A victory for true safety in San Francisco

For many LGBT people, this New Year’s will be spent not with family and friends, but surviving the violence of life in a jail, prison, or detention facility, or awaiting deportation.

In fact, the terrifying possibility of life-altering deportation is a daily reality for a growing number of LGBT immigrants in San Francisco.

Last month, Allan, a transgender Latino survivor of domestic violence and member of Community United Against Violence, bravely testified at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors:

“I am afraid – my ex-partner could still retaliate against me by calling the police and falsely accusing my children of a crime. With Secure Communities, that means they would be deported …”

Ironically, the source of this chilling fear is a failed federal program called Secure Communities, or S-Comm. The program is an unfair burden for local governments and was forced on San Francisco over our sheriff’s strenuous objections. It deceptively uses the language of “safety and security” to target immigrants and tear families apart, and has deported tens of thousands of Californians in the last two years, and hundreds of thousands of people nationally.

But as the San Francisco Board of Supervisors affirmed in a crucial 8-3 vote earlier this month, we have the power to challenge S-Comm’s devastating impacts on community safety and defend the human rights of all San Franciscans. The board resolution recognized that we all lose when local police are entangled with federal immigration.

We are deeply grateful to out Supervisors David Campos and Scott Wiener for their support of this resolution, which encourages the sheriff and juvenile probation departments to further limit the use of local funds to respond to the immigration hold requests that S-Comm uses to sweep up immigrants into detention and deportation.

Some background: S-Comm automatically cross-checks fingerprints of everyone arrested for any reason with immigration databases. Someone from Immigration and Customs Enforcement sends a request or “hold” to pressure local jails to detain community members for extra time – and at local expense – just so the person can be picked up for deportation.

ICE’s holds and S-Comm have become mired in scandal this year with revelations they have led to the detention of immigrant domestic violence survivors like San Francisco resident Norma, street vendors arrested for selling food without a permit, and also U.S. citizens like Antonio Montejano – all held past the time they otherwise would have been released.

Despite repeatedly telling officers he is a native-born citizen, Montejano was held in Los Angeles County Jail for four days because of the ICE hold. After the ordeal, his young son asked: “Dad, can this happen to me too because I look like you?”

That risk of profiling also hits home for many LGBTQ immigrants nationwide, particularly vulnerable to detention and deportation because they are more likely to come into contact with law enforcement.

Every week CUAV’s participants and members report negative interactions with police – including profiling and harassment on the street and false arrest in the context of domestic violence. Our most recent national statistics on LGBTQ domestic violence found a three-fold increase in the rate of both dual arrest (survivor and abuser) and survivor arrest from 7.1 percent in 2009 to 23.2 percent to 2010.

This is a problem from coast to coast, which is why over 75 local, regional, and national LGBT organizations – including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Lesbian Rights – signed on to a statement (http://www.cuav.org/article/11) co-authored by CUAV in opposition to S-Comm. As Andrea Ritchie of New York’s Streetwise and Safe wrote on National Coming Out Day:

“I need look no further than my own client files to put faces on … 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 Latina transgender woman profiled as being engaged in prostitution as she walked to the store …”

And once sucked into the sprawling network of ICE’s detention facilities, immigrants face truly horrendous abuses. In April of this year, the National Immigrant Justice Center filed a suit on behalf of 13 LGBT immigrants detained by ICE over allegations of sexual assault, denial of medical and mental health treatment, arbitrary long-term solitary confinement, and frequent harassment by officers and facility personnel.

As a result of mobilization and pressure from immigrant communities and their allies, local governments have sought to resist the growing integration of criminal legal and immigration enforcement systems: Outgoing San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey has been outspoken in challenging the program and amending his department’s policies. Counties like Santa Clara in the South Bay and Cook in Illinois have enacted even deeper reforms.

San Francisco’s stance despite ICE’s misleading spin is a beacon of hope for LGBT immigrants and all people who believe that real safety does not come through more arrest, deportation, or detention. The supervisors’ resolution gives strong backing to continue disentangling these systems and advancing a public safety agenda that focuses on building stronger, healthier communities. It is one step closer to creating the kind of San Francisco where all of us can thrive in the year to come.

Morgan Bassichis is the organizing director at Community United Against Violence, which was founded in San Francisco in 1979. CUAV works to build the power of LGBTQ survivors of violence to create safety in our lives and communities. For more information, visit www.cuav.org.