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Nashville Immigrants Too Scared to Call the Police

For years Claudia lived a clandestine life in Nashville’s Clairmont Apartment complex – a clutch of buildings on the city’s south side that had become home to hundreds of low-income immigrants. Claudia rarely ventured outside the lines of daily routine, prepping her three children for school, getting herself to work, and then quickly back home in the evening. An undocumented immigrant, Claudia lives in fear of US authorities. She is desperate to remain in the United States, as she fled Honduras after the father of her two daughters was murdered by gangs who also threatened Claudia and her girls.

Claudia’s deliberately quiet life in Nashville ended when her daughter Adriana, then 10 years old, was assaulted in an isolated stairwell.

Claudia and her neighbors heard Adriana scream. Claudia raced to the stairwell. The man who assaulted Adriana tried to run, but neighbors captured him. At that moment, despite her horror of what happened, Claudia didn’t want to call the police.

“One always has this fear of being illegal,” she said.

Across Nashville and the rest of the United States, undocumented immigrants like Claudia are often terrified of the police – to the point that they hope to avoid officers even when they desperately need police protection. In Nashville and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch has interviewed immigrants who suffered assault, sexual harassment, labor violations, being kidnapped, or robbed and were still scared to call the police. Some are terrified of calling an ambulance in an emergency. Not only does this mean immigrant communities may not receive the help that they need – it also means more violent criminals will likely remain free, staking out new victims.

This fear, which permeates entire immigrant communities, became more pronounced when local police officers in many cities like Nashville began working in tandem with the US agency that enforces immigration law and deportations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or “ICE”). Since 2007, Nashville has taken part in two such programs which, to varying extents, mandated that law enforcement work together with ICE. Both these programs have seriously damaged the relationship between immigrants and the police.

Yet Nashville, like many places within the United States, has had an evolving and contradictory relationship with their growing immigrant populations. Some local law enforcement officials have called for crackdowns on immigrants and collaborated with harsh federal immigration enforcement policies. At the same time, Nashville launched “El Protector,” an outreach program established in 2004 where police actively seek to build ties and trust with the city’s immigrants. And Nashville’s local nongovernmental organizations along with concerned citizens have pushed for greater tolerance and dialogue. All these factors work together to form the essential relationship between authorities and immigrants – ties that, if made correctly, could help keep people safe.

Nashville is emblematic in the debate over how the United States interacts with undocumented immigrants. During the 2000s, Nashville’s foreign-born population doubled, soaring from 58,539 in 2000 to 118,126 in 2010 – becoming 7.4 percent of Nashville’s total population. By the mid-2000s, the state of Tennessee began to clamp down, barring unauthorized immigrants from obtaining drivers’ licenses and creating barriers to social services such as healthcare for low-income people. 

The first program in which Nashville police collaborated with ICE was called “287(g),” a reference to the relevant section of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Under this program, specially trained local law enforcement officers are authorized by the federal government to identify and detain deportable immigrants they encounter in the course of their daily duties.  In other words, any run-in with police could lead to deportation for any immigrant – even if he or she was not charged with a crime and had no criminal record.

The assault against Claudia’s daughter happened in 2010, when Nashville was still part of 287(g), which helps explain Claudia’s reluctance to call the police.

Under political pressure and the threat of lawsuits, the Davidson County Sheriff in Nashville announced in 2012 that 287(g) would no longer be necessary because “the program was not having significant impact” in the community. Police officers for the city of Nashville told Human Rights Watch they understood the program had created a “culture of fear” in the community and hoped the end of 287(g) would mean “new ways to engage with law enforcement.”  Unfortunately, when the 287(g) program ended, Nashville had already begun participating in another program, “Secure Communities” (which ICE claims is mandatory and is in effect across the United States). Under this program, immigrants are flagged for possible deportation through a database whenever their fingerprints are taken.  If the program is implemented as intended, fingerprints of people in police custody submitted by local law enforcement to the FBI for background checks are automatically searched against immigration databases. If ICE determines that a person may be deportable it requests that local law enforcement detain him or her for transfer to ICE and possible deportation.

A worrying byproduct of both programs is the chilling effect they have had on crime victims’ willingness to report crimes and collaborate with law enforcement. Despite efforts to improve outreach to immigrants, with Secure Communities still in place and without congressional action on immigration reform, deep fears that contacting the police could trigger deportation persist.

They appear to be well-founded. Between August 2010 and May 31, 2013, Nashville’s Davidson County identified 9,632 people as “matches” with ICE databases and likely flagged them for deportation via Secure Communities. These figures appear quite similar to those from the 287(g) program. According to ICE, from 287(g)’s inception in April 2007 through August 2012, 10,785 people were identified for deportation.

In Claudia’s case, her neighbors ultimately convinced her that the police should be called. The man who assaulted her daughter needed to be stopped from hurting others, they said. After Claudia relented, a neighbor called the police.

Claudia even agreed that her daughter could testify at the trial. She was told that she and her daughter likely now qualified for a U visa, created for crime victims. But during the trial, local police together with ICE raided Claudia’s building, searching for suspected gang members. Her terror of deportation took hold, and she fled the next day, as did many of her neighbors. She purposefully isolated herself, missed court dates for Adriana’s assailant’s trial, and was even too afraid to meet with lawyers about the potential visas. 

She fled because, ultimately, living underground in the United States was better than going back to Honduras, where she feared for her own and her daughters’ lives.

Claudia and her neighbors weren’t wrong in assuming that a run-in with Nashville’s police in 2010 could lead to deportation. The 287(g) program, implemented in Nashville from 2007 to 2012, was supposed to weed out serious criminals in the immigrant community. But this isn’t what happened.

During this time, unauthorized immigrants who were caught fishing without a license or driving without a taillight had deportation proceedings brought against them. A study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shows that before 287(g), the percentage of people in Nashville’s Davidson County who were arrested and then deported for driving without a license was 18 percent. After 287(g) began, that number skyrocketed to 43 percent.

During our research in Nashville in 2013, the unauthorized immigrants Human Rights Watch interviewed all had knee-jerk reactions in wanting to keep officers far away. Ultimately, however, most did call the police. But this may not always be the case.

A 2008 study by the National Council of La Raza and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition compared how African Americans and Latinos responded to crime. Their information showed that only 4 percent of Black respondents said they knew of a crime that had not been reported to the police. However, a massive 42 percent of Latinos answered the same way. Also telling: while 27 percent of Blacks said they would not call the police to report a crime, 54 percent of Latinos would not.

Elena’s story illustrates why this fear of contacting authorities wasn’t unfounded. Elena, living in Nashville but originally from Mexico, had just given birth to her son, Luis. She had been home from the hospital for four days when she heard a knock on her door and found a woman posing as an immigration official, saying that Elena was to be deported and her children taken into government custody. The woman tried to force her way into Elena’s home, and in the struggle, she stabbed Elena 12 times, then kidnapped her baby boy.

Yet even in the wake of this horrific attack, Elena recalls that her immediate response to cries by neighbors to call 911 was to say “No.”

“I still think about it … I was more concerned about my legal status,” she said. “Even when I was in the ambulance, bleeding, the thing I kept thinking was ‘Who will take care of my children when I am deported?’”

Elena’s assailant was apprehended in Alabama. But instead of having her kidnapped child and her other children returned, they were all taken into temporary custody by child-protective service officials, while the FBI and police investigated a claim by the kidnapper that Elena had agreed to sell her baby. It took weeks before Elena regained custody of her four children. The assailant later pled guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

Ultimately, many in Nashville acknowledged the rift 287(g) created between the police and the immigrant community – a divide that makes Nashville a more dangerous city, as criminals are not necessarily properly apprehended – and some hoped the switch to Secure Communities would help heal the divide. But even that program still effectively intermingles federal immigration enforcement with public safety and feeds mistrust between police and the community.

Nashville is still dealing with people who are terrified of reporting crimes, and they’re haunted by memories of families and friends being treated as criminals, or even deported, when they did so. Much of the terror is related to fall-out from 287(g), but some goes even deeper. Many immigrants come from countries where police are corrupt – and even violent – and not to be trusted. It can be a challenge to temper these inherent fears.

Nashville’s El Protector program has helped. Under El Protector, officers conduct community meetings, go door-to-door in commercial strips, host youth camps, health fairs and sponsor community festivals. They also maintain a network of volunteer translators who are given dedicated cell phones and are on call to help when police are faced with a non-English-speaking victim or subject of a law enforcement stop. They work on improving their relationships with the community and on educating people on the importance of reporting crimes.

But Nashville, indeed the state of Tennessee and other states and localities across the nation, should go further in repairing their relationships with immigrant communities and in treating immigrants fairly under the law. California, for example, passed the TRUST Act in October 2013, under which local law enforcement may respond to a request from immigration authorities to hold a flagged immigrant only if the immigrant has been convicted or arrested for certain serious offenses. Similarly, a Chicago ordinance prohibits local law enforcement from detaining individuals for immigration authorities except in certain instances, such as when individuals are charged with or convicted of felonies. A federal court in Oregon recently found that counties could not detain people solely for ICE without violating their constitutional rights.  In the wake of the decision, over a dozen Oregon counties announced that they would no longer comply with ICE “holds” or requests that a non-citizen be held.

State bills similar to California’s have been proposed in Massachusetts and Maryland while in other places governors and local officials have acted to break the link between public safety and immigration enforcement. These laws and policies are not perfect. They still expose some immigrants to the harsh federal immigration regime that fails to consider family or community ties.  However, they have the potential to begin to rebuild the trust of immigrant communities in law enforcement and ensure that all crime victims and witnesses can have recourse to the police.

As Elena explains, the stakes, in terms of ensuring the safety of immigrants and citizens alike couldn’t be higher: “I feel tranquil now because I have my child and I am alive. But do I feel secure? Never.”


(pseudonyms used to protect the privacy and identities of interviewees)

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