Back to News & Commentary

Local Enforcement Tactics Lead to Racial Profiling, Human Rights Abuses

Sarah Mehta,
Senior Policy Counsel,
Share This Page
March 29, 2011

Yesterday, military veteran and U.S. citizen Robert Cote spoke to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) about his wife, Rita, who was illegally arrested and detained by Florida police and now faces deportation.

In February 2009, Rita Cote helped her sister, who does not speak English, report a domestic violence incident. She stayed with her sister until the police arrived in order to translate. But rather than attending to Cote’s sister, who was visibly injured and anxious to report her assault, the police instead asked Cote to show her passport, based on nothing more than her race and Spanish accent. After targeting her on those bases, police found an administrative removal order issued when she was a minor and of which she had no notice.

Essentially, Florida police arrested a woman who was not suspected of committing a crime — and was in fact helping to investigate and report a crime — but was only suspected of being in the U.S. unlawfully because of the way she looked. Cote was subsequently detained for several weeks and separated from her three children and husband, all U.S. citizens, until the ACLU of Florida filed a petition and won her release. On January 25, 2011, the ACLU of Florida filed lawsuits in state and federal court alleging that city and county police have no lawful authority to enforce federal immigration law.

Robert Cote’s testimony before the IACHR comes less than a week after the IACHR released its report on the U.S. immigration enforcement and detention system. The commission criticized government programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities that mandate collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement and, in the absence of real oversight and accountability, lead to racial profiling. In fact, racial profiling and unlawful detention by local law enforcement are already commonplace throughout the country, even in jurisdictions that lack a formal agreement with ICE to enforce federal immigration law.

This leads to situations like Rita Cote’s: a person who has deep ties to the community and no criminal history can be arrested, detained and deported when they try to help the police and community members. By punishing people for protecting their rights and the rights of others to be safe in their communities, these programs instead deepen the distrust between communities of color and law enforcement, discourage crime reporting, and leave everyone less safe.

In February, the ACLU’s Human Rights Program delivered a statement as part of the U.S. government’s Universal Periodic Review cataloging the numerous documented civil and human rights abuses associated with programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities. Documenting the situation on the ground, the ACLU of Georgia’s submission to the IACHR for Monday’s hearing provides evidence of endemic racial profiling in two Georgia counties, stemming from the 287(g) program.

Some of the IACHR report’s recommended reforms are supposedly already underway, as the IACHR acknowledged. But many of the reforms announced (a year and a half ago) have failed to materialize, and serious abuses identified by the commission have continued. In 2010 the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General produced two scathing reports on the 287(g) program and proposed numerous essential reforms that, to date, have not been implemented. Moreover, Secure Communities, a still-untested program that expedites information-sharing between local authorities and the Department of Homeland Security, is being rolled out at alarming speed, with the Obama administration resorting to hardline tactics to force resistant localities into participating in the program.

This IACHR report, rather than an expose of hidden abuses, is a troubling reminder that our immigration system is getting worse, not better: the serious infringements on people’s rights and the seeming irrelevance of human dignity have become a part and parcel of the enforcement and detention system. As Rita Cote’s case shows, there are real costs when the Obama administration sidelines its human rights obligations to bump up the numbers of people facing deportation. What it gains from allowing racial profiling and abusive police powers is far from obvious.

Learn more about immigrants’ rights: Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page