Filed Under:  Civil Rights, Local, News

Lawsuit says Orleans’ detention of immigrants unconstitutional

28th February 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

The city’s Central American and Mexican workers removed Katrina debris that locals wouldn’t touch and do badly needed construction and landscaping jobs across town. So when trouble pops up over immigration and citizenship, residents are torn, because without our illegal neighbors many of us would be living in Atlanta or St. Louis.

For their part, federal officials trying to find deportable immigrants in recent years have solidified their relations with corrections institutions in Louisiana and across the country. The feds are responding to concerns that they weren’t doing enough to remove illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.

In early February, members of the Congress of Day Laborers filed a federal lawsuit, Cacho V. Gusman, in New Orleans, charging that Sheriff Marlin Gusman unconstitutionally held immigrants in Orleans Parish Prison for months on minor offenses—before they were released or channeled through the deportation process by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. The Congress of Day Laborers is a project of the activist group New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice or NOWCRJ.

“Under federal law, custody by the Sheriff’s Office, based on hold requests from ICE, can be no longer than 48 hours,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, lead organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers. “Plaintiff Antonio Ocampo was held unlawfully for 91 days in OPP on two misdemeanor charges. He filed five, written complaints to sheriff officials, all of which were ignored.”

His co-plaintiff, Mario Cacho, was held for more than 160 days, also on a minor offense. “These imprisonments were violations of the U.S. Constitution because the men were deprived of due process,” Gonzalez said. She refers to the plaintiffs as “reconstruction workers” because they’ve done post-Katrina recovery work.

After NOWCRJ filed a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court, “a judge agreed that Antonio Ocampo had been held unconstitutionally and ordered his immediate release,” Gonzalez said. A writ of habeas corpus is a summons addressed to an official or custodian, demanding that a prisoner be brought before the court to decide whether he should be detained.

“Ocampo successfully walked out of the courtroom to reunite with his community,” Gonzalez said. She would not comment on the current location of either Ocampo or Cacho, however.

Gonzalez said she can think of no valid reasons for Gusman to hold Hispanics in jail for minor offenses for so long. “I don’t think it has anything to do with staffing at OPP,” she said. “People are being held on the merest suspicion of not being citizens, based on racial profiling.” On February 2, the Congress of Day Laborers and NOWCRJ held a 24-hour, prayer vigil in front of Gusman’s office to demand an end to race-based profiling and deportations.

Last week, Marc Ehrhardt, senior vice president of The Ehrhardt Group and spokesman for Sheriff Gusman, said “since this matter is in litigation, we will not comment about it.”

In a public statement on Feb. 3, Sheriff Gusman did weigh in on the matter, however, and said the Sheriff’s Office is charged with the duty of supporting and enforcing the U.S. Constitution and state and federal laws. “Current immigration laws are in place to allow for U.S. ICE to request or insist on the temporary detainment of individuals, who are suspected of being in the United States illegally,” he said.

Gusman said that NOWCRJ recently submitted a policy proposal to his office that would require him to stop cooperating with ICE and its enforcement activities, violating state and federal laws. He said “specifically, these proposed policies contradict federal law by promoting non-compliance with ICE detainer requests and a proposed bar on inquiring about an individual’s place of birth, or country of origin, during the intake and processing procedure.”

Gusman also stated that after consulting with ICE officials and legal counsel, his office concluded that its own policies are in compliance with state and federal regulations.

Edwin Reyes, founder of advocacy group Asi es Guatemala in New Orleans, said “since 9/11, practices that may have been illegal are legal as the federal government tries to route out terrorists.” As for racial profiling, he said, “the New Orleans Police Department has a program to work more closely with the Latino community and is open to complaints, especially about officers who cross the line. But many immigrants won’t report problems because they’re afraid or they lack the language ability.”

Reyes said “we do have racial profiling, but it can start to be fixed if we’re open and try to report it.”

Martin Gutierrez, director of the Hispanic Apostolate of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, said because the local Hispanic population expanded after Katrina, the city is now struggling with immigrant issues that other parts of the country have dealt with for awhile. He estimates that the greater New Orleans Hispanic population is now between 100,000 and 130,000, and comprised of people who arrived here before and after Katrina and those, like his son, who were born here.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security calculates that 11 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S.

Reyes said that local construction firms like to hire Hispanics because they put in long days and will work for $10 an hour for 10 hours, instead of $15 for eight hours. They don’t expect overtime pay. He said unemployed New Orleanians are sometimes envious or angry when they see Hispanics working. “But there’s no Santa Claus,” he said. “They get out there and find the jobs.”

In January, the city of Gretna launched a designated area — for day laborers and the contractors who hire them — located a few blocks from a home-improvement chain store where they had been congregating, Gonzalez said. Though it’s not city-sanctioned, day workers gather in New Orleans in front of home-improvement stores and gas stations, hoping to be hired.

This article originally published in the February 28, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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