ICE deporting more immigrants from Montgomery County than Philadelphia

November 12, 2012
By Emma Jacobs

More people have been deported from Montgomery County than from Philadelphia since police began sharing information with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Montgomery County began being sharing information about six months earlier, but Philadelphia is about twice as big, with roughly two and a half times as many foreign-born residents.

Deportation Statistics for Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties
Start date Names submitted for review Serious criminal convictions Less-serious convictions Immigration issues Total
Montgomery Co. 12/16/08 71,402 93 200 186 479
Philadelphia Co. 7/21/09 175,265 81 82 226 389
SOURCE: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
This table shows the number of people whose immigration status was submitted for review and the number of resulting convictions leading to deportations.

These statistics apply to the subset of cases handled as part of the Secure Communities information-sharing program between local law enforcement and the feds. ICE says it can't break the numbers down town by town, but by most accounts, a lot of Montgomery County's cases seem to be coming from Norristown, the county seat, population 34,324.

On an evening in late March, Ernesto Cruz Garcia was in front of his house in Norristown with his three children and their dog.

"A lot of police was just started making a circle around the house," said his eldest, Daniela. "The police were coming, they came out with a gun like pointing at my dad and my brothers.

Daniela could see the red lights of the guns' sights on her father's and brothers' foreheads.

"A skinny guy came and asked me, 'Are you illegal?' and I didn't say anything," said Garcia, in Spanish. He works in construction. He's missing a few of his front teeth, and it makes him look like he is always smiling even when he's crying. It also gives him a strong lisp.

A group of policemen surrounded his daughter, Daniela and said she'd see what would happen to her father if she didn't answer. She admitted that, yes, the family was illegal. Then the police took Garcia away.

Federal and local cooperation
It's unclear precisely what happened that led to the arrest of Ernesto Cruz Garcia. We'll return to that in a later story.

But what is certain is that both both ICE and Norristown police were involved in the apprehension and that they were in close contact the day officers showed up at Garcia's home. Police Chief Russell Bono says officers received a tip from ICE that Garcia was selling drugs from his front porch. He is undocumented. Police delivered him to ICE. He denies the charges and is fighting deportation.

"We're not ICE agents, but as the chief of police I'm not going to turn down another law enforcement agency's request for assistance," said Bono.

Bono says the same about ICE's presence at recent traffic management checkpoints. State Police stop and check for people who don't have a driver's license, registration or insurance. ICE waits with local police around the corner, taking only those who meet their criteria, typically people with criminal records.

Local police are not always involved. ICE says it makes arrests on its own as well, based on intelligence.

However, Latinos in particular, including American citizens, report that Norristown's local officers have asked for immigration papers or speculated they do not have them. Chief Bono says he has an absolute ban on asking about immigration status.

"They think that asking for a drivers' license and owner's card is asking for papers," he thinks.

Sue Soriano says she's never seen any violation of Chief Bono's ban.

"I am a Norristown resident for the past six years," said Soriano, a lawyer, originally from the Dominican Republic. She says the town welcomes Latinos. As some Latino advocates have called for closer scrutiny of the police department in recent weeks, she even held a press conference at a friend's Mexican grocery.

"I support the police department in that way because we don't want criminals in our town," said Soriano. "We have our children, and we have a good quality of life."

Attorney Brennan Gian-Grasso of Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia says that with ICE and the Norristown Police Department, he sees a collaboration between two willing partners.

Casting a wide net
"We're seeing a huge number of cases come from Norristown where the Norristown Police were the initiators of the stop or were involved in police business in which they brought along immigration," said Gian-Grasso. "But what happens is it means that a lot of people are getting caught up in the net for extremely minor [infractions] whether they're traffic violations or even cases of mistaken identity."

The situation has Norristown buzzing. Residents and Latino organizers began collecting petition signatures, asking the police to stop racially profiling Latinos and recruit a more diverse police force. The organizing on both sides is local, but occurs within a larger national debate.

In El Paso, in the spring of 2011, President Obama delivered a speech laying out an agenda for immigration reform. And introducing the nation to what would come to be called "prosecutorial discretion." The administration would focus on deporting serious criminals, not those caught with minor violations.

"We are not doing this haphazardly," said President Barack Obama in a speech in El Paso in 2011. Laying out an agenda for immigration reporm, he introduced the nation to what would be called during his administration, 'prosecutorial discretion.'

"We are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income."

Brennan Gian-Grasso says Philadelphia's immigration courts are so jammed they're already scheduling hearings into 2014. The hope was "prosecutorial discretion" would shorten the backlog.

"Certainly I have several clients here who have a criminal conviction and then that's a different situation but I also have lots of clients who have no criminal background whatsoever and you know have gotten caught up," said Gian-Grasso.

It's not clear to me, he says, that deporting people such as Ernesto Cruz Garcia is making communities safer and it doesn't appear to fit federal policy model.

ICE deporting more immigrants from Montgomery County than Philadelphia