by Andrea J. Ritchie
As we celebrate National Coming Out Day – a day to stand up for who we are, honor our individual and collective power, and stand up for what we believe in – dozens of LGBT groups are “coming out” against a federal program that places thousands of LGBTQ people and communities at risk of violence and violations of our human rights.
The Secure Communities Program – dubbed “S-Comm” because there is nothing secure about it – dramatically widens the immigration enforcement dragnet by sweeping everyone fingerprinted by local police into the sights of immigration authorities. While there are already immigration agents stationed in many of the country’s jails to check the immigration status of anyone detained while awaiting trial or sentenced after conviction of a crime, by requiring that all fingerprints taken at the point of arrest be forwarded to immigration authorities, S-Comm dramatically increases the number of people subject to scrutiny of their immigration status. Under S-Comm, anyone arrested and fingerprinted by police – regardless of whether the charges against them are ultimately dropped, found to be baseless, or dispensed with through community service or a diversion program – could potentially be placed in deportation proceedings, regardless of whether they were profiled, arrested without any basis whatsoever, or picked up on a minor offense.
The program is coming under increasing attack from all quarters – not only by immigrant rights advocates, but also law enforcement agents and politicians. The governors of Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts all decided to pull out of the program, only to be told they couldn’t when the federal government took all pretense of consent out of the picture and made the program mandatory. After some minor adjustments, the administration set up a task force to assess and address concerns with the program. The task force’s listening tour was met with growing criticism, protests, and walk-outs. Ultimately, a number of task force members resigned prior to the release of the final report, including a former Sacramento Chief of Police. At the same time the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) released a report highlighting the devastating impacts the program has already had on immigrants across the country.
As I was speaking at the recent Lavender Law conference about the issues raised by Queer (In)justice, someone said “there was time when we would be arrested just for being who we are.” The sad truth is that all too many of us continue to be arrested just for being who we are – particularly if we are poor, of color, young or immigrants in addition to being LGBT or Q. Under S-Comm, arrests based on persistent, pervasive and deeply rooted perceptions of LGBTQ people as inherently disorderly, sexually deviant, and violent will be more likely to lead to immigration detention and deportation for LGBTQ immigrants.
As documented in Queer (In)Justice, LGBTQ people, and particularly LGBTQ people of color, immigrants and young people, continue to be profiled by police at alarming rates on a daily basis as more likely to be engaged in “lewd conduct,” “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” and other sexual offenses – often without any basis beyond gender nonconforming appearance or expression. LGBTQ people, communities and establishments continued to be targets of discriminatory enforcement efforts. Thousands of LGBTQ youth who live on the streets because they have been pushed out of or runaway from their homes or foster care programs are at risk of arrest every day for minor offenses such as turnstile jumping or sleeping on a train because there is nowhere else safe for them to sleep at night. These are the members of our communities for whom the criminalization of LGBTQ people and the injustices of the criminal legal system will only be compounded by programs such as S-Comm.
I need look no further than my own client files to put faces on the people in our communities who will be affected by S-Comm: a Latino gay man falsely arrested for “lewd conduct” based on a police officer’s entirely false accusation that he inexplicably dropped his pants as he took a walk in a park near his home in Queens; a homeless gay man who may in fact have been looking for some anonymous companionship in a remote area of Central Park where no one but the officer who arrested him was present, while heterosexual couples make out freely on the Great Lawn; a Latina transgender woman profiled as being engaged in prostitution as she walked to the store; a homeless LGBTQ teen arrested for “loitering”; a lesbian immigrant who was arrested when the police were called to respond to violence against her, who now lives in fear that the next time they come she will be arrested again. All were released from police custody shortly after arrest and never went to jail. Under S-Comm, because fingerprints taken from them at the police precinct would be forwarded directly to ICE, those among them who also happen to be undocumented would immediately find themselves in the cross hairs of immigration enforcement, even as the original charges against them were dismissed.
Concerns about the consequences of S-Comm for LGBTQ people go far beyond what will happen once they are deported – homophobia, transphobia, violence, and denial of basic needs await them in U.S. immigration detention facilities. Christina Madrazo, a Mexican transgender woman, was raped by a guard at the Krome Immigration Detention Center in 2000. Antonio O., a gay man and legal permanent resident from El Salvador arrested on a minor drug offense in 2007 was repeatedly denied HIV medication at an ICE processing center. Victoria Arellano, a Latina transgender woman held at the same facility, ultimately died shackled to her bed after being denied appropriate HIV/AIDS medication and treatment over an extended period of time.
S-Comm is clearly an LGBTQ issue.
The over 60 signatories to the call from LGBT organizations for an immediate end to the program feature groups large and small, national and local. They include the nation’s oldest anti-violence program, Community United Against Violence in San Francisco, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, along with Gay Straight Alliances, campus-based Outlaw groups, statewide LGBT equality coalitions, the Center for Constitutional Rights, legal advocacy programs, organizations working with homeless LGBTQ youth, and grassroots groups working on a range of issues from supporting LGBTQ people in prisons to building safer communities for LGBTQ people.
It’s time for more LGBTQ groups and advocates to follow their lead and join the chorus of voices speaking out against S-Comm, and the license to profile, detain and deport LGBTQ people it creates. Come out against S-Comm, sign onto the statement, and let’s put our energies, advocacy, and political capital behind our signatures. S-Comm is one of my top 6 LGBT Equality issues – I hope you’ll make it one of yours.
Sign the LGBTQ letter to the White House calling for an end to S-Comm. Click here.
Andrea Ritchie is a police misconduct attorney and organizer in New York City. She co-coordinates Streetwise and Safe (SAS) and is co-author, along with Joey L. Mogul and Kay Whitlock, of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Beacon Press 2011). She is also a former member of INCITE! National.