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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Commentary

New Law Targets Immigrants For Arrest, Discrimination

A new state law requiring local police to cooperate with ICE stirs fear and distrust, Manuel Duran says

Activists gathered in April in Memphis’ Cooper-Young community to protest a new state law requiring local law enforcement to collaborate with federal agents in the arrest and deportation of undocumented immigrants. (Melisa Valdez/Memphis Noticias)

As a journalist documenting a demonstration in Memphis, I never anticipated becoming a part of the narrative I was there to cover.

But at a rally downtown in April 2018, I was arrested.

It happened as activists gathered outside the Criminal Justice Center to voice their opposition to a practice widely considered unjust in Memphis’ Latino community: Local law enforcement’s then-practice of collaborating with federal authorities to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants.

I attended the action as a journalist with a deeply personal connection to the topic. I was an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, which I had fled years earlier to escape political reprisals triggered by my reporting and to seek a better life in the United States.

Fortunately, after spending 15 terrifying months in cramped detention centers in Alabama and Louisiana and wondering if I’d ever see my loved ones in Memphis again, I was released, and a federal immigration judge finally granted me political asylum in 2022.

Now, Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature is reviving the terror of possible incarceration, family separation, and deportation for thousands of hard-working, law-abiding immigrants across the state.

A new law passed by the General Assembly that takes effect today, July 1, requires local law enforcement agencies to report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities and cooperate in the identification, arrest, and deportation of these immigrants.

Conservatives say the new law will protect public safety, a growing concern for many of us given the rise in violent crime here in recent years.

My experience suggests the opposite is true. As an immigrant journalist who has covered dozens of stories in which people from my community have been adversely affected by this sort of oppressive collaboration, I believe local authorities will face a monumental challenge in upholding public safety in a city like Memphis. Rather than build community trust, which police say is essential in fighting crime, the law will sow fear and distrust.

The legislation (HB 2124/SB 2576) signed by Gov. Bill Lee undermines local authorities’ efforts to improve public safety and their ties with the community. Police work will become more difficult. Immigrants will be less likely to report crimes or seek help in emergencies for fear of being arrested and deported. Criminals, knowing of this reluctance, will be more likely to target immigrants.

Immigrant rights advocates also fear that the law could pave the way for increased discrimination and unjustified arrests because it requires police to identify and detain undocumented immigrants. Most undocumented immigrants in Tennessee hail from Mexico and Central and South America, so such a law would give officers a license to commit wide-scale racial profiling.

It will also burden police with new responsibilities that effectively force them to operate as federal immigration agents, hindering their ability to meet the needs of residents.

I have interviewed Memphis Mayor Paul Young on this matter, and he responded that his administration believes this new law does not change any of their practices. He’s also repeatedly said that the Memphis Police Department will not seek out residents to provide documentation, as “that’s not what the police department does”.

HB 2124/SB 2576 is just one example of Tennessee’s broader trend of anti-immigrant legislation. Lawmakers introduced several anti-immigrant bills this past legislative session, targeting everything from driver’s licenses to family transportation.

Fortunately, bills like HB 1730/SB 1717, which aimed to require all written driver’s license examinations to be administered in English only, did not advance. Neither did HB 2078/SB 2802, which sought to prohibit anyone from transporting undocumented immigrants into the state, significantly affecting mixed-status families.

Historically, some Tennessee law enforcement agencies have voluntarily collaborated with federal immigration authorities even though no law required it. That practice led me to a rally in downtown Memphis on April 3, 2018.

Demonstrators gathered that day outside the Criminal Justice Center to draw attention to law enforcement’s practice of holding suspected undocumented immigrants and then delivering them to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I covered the event for Memphis Noticias, the Spanish-language digital newspaper I founded. As I was walking with others across the street, a group  of Memphis Police Department officers grabbed me, handcuffed me, and took me to jail.

I was held in the Shelby County Jail for two nights on an immigration detainer and then handed over to ICE and transferred to an immigration jail in Jena, Louisiana, away from my family and my attorneys in Memphis. While I ultimately gained asylum, I was detained for 15 months without trial, enduring substandard conditions and  the constant threat of deportation.

The last immigration detention center I spent time in was the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama. It was the worst part of my experience. Other immigrant detainees called the place “the black hole” because a lot of immigrants detained there had been held for many years.

In this facility, I met a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico who had been imprisoned by immigration for seven years. Aside from rotten food, the center couldn’t meet basic human needs like access to showers. The showers were disabled for most of my stay due to disrepair, and we had to wash with hoses. Communication with my family was especially tricky, not only due to distance but also because of the jail’s visitation policy.

The long-standing federal contract with the Etowah County Jail eventually was terminated due to a “long history of serious deficiencies identified during facility inspections,” and ICE announced that it was going to discontinue the use of the Etowah County Detention Center as soon as possible in March 2022.

Against steep odds, I won asylum three years after being released from immigration detention on bond.

In the end, I was very fortunate. I was represented by a team of attorneys from both the Southern Poverty Law Center and Advocates for Immigrant Rights. Most immigrants facing deportation aren’t so lucky. There is no right to an attorney in immigration court. Many defendants have no legal representation at all.

Family separation is traumatic for everyone involved, but especially for children. The largest raid by ICE in a decade in Tennessee left children stranded without their parents when nearly 100 undocumented immigrants were arrested on April 5, 2018. It was reported that around 550 children missed school the day after the raid out of fear, and the raid terrified the entire community and damaged the local economy.

Framed as an effort to enhance public safety, House Bill 2124/Senate Bill 2576 has the potential to burden immigrants and their families, even those who have called Tennessee home for generations. Staying vigilant, informed, and compassionate while we examine the effects of this legislation and shining a spotlight on its implications will be critical.

Written By

Manuel Duran is the founder and editor of Memphis Noticias, a Spanish-language digital newspaper serving Memphis’ growing Hispanic community.

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