‘A slap in the face’: Woodfin administration advocates extension of ICE partnership with Birmingham police

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(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In a move that one immigration leader has called “a slap in the face” to local immigrant communities, Mayor Randall Woodfin and Police Chief Patrick Smith are advocating for the extension of a partnership between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Birmingham Police Department.

The partnership between the police department and ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division allows the agencies to designate certain Birmingham police officers as “Customs Officers authorized to enforce the full range of federal offenses, excluding administrative violations of immigration law.”

The proposal to extend the partnership, which was submitted to the city council by Woodfin and recommended by Smith, faced significant public opposition in Tuesday’s council meeting.

Ana Delia Espino, the executive director of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, said the partnership is “a slap in the face” to immigrants that live in Birmingham.

“A welcoming city is a city that values immigrants and what they bring into our economy, and this is very hurtful,” she said. “There is no need for our police to be trained as ICE officers in any way, shape or form because it opens the door to deepening the distrust and hurt in our communities.”

Councilor Hunter Williams argued that the agreement allows police to curb crime in Birmingham in ways they may not otherwise be able to achieve.

“I think it’s important to note that with the crime problem — and the violent crime problem — that we have in Birmingham, we all know that the solution is education and economic opportunity,” he said. “But in the meantime, we cannot allow people that traffic individuals or narcotics. I’m not talking about people who’ve got weed in the car, but I’m talking about people that seriously traffic individuals or narcotics, especially exploited children.”

Carlos Alemán, a Homewood city councilor and the Chief Operating Officer of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, said members of his community are often the victims of human trafficking and other serious crimes, so he understands the importance of addressing such issues. Alemán, however, said that the current language of the proposed agreement is too broad and could lead to more harm than good for members of minority communities.

“While it is plain,” he said of the proposal’s language, “it is not clear as to the extent of the cooperation between the city of Birmingham and HSI or ICE. Once an officer is an HSI agent and once the enforcement arm of ICE calls and asks for information and asks for detainers, what is the intention of the cooperation between the two parties?”

In response to the concerns raised about the proposal, Mayor Woodfin argued that the language of the proposed ordinance already prohibits Birmingham police officers from “engaging in any form of deportation.”

“It’s very clear in the language,” he argued.

Neither the city council proposal nor the memorandum of understanding with ICE, which was obtained by CBS 42, includes any explicit language banning Birmingham officers from aiding in deportations. The only restriction, as pointed out by Woodfin in the meeting, says that officers cannot enforce “administrative violations of immigration law.”

Immigration attorney J.D. Walker told CBS 42, however, that such language has no definite meaning in U.S. law and should not be viewed as a clear restriction on the actions of Birmingham officers.

Barring changes, the current language of the proposal allows for the “possibility for an aggressive officer to push their authority,” Walker said. In its current form, he explained, the proposal “could potentially put undocumented immigrant residents in danger of deportation.”

Text of proposed ordinance that would renew a partnership between ICE and Birmingham police

Woodfin said that in the time since the city entered into the partnership with ICE, Birmingham police have not participated in any deportations.

“In four years, no one in any community — Hispanic, black, white; organization, individual — can say the city of Birmingham is participating in any rounding up of an individual or group of people, and we’re not here to do the job of deportation,” he said. “No one can say or speak to the fact that we have deported or engaged in a deportation of anyone or used our jails as the housing of deportation. And we’ll continue on that mark because that’s personally important to me.”

People like Carlos Alemán and Ana Delia Espino, though, want more than the mayor’s word to ensure the safety of their communities.

Coordination between local police and ICE is not always as straightforward as the “rounding up of an individual or group,” as outlined by the mayor.

For example, a 2019 investigation by WBUR showed that Boston police regularly cooperated with ICE on deportation cases despite the mayor’s insistence that “city police limit cooperation with ICE to only cases involving violent crimes and suspected felons.”

Often, cooperation between ICE and local police involves the exchange of information that could aid immigration enforcement officials in conducting deportations.

In one e-mail published by WBUR, a Boston police detective asked the city’s designated ICE official to verify an individual’s immigration status.

“He wants to join team America, but [I] think he was part of a scam with his documents,” the email said. “Let me know, nothing urgent thanks.”

Maureen Sweeney, a law school professor and Director of the Chacón Center for Immigrant Justice at the University of Maryland School of Law, studies what she has termed “shadow immigration enforcement” by local police through partnerships with federal agencies like ICE.

“These officers’ day-to-day involvement in ascertaining and communicating immigration information to federal authorities has significantly distorted local law enforcement,” she wrote in an article on the topic, “adding routine racial profiling and hyper-enforcement against Latinos and others perceived to be ‘foreign.’”

In his comments at the Birmingham City Council meeting, Councilor Williams emphasized to his colleagues that HSI is separate from the division of ICE focused on deportations.

“This Homeland Security Investigations unit is specifically tasked with narcotics and human trafficking and not with any removal of or doing administrative interior removal work,” Williams said.

While it is true that HSI is not primarily tasked with deportations, they routinely participate in actions that lead to the removal of immigrants from the United States.

For example, ICE’s own documents show that HSI planned and participated in a 2018 workplace raid at a Tennessee meat-packing facility that led to 11 workers being arrested and 86 others being detained. The ICE raid was one of the largest in US history. According to court documents, workers present that day reported law enforcement arriving with military-style weapons and yelling racial slurs at Latino workers while white workers were left alone and even allowed to smoke outside.

The National Immigration Law Center has also outlined the ways in which HSI officials have gone beyond their primary focus.

“Although HSI’s primary legal authority is for investigating cross-border criminal activity,” the organization wrote in a report, “HSI has more recently been linked with increased worksite enforcement activities. HSI enforcement actions have also raised serious concerns over the use of racial profiling to make overly broad and vague allegations against immigrant youth of color during investigations into gang-related or other criminal activity.”

There are also financial incentives for local governments to participate in partnerships with ICE.

The proposal before the Birmingham City Council specifically outlines that “the City will be eligible for possible distribution of some seized money and assets.”

The process used by HSI to seize money and assets, called “civil forfeiture,” has garnered serious criticism from civil rights groups and others, which say that the practice is often abused by law enforcement in an effort to turn a profit.

In 2017, an investigation by the Intercept revealed details of HSI’s 71-page “Asset Forfeiture Handbook” that instructed ICE agents on how to most effectively turn a profit from the seizure of property in investigations, even in cases where there may not be enough evidence for criminal prosecution.

The funding that results from such forfeitures isn’t insignificant. During the period between 2003 and 2013, a report by the Government Accountability Office showed that ICE forfeitures deposited with the U.S. Treasury totaled over $3.6 billion. During the same time frame, local governments, under agreements like the one between ICE and Birmingham, received $1.2 billion in funding.

Birmingham’s budget documents combine revenue received from fines and forfeitures, which makes it difficult to discern what revenue comes from ICE forfeitures versus other sources, but the amount is substantial. Since Woodfin took office, for example, that combined amount totals over $8 million.

Although Mayor Woodfin’s support for the ICE agreement did not appear to lessen over the course of Tuesday’s city council meeting, multiple Birmingham city councilors said they were reluctant to allow the partnership to move forward without significant changes to protect immigrant communities.

Councilors Carol Clarke, Darrell O’Quinn, Valerie Abbott, and LaTonya Tate, as well as President Wardine Alexander, expressed hesitance regarding the proposal. Councilors Clinton Woods and Crystal Smitherman did not speak on the issue.

“Listening to the sentiment of the council, I do feel a movement of unreadiness to act on this item at this time,” President Alexander said in the meeting.

At that point in Tuesday’s meeting, councilors voted unanimously to refer the proposal to the public safety committee for further consideration. That committee consists of LaTonya Tate, who serves as chair, Crystal Smitherman and Hunter Williams.

A meeting time for the committee has not yet been set, Tate said Friday.

Stay with CBS 42 for the latest on this story, including an update on the time of the public safety committee meeting where this proposal will be discussed. The meeting’s time and location will be posted here as soon as it is scheduled.

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