BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The Birmingham City Council is one step closer to extending an agreement between city police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In a Wednesday meeting, city councilors unanimously voted in a “committee of the whole” to move the proposal onto Tuesday’s council agenda.
Members of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ) attended the meeting to oppose the ordinance, but there was no period for public comment. Led by ACIJ Executive Director Ana Delia Espino, rows of people left midway through the meeting when a law enforcement official was asked to address the council on an unrelated topic.
“Vámonos,” Espino said, briefly interrupting the official as members of her group rose to exit.
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 Mayor Randall Woodfin and recommended by Police Chief Patrick Smith, faced public opposition in the November council meeting where it was first considered.
During that meeting, Espino said the partnership between ICE and the Birmingham police is “a slap in the face” to immigrants that live in the city. The council voted to send the ordinance to the public safety committee after multiple councilors expressed a desire for more specific language limiting the actions of city officers under the agreement. A meeting of that committee was canceled, however, according to the council’s website, and the ICE proposal was taken up Wednesday by a “committee” of all council members.
Espino said since the November meeting, city officials have not reached out to the immigrant rights group to discuss their concerns.
“We wholeheartedly believed we would have an opportunity to speak at today’s meeting,” she said. “But we did not have that opportunity.”
At the November council meeting, Mayor Woodfin defended the proposal, arguing that the language of the ordinance already prohibits Birmingham police officers from “engaging in any form of deportation.”
“It’s very clear in the language,” he argued.
Neither the initial city council proposal nor the memorandum of understanding with ICE, which was obtained by CBS 42, included explicit language banning Birmingham officers from aiding in deportations. The only restriction, as pointed out by Woodfin in the meeting, said that officers cannot enforce “administrative violations of immigration law.”
Immigration attorney J.D. Walker told CBS 42 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 language of the proposal allowed for the “possibility for an aggressive officer to push their authority,” Walker said. In its initial form, he explained, the proposal “could potentially put undocumented immigrant residents in danger of deportation.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, city council members listened while a city attorney read new, additional language that he said clarifies that Birmingham police would not participate in deportations.
The language read by the city attorney is included in the “recital” or introduction, not the body, of the proposed ordinance.
“Whereas, BPD employees assigned to HSI as Task Force Officers will not, by virtue of the cooperative agreement/memorandum of understanding and this ordinance, participate in any immigration enforcement activities and the authorities granted to sword Task Force Officers do not grant them the authority to act as immigration officer as defined under [law],” a new paragraph in the ordinance’s introduction states.
Espino said ACIJ believes the changes don’t go far enough to protect immigrant communities.
“We are not satisfied with the changes that were made,” she said. “Immigration is criminalized, and anything in our daily lives can potentially be a reason why we’d be targeted by the department.”
Woodfin said in November 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.”
However, 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.”
In response, the city’s mayor said the reporting brought to light “a lot of questions.” The liaison between city police and ICE was removed from his position, but Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said the city’s “immigrant community should not be concerned about the relationship between the federal government and the Boston Police Department.”
Cooperation between ICE and local police can also involve the exchange of information that could aid immigration enforcement officials who do conduct deportations. In an e-mail published by WBUR, a Boston police detective asked the city’s designated ICE official to verify an individual’s immigration status.
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 a journal article on the topic, “adding routine racial profiling and hyper-enforcement against Latinos and others perceived to be ‘foreign.’”
At the November council meeting, Councilor Hunter 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 HSI is not primarily tasked with deportations, 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.
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 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 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.
The funding that results from such forfeitures is significant. 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.
ACIJ’s Ana Delia Espino said Wednesday that although she thinks advocacy groups should have had a seat at the table in shaping the agreement between city police and federal immigration officials, she believes no agreement with ICE is acceptable.
“We are completely opposed to having ICE collaboration with any city or any part of the state,” she said.
The Birmingham City Council is expected to consider the ICE agreement at its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 7. Meetings are held on the third floor of City Hall and are streamed live on the council’s Facebook page.
You can watch the full committee of the whole meeting below.