Yesterday at the membership conference, the ACLU of Texas, ACLU of New Mexico, and ACLU of Massachusetts kicked off the morning with a deeply affecting plenary discussion about the real-life human impact of the government’s abuse of core constitutional principles in the name of immigration enforcement. ACLU clients, primarily young folks from Texas and New Mexico border towns, talked about the assumptions made about them and the law enforcement challenges they face simply because they are brown.
One young woman from Texas, Luissana Santibenez, described her calling as an activist fighting for the human rights of immigrants locked up in detention centers in South Texas. Whole families, held only on charges of civil immigration violations, are kept in prisons as if they are convicted criminals. In one such detention facility, Hutto, the ACLU discovered that children ranging in age from just three months to 18 years old, were made to dress in prison garb, denied basic education and proper nutrition, and not allowed even to go outside and breathe fresh air for a month at a time. This led to a lawsuit against the federal government filed by the ACLU and other lawyers. Settlement of the Hutto litigation has compelled the federal government to change its standards and conditions for the detention of immigrant families. Vanita Gupta, an ACLU lawyer instrumental in the litigation, recalled one of the government attorneys in that case telling her, “you know, the ACLU is a real thorn in the side of DHS [the federal Department of Homeland Security].” She responded, simply, “Thank you.”
James and David de la Torre, two 16-year old boys from New Mexico, shared a shocking account of local sheriffs’ deputies knocking on their family’s door at 5 am under the astounding pretense of delivering a pizza, and when that didn’t work, responding to a call of a faulty refrigerator, to get them to open the door, force everyone outside, and interrogate them about their immigration status. As a result most of their family members were deported, and James and David, both U.S. citizens, are the only members of their families left in the United States.
It is almost unimaginable that local police and sheriffs could get away with these gross violations of the law and assume the powers of federal immigration agents. Even more outrageous is that these unlawful tactics do nothing to protect public safety or enforce criminal laws. Instead, they target Latino families who have committed no crimes, and tear them apart. The ACLU and Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALEF) jointly filed a lawsuit challenging these brazen immigration enforcement tactics. As a result, the Otero County, NM Sherriff’s Department agreed to settle the suit and change their practices.
The Southwest border regions of the United States have been described by some as “constitution-free zones,” where Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, Fifth Amendment rights to due process, and Fourteenth Amendment protections of equal protection under the law do not apply. Today’s poignant stories help explain why.
As one presenter at the conference posed this morning, “is this the America we want to live in?”