The Secure Communities program permits federally-trained officers to scrutinize individuals booked into non-federal jails for their immigration status. The program uses shared biometric data from all enrolled Secure Communities jurisdictions as well as FBI and other federal databases to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to removable migrants with criminal records. Secure Communities, however, is not the only program used for targeting migrants classified as criminal aliens for removal. Other federal-local memoranda of agreement (MOA) as well as non-federal practices and policies differentiate undesirable migrants from the rest of the population. Many local and state anti-immigrant initiatives exist to supplement the perceived ineffectiveness of federal immigration enforcement practices. These non-federal initiatives inhibit migrant social reproduction through incapacitation, which target migrants’ access to housing, education, social services, work, and free speech.
On January 19, 2010, Franklin County and Cuyahoga County became Ohio’s first two counties to voluntarily enter the Secure Communities agreement. Like many other activated Secure Communities jurisdictions, Franklin County has no other federal enforcement responsibilities. Columbus, the Franklin County seat, houses a branch of the Criminal Alien Program, as well as the USCIS Columbus Field Office and an ICE Enforcement and Removal operations sub-field office. Columbus is a diverse city with a growing migrant population, and despite several unsuccessful attempts by state legislators, Ohio has yet to pass explicitly anti-immigrant laws. In 2010, the Columbus City Council unanimously passed a resolution in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.
However, according to ICE’s Secure Communities Nationwide Interoperability Statistics Report through April 30, 2011, Franklin County had the 17th highest percentage of removals of individuals without any pending criminal records. Although the percentage of non-criminal removals from Franklin County has decreased, the program still overwhelmingly removes non-criminal migrants and low-level criminal and civil offenders.
Upon review of local policies and practices, it became clear that the central Ohio context facilitates regulating and managing migrant populations through restricting their movement. According to state law, every Ohio driver must carry proof of automobile insurance, a valid driver’s license, and automobile registration. Ohio does not issue licenses or state identification to migrants without social security numbers and stopped issuing automobile titles to people without social security numbers in 2009 through a massive policy shift. The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ issuance of letters threatening cancellation of current titles unless their holders paid an additional fee, provided a valid Social Security Number, and requested to have their case heard before a court. On March 6, 2012, a state intermediate appellate court found in LULAC v. Governor of the State of Ohio, 2012-Ohio-947, No. 10AP-639, slip op. (Ohio Ct. App. March 6, 2012) that there was no sufficient basis in Ohio law for the mass cancellations of vehicle titles.
Migrant communities often rely on notaries who offer support in navigating unfamiliar laws and customs. Since the end of the policy granting vehicle title access to people without Social Security Numbers in 2009, local notaries have charged exorbitant fees to transfer migrants’ car titles to citizens as well as create fictitious companies with Taxpayer Identification Numbers in order to register “commercial” vehicles. Although international driver’s licenses are not state-issued identification and do not authorize their holders to drive per se, many local businesses claim to help migrants overcome barriers to driving lawfully in Ohio. Notaries and other supposed advocates often claim to provide services they are unauthorized to offer and exploit migrant communities in the process. In doing so, they foster misinformation and fail to protect their clients and communities from removal. Policing tactics perpetuate insecurity within large, newly-settled migrant communities.
Within Franklin County, immigration enforcement targets the monitoring and restriction of migrants’ movement in automobiles. Stories have circulated within migrant communities and local advocacy organizations of migrants parked at gas stations being approached by ICE agents who suddenly appear out of a black SUV with tinted windows. When migrants get ready to leave their apartment complexes in the morning to drive to work, they may find ICE agents awaiting them, asking if they have documentation to confirm their legal presence. Recently, a local organization heard from community members that ICE agents dressed in civilian clothing failed to identify themselves as such before approaching and questioning possible migrants.
Local migrant communities perceive themselves as targets of ambush tactics, and although ICE ostensibly targets convicted criminals, absconders, and migrants who were previously removed, a community leader asserts that “[ICE is] spending time in apartment complexes where these people used to live, looking for them… they never find the criminals they’re looking for and always end up finding other victims that live at those addresses.” ICE agents present an unpredictable and impending threat; they may suddenly appear to question migrants and confirm their right to be in the country. In southwest Columbus, this possibility has discouraged migrant parents from opening their front door to let their children catch the school bus. Foreseeable interaction with law enforcement also causes anxiety-based insecurity in Columbus’ migrant communities.
Predictable encounters with law enforcement officers, such as announced operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol (OVI) checkpoints and routine traffic stops, may result in the removal of undocumented migrants. If a driver passes through a City of Columbus traffic stop and cannot provide state-issued identification matching the name on her automobile registration, the city confiscates her vehicle. The car rests in an impound lot until the title holder (or a relative) provides sufficient identification and pays a fine to recover the car.
When dealing directly with local law enforcement officers, there is more room for subjectivity than an Immigration Alien Query that transforms into an ICE hold. According to a criminal defense attorney with long-standing relations with local migrant communities, “who picks them is usually not an issue. It’s when they get put in jail that it’s a problem. Or they get fingerprinted.” The responding officer can ultimately decide whether a migrant is set on the path to removal proceedings or is free to continue without incident until stopped again:
You have police officers that are generally sympathetic to the community, and you can break them up as 1/3 sympathetic, 1/3 completely unsympathetic, and the other ones, it depends on the circumstances and how they’re feeling that particular day. …[I]t means that 1/3 of the cases, the officers are going out of their way to make sure that the individual is not identified as an undocumented.
The justification for stops that lead to a migrant’s arrest and eventual removal is highly contingent upon the officer involved. Law enforcement agencies like the Columbus Division of Police may have official directives about how to handle immigrants suspected of unlawful presence, yet this does not mean that all agents and departments will follow them. Once a person is charged with driving without a license, the arresting officer may determine that the migrant’s identification, whether lawful (such as the Mexican government-issued matrícula consular, a lawfully-obtained license from a state that issues identification to unauthorized migrants, or a notary-issued international driver’s license) or not is fraudulent. If so, a migrant faces a felony charge of identity fraud or identity theft, which prosecutors often dismiss in exchange for a guilty plea to driving without an operator’s license.
Lauren Hines is a newly-minted MA in Geography from the Ohio State University, as well as founder and coordinator of Central Ohio Immigrant Justice, a community organization dedicated to identifying and filling gaps in resources in Columbus’ migrant and solidarity communities.