them, that is aligned with rather than incongruent to my views.  To me, it is wrong to work to reinforce an immigration system you are well aware is defective.

Rick and Rich’s comments surrounding the topic of detention centers were similarly problematic.  When we asked about the numerous reports of maltreatment and abuse both in detention facilities and during workplace raids, Rick explained simply that the standards for detention centers are much higher than they are for jails that house U.S. citizens.  Upon further pressure by our group, he admitted that the detention centers are run by ERO, not the HSI department, so they are not his “problem.”  He also claimed that citizens must deal with abuses as well and that “mistakes” and “accidents” happen.  His incredibly evasive answer disturbed me on many levels.  He prides himself on being a law enforcement officer, yet does not see it as his responsibility to ensure that rules and regulations are upheld in detention centers.  He is comfortable with conducting investigations that could lead people to be deported, but is not concerned with how they are treated once ICE officers take them into custody.  If ERO is not holding themselves to the standards set forth, is it not HSI’s responsibility, as the other ICE department, to step in?  If a person is aware that their organization is harming others and does nothing to effect change, then they become culpable for that harm as well.

Thirdly, Rick and Rich’s argument for “Secure Communities” was flawed as well.  “Secure Communities” allows for the sharing of information between law enforcement agencies, including the local police departments and ICE.  When a person is arrested, their information is run through the immigration database, which tells the police whether the person is here legally.  Every county in Arizona participates in the program, and interestingly enough, Illinois’ Cook County has been fighting its implementation.  Rich and Rick stressed that this was not a form of racial profiling because “a computer system cannot racially profile.”  While I agree with the obvious assumption that computers are not discriminatory, this ignores the larger issue that under such a program, officers could feel compelled (consciously or subconsciously) to pull over or arrest Latino people on just so they could run them through the immigration system.  Deporting murderers is necessary, but what about people who commit simple traffic violations? To me it makes sense that Cook County would not want to partake in this program unless provisions were made to protect against racial profiling.

My main problem with the men from ICE was their lack of culpability.  They assumed no guilt for working to sustain an admittedly faltering immigration system.  Nor did they assume guilt for the actions of others within their ICE agency.  Nor did they assume guilt for the racial profiling occuring as part of a program their organization has instituted.  They continually emphasized their role as “rescuers.”  They “rescue” workers from oppressive employers who knowingly employ undocumented immigrants.  They “rescue” immigrants from drop houses where they are being kept by “coyotes” who have just brought them to the United States.  They praised the successes of ICE without acknowledging its shortcomings, without accepting blame for their role as part of a larger broken system.

I understand that as government employees giving a presentation, they are trying to highlight the positives and downplay the negatives.  Yet their inability to speak candidly left me wondering if they ever questioned the work of ICE, or if they really did only see themselves as “rescuers” of immigrants and protectors of Americans.  It also made me question if people in other Homeland Security agencies, such as Border Patrol, spend any time critically thinking about their role in reinforcing the dysfunctional immigration system.

In the afternoon, we sat in on one of the hearings of Operation Streamline, known formally in Arizona as the Arizona Denial and Prosecution Initiative.  Originating in Texas in 2005, Operation Streamline began in Tucson in 2008 as a zero-tolerance program against immigrants who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.  70 people (many of whom have been apprehended only days before) are processed during the one proceeding that takes 45 minutes to 2-3 hours each afternoon.  Since Operation Streamline could not possibly process the more than 2,000-3,000 immigrants caught crossing illegally each week, the remaining people are immediately deported without being charged.  Zero-tolerance?  Not quite, but the intention is to make the process bad enough so that those who go through it will not attempt to cross again and will convince others to do the same.  Yet another brilliant policy costing taxpayers obscene amounts of money that has done absolutely nothing to curb the immigration flow. (Interested in learning more about the effectiveness of Operation Streamline?  Look here:

Those who find themselves in Operation Streamline have two options: plead guilty to a misdemeanor of illegal entry (i.e. not entering the country at a designated entry point) or request a their own trial.  The misdemeanor counts as a criminal offense on their record (which can be used against them to try them for a felony should they be caught re-entering) and carries a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and a $5,000 fine.  Those who have never been caught before almost always take the plea, since their other option is to wait 3 months for a trial only to hear the same verdict (hardly any defense exists for illegal entry).   For those facing the felony of re-entry after removal (they have been prosecuted for entering the country illegally before), they almost always take the plea because it allows them to receive the lesser misdemeanor charge.  Therefore, while no one is forced to take the plea, for many it seems like the obvious option.

The migrants wear wearing headsets connected to an interpreter who translates the court hearing into Spanish.  In groups of 5 or 6, they walk up to individual microphones with their lawyers, are asked a routine set of questions, and are then given a sentence.  When asked how they plead, without fail each person said “culpable” (pronounced cool-paab-lay), the Spanish word for “guilty.”  But for what exactly are they guilty?  They are guilty of trying to break their cycle of poverty.  They are guilty of trying to unite with their families in the United States.  They are guilty of trying to pay for their children’s education.  Their illegal crossing is not one committed out of malice or greed, but oftentimes out of desperation.  It strikes me as sad to punish people so harshly who come with pure intentions.

A persistent jingling sound serves background noise in the courtroom – the clinking of the detainees’ chains connecting their handcuffs and ankle restraints.  To me these excessive restrains resembled modern-day versions of the chains that bound slaves in the United States more than 150 years ago.  To some it may seem to be a hyperbole to compare the undocumented immigrants to slaves, yet upon deeper examination I do not believe this to be the case.   Undocumented immigrants are paid sub-substandard wages (or none at all) by stingy employers who benefit from the criminalization of their labor, just as slaves were only given room and board in exchange for their forced labor.  Undocumented immigrants are dehumanized by the government who labels them as “illegal aliens,” just as slaves were counted as only 3/5 of a person.  Undocumented immigrants are discriminated against on the basis of their language and darker colored skin, just as slaves were classified as such on the basis of their skin color.

It seems that as Americans we have traded one kind of slavery for another.  Our policymakers shape it.  Our law officers reinforce it.  Our racism ingrains it.  And it is time for us to accept culpability.  Only once we as a country acknowledge our guilt in shaping the current problems with immigration can we hope to create effective solutions.

After watching Operation Streamline, we met with Heather Williams, a public defender in Tucson who has served as a lawyer on the Operation Streamline proceedings.  She explained that the Tucson Public Defender’ Office fought against the implementation of Operation Streamline when it was first proposed in 2007 because they felt it was a factory justice system.  They then sought to make Operation Streamline more personal than it was in other cities, dictating that each lawyer would be assigned to no more than 6 immigrants.   At each proceeding, 2 of the 15 total lawyers are public defenders, and the rest are private lawyers who have been contracted by the state.   Each lawyer (who is randomly assigned to a client by the judge) spends approximately half an hour with their client on the morning of the proceeding.

Many of the members of our DukeEngage group agreed that the proceeding we witnessed was in some ways more humane than we had initially predicted.  The judge seemed more compassionate than one would envision in such a program, each lawyer could speak on behalf of their client individually, and each migrant had the opportunity to speak as well.  The more just character of Operation Streamline proceedings in Tucson compared to other cities is in no small part a testament to the efforts of the Public Defenders Office.  As Heather put it, the role of the public defenders and contracted private lawyers is to give humanity to people in a system that is flawed.   The Public Defender’s office in Tucson sought not to be a complicit part of the broken immigration scheme, but instead tried to leverage their power and work on the system.  Unlike the men from ICE, Heather and her team recognized their duty to fix some of the flaws, rather than reinforce them.

Not only did Heather criticize Operation Streamline for being ineffective and far too costly, but she provided some concrete alternative solutions to mend the broken state of immigration in the United States.  She felt we need to create an environment in which people do not feel compelled to leave their home country.  To do so, there needs to be more educational and economic opportunities for people in Central and Southern America.  I could not agree more.  As discussed in a previous post, U.S. policies have created economic hardship in Mexico that continues to drive immigrants to search for job opportunities in America.  The United States government has also not hesitated to intervene in the politics and economies of Chile, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, just to name a few.  We, as a nation, need to admit our culpability in supporting and funding toxic regimes to serve American interests at the expense of foreign people and economies.  Only once we recognize this fact can we see that it is now our responsibility to address some the wrongs we have done to the Central and Southern American countries.  Rather than supporting dictators friendly to America, we need to support leaders who value education and economic development – leaders who work to elevate the people of their country, not leaders who exploit their people to help American businesses.  We should work with countries not on them, respecting their sovereignty.  While we can never fix the ills we have committed, we still have time to confess our guilt and shape more humane and effective solutions to the immigration crisis.

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One thought on “Delegation Day 4: Culpability

  1. Elsbeth Pollack


    Thanks for an insightful and thought-provoking post. I appreciate how you cover a lot of information that we covered that day and share challenging questions and comments about culpability, guilt, responsibility, and the government.

    I hear you talking a bit about questions of national-global interaction and responsibility when you talk about it not being just or reasonable for people to wait for more than 10 years when they are struggling to provide for their families. Why do you believe this? Whose responsibility is it to provide for them? You seem to be looking at the community as larger than the nation–how is this different than the current system? Are there any possible challenges with having and implementing this viewpoint? It makes me think of a post from a past participant that you might find interesting for the overall theme and content of identity–

    Does/should intention matter in the case of prosecution of immigration? How do we determine this?

    When you are talking about Heather towards the end, you are starting to get at solutions. How do these play out? How do we get to a place of working “with” and not “on”? You seem to focus on the responsibility of the government in this work? Is there space for citizens as well?

    You say that you couldn’t work somewhere where you disagree with the policies and actions in place. I wonder, playing Devil’s Advocate here, if the ICE agents truly believe that they are doing the best that they can within the system that exists? What would you like to see them do? Why do you think they would be so against feeling guilty or taking responsibility for what is occurring? How much responsibility can they take?

    Keep making those connections and asking those tough questions. Looking forward to hearing about your site placement!

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