In June the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pledged to be more discriminating in terms of who it targets for arrest and deportation. Many in the mainstream press saw the announcement as “likely to have broad practical effect” (the words of Julia Preston in The New York Times). However, the recent case of the Bonilla family in Norco (Riverside County), California illustrates the hollow nature of that promise More importantly, it also displays the inherent dangers of the immigration policing apparatus for civil and human rights.
As detailed in two articles in the Huffington Post over the last couple of weeks, almost 40 ICE and HSI (Homeland Security Investigations) stormed the home of Carmen Bonilla in mid-July in search of an alleged drug dealer. The agents found neither the dealer nor evidence of any criminal activity. Nonetheless, Ms. Bonilla and her family must appear this coming Tuesday (Aug. 25) before immigration authorities who reportedly seek to deport them.
According to Bonilla, 44, the agents “simply grabbed me by the arm, threw me on the ground, handcuffed me and slammed me up against the wall.” The agents, she alleges, also threatened to shoot her, while terrorizing the other members of the extended family—including two grandchildren—at home at the time.
The raid is reminiscent of the abuses documented in a 2009 study by the Immigration Justice Law Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School, of hundreds of home raids that took place during the G.W. Bush administration. The authors found that the raids involved widespread misconduct, including entering homes without legal authority; arresting non-target individuals in their bedrooms; searching homes without a warrant or consent; and seizing individuals on the basis of ethnoracial appearance or limited English proficiency. Agents sometimes detained by force legal residents and citizens in their homes as they searched for incriminating evidence.
While the Obama administration promised to put an end to such abuses, there is little reason to think that they have stopped given its emphasis on ridding the country of “criminal aliens” and its touting of the record number of deportations that have taken place on its watch. It is a record that an ambitious ICE arrest and deportation quota helps to bring about, a quota which requires aggressive, heavy-handed tactics to achieve.
The raid on the Bonilla family home is only one manifestation of the many-faceted exclusion apparatus that the Obama administration is proudly nourishing. Progressive elements of the immigrant advocacy community, for example, have put strong pressure on the administration to put an end to DHS’s “Secure Communities” program. But the effective response has been to dig in its heels with DHS announcing recently that it will no longer even pretend to consult with state and local officials before it implements its arrest and deportation program that focuses on individuals detained in local and county jails.
As the experience of the Bonilla family and a critical report released just yesterday make painfully clear, “secure communities” is an Orwellian phrase for all too many immigrant households and communities in an age of so-called homeland security.