Jose Luis Piscil got in an argument with his cousin over the security deposit for an apartment he rented. Two years later he’s fighting to stay in this country with his family.
The argument occurred in 2012. In the heat of it, Piscil’s cousin called New Haven police, saying that Piscil (pictured above with his family) was threatening him. New Haven police arrested him and held him overnight on two misdemeanor charges.
Following the mandates of a federal program called Secure Communities, his fingerprints were sent to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which identified him as undocumented and instructed court marshals to detain him.
ICE officials picked him up and drove him 100 miles away to an immigration detention facility in Greenfield, Mass., where he was held for about a week.
For a citizen, the charges would have been dropped, and the case would have been closed. But because of Secure Communities, Piscil’s minor altercation turned into a multi-year battle to remain with his family.
Limits Of TRUST
One year ago, Connecticut became the second state in the nation to pass the Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools (TRUST) Act, a law that serves to limit the ever-expanding powers of ICE and reduce deportations. The TRUST Act instructs the state not to detain any immigrants matched with Secure Communities’ fingerprint-sharing program if they have not been convicted of a serious crime.
At the time it was passed, the TRUST Act was hailed as one of the most progressive pieces of immigration reform in the country. The law reels in Secure Communities, a controversial Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy that came to Connecticut in 2012, requiring local police forces to share data about people they arrest with ICE. Regardless of the person’s charge or their circumstances of arrest, Secure Communities allows local police forces to hold immigrants without due process until an ICE agent moves them into an immigrant detention facility. Immigrants can be detained in these facilities for years. Frequently, their stays in immigration detention centers end in deportation.
Since detainer advocacy and litigation began in early 2012, including passage of the TRUST Act in 2013, the number of immigrants detained by the state Department of Corrections has decreased dramatically, from approximately 32 people per month to fewer than four. ICE spokesmen have argued that Secure Communities is focused only on dangerous criminals. But before early 2012, only about 25 percent of immigrants detained by the state Department of Correction had a felony conviction or deportation order, according to an analysis of DOC data provided by the Yale Law School Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic (WIRAC).
For now innocent residents, for a variety of reasons, are still ending up in the ICE dragnet.
Jose Luis Piscil is one such immigrant in New Haven. An undocumented New Haven factory worker in his mid-20s, Piscil does not receive the 2013 legislation’s protection because ICE put him in final deportation proceedings before the law was passed. Today, he is still fighting deportation.
Even if the TRUST Act been in place at the time of his arrest, however, it’s likely he still would be facing deportation proceedings. Like over 235,000 immigrants every year, Piscil was caught at the border when trying to enter and given a formal deportation order. Because of this outstanding order, the court was able to turn him over to ICE as soon as he went in to settle the dispute with his cousin.
“The TRUST Act in Connecticut is not the best,” said John Lugo, an organizer for the grassroots immigrant activist group Unidad Latina en Accion. “It doesn’t help Jose Luis or the thousands of people with final deportation orders; it needs to be much stronger.”
The only area in the state with protections for those with final deportation orders is East Haven, which adopted the ordinance as part of a settlement following a civil rights suit directed at the police department’s complacency with brutality toward Latino residents.
The court set Piscil’s bond at $5,000. His partner Yuliana, six months pregnant and without a source of income, raised the bond money with the help of friends and community activists.
It was difficult for Piscil’s family to visit him during this time, which he called the most difficult part of his detention. Still, Piscil was relatively lucky he was able to remain so close to his family, friends, and legal counsel.
According to the the national not-for-profit Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), 46 percent of detainees are transferred at least twice—sometimes arbitrarily, sometimes in retaliation for speaking out. And once in immigration detention centers, immigrants face conditions that can only be called inhumane.
“These immigration detention facilities almost operate outside of U.S. law,” said Christina Fialho, the co-founder of CIVIC, an organization that seeks to expose abuses in detention facilities. “If you’re a non-citizen in immigration detention, you’re not afforded many of the safeguards of the constitution. Because these facilities are so isolated, people don’t have access to people that can advocate on their behalf.”
Furthermore, ICE runs only seven or eight detention centers, constituting one in five total beds, said David Hernandez, assistant professor of Latino Studies at Mount Holyoke College. Detainees are usually sent to these federal centers late in the deportation process. The rest are held at 250 for-profit private facilities and county jails.
Unlike federal centers, these facilities do not have standards for food, religious services, child care, or other necessities. ICE only gives them guidelines, which often are not honored, Hernandez said. Furthermore, corporate facilities have privacy rules that legally excuse them from reporting conditions and the health of their detainees, he said.
Because of limited oversight over the agency, these conditions are the norm rather than the exception. Fialho said she has heard complains ranging from exorbitantly expensive phone calls and maggots in food to sexual abuse. Since 84 percent of people in immigration detention lack legal representation, these abuses go largely unreported, according to CIVIC.
At Greenfield, Piscil said, he was held in an uncomfortably hot room, often handcuffed to a stiff-backed chair. He was one of an average of 34,000 people detained by ICE every day.
“These congressmen are happy to go home to their families,” he said. “But they’re leaving children without their parents.”
Though Piscil is with is family now, he said he fears he may not be for long. ICE has already begun deportation proceedings. For the past year, his many pleas for amnesty to stay with his family have been denied. He is appealing the decision now, which should buy him another year.