By Cara Kenefick with additional reporting by Brian Woodman
Jose Maria Islas, a New Haven immigrant mistakenly arrested in connection with an attempted robbery back in 2012, was freed from Suffolk County Jail in Boston last Friday thanks in part to community pressure put on immigration officials led by activists at The New Haven Workers Association’s Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA).
Islas, an undocumented immigrant who has been held in an immigrant detention center for the past seven months, has appealed his deportation on the grounds that it violates his constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment and has been backed by ULA activists and community supporters for the past year. If deported, he will be barred from returning to the United States and his family for 10 years.
“He is absolutely protected under the Constitution. People who are not citizens have all kinds of rights,” ULA activist Megan Fountain said. “Deportation is a very harsh punishment against [Islas’s] ‘crime’.”
Throughout his incarceration, ULA has filed an appeal and has been applying pressure on immigration officials to have him released and stay his deportation.
In addition to throwing their own support behind Islas, the ULA’s action has prompted 3,000 people to send emails to ICE director John Morton asking them to drop the case. Senator Richard Blumenthal and Senator Chris Murphy have also requested Morton to revoke the deportation order.
Arrested in July 2012, Islas, who has lived in New Haven for the past eight years, was going out on his lunch break from the Hamden factory where he worked, when a man told police two brown-skinned men were trying to steal his bike, Fountain said.
“The police arrested the first two men they saw,” she said. Islas was charged in connection to the attempted robbery. After spending four months in jail, his charges were reduced and he completed a rehabilitation program. The ultimately dropped the charges against Islas, ruling it a case of mistaken identity, leaving him with a clean record. According to Fountain, despite the fact that he had never committed a crime, court marshals turned Islas over to immigration under the Secure Communities deportation program.
The flaw in the program is that it works directly against what the Obama administration and ICE have said their priorities are – which is to deport people who are criminals or terrorists threats – she said. “A vast majority of people the courts are turning over to immigration, they’re innocent,” she said.
However, under prosecutorial discretion, the U.S. government can drop the deportation case if the person has a job, has a family or is an important member of the community, which is how Islas has appealed the deportation order.
On the day of Islas’s release, Gov. Danell Malloy held a signing ceremony for the TRUST Act, which has limited Connecticut’s participation in the Secure Communities program. Islas’s case served as inspiration for the the legislation.
Connecticut is now limiting its participation to only turning over undocumented immigrants to ICE if they have committed a serious crime.
“I hope that now that we have the Trust Act, families will not suffer the way my family is suffering,” said Juana Islas of New Haven, Connecticut, in a press release from the ULA. “My brother was in jail for a total of seven months fighting deportation, all because he was arrested by mistake because of the color of his skin. He has never been convicted of a crime. . . He is being released because the community said no more. We will continue to fight his deportation. The TRUST Act is a step forward and we have to keep fighting until all the prisoners are free.”
While ICE could still deport Islas, Fountain said ICE will be waiting for a ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals on his motion to drop the case on the grounds of prosecutorial discretion, which could come in the next anywhere in the next one to three months. If the board denies his motion, he can appeal again to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court.
Advocates for the Immigrant Community
The fight for Jose Maria Islas is just a small part of the ULA’s storied history. Immigrants have been the foundation for the ULA since its inception. Founded and run by immigrants, the organization has been a part of the grassroots fight for immigrant rights since 2002.
Thanks to the organization, Connecticut’s apprehension rate by ICE have gone down “significantly” because of their effort and the efforts of the advocates around the state, Fountain said.
Fountain traced a turning point back to the “historic” 2007 immigration raids in New Haven.
“Immigration violated their rights, came in without warrants and arrested people they shouldn’t have arrested,” she said, recalling how the U.S. government was then forced to pay the country’s biggest immigration settlement to date.
Based on a freedom of information lawsuit to obtain information on why the raids were conducted, Fountain said the ULA found that the raids were implemented in direct relation to the creation of the Elm City resident cards, which allowed all residents – citizens, undocumenteds or green card holders – access to services from using the library to going to City Hall to report abusive landlords. The card, the first of its kind in the country, was voted on by the Board of Alderman the day before the raids.
“Immigration hasn’t been abusing people’s rights so much because of the community fight we fought in New Haven and because of our efforts to stop the federal Secure Community program, which has been disastrous,” she said.
Like the Islas case, ULA routinely uses its legal strategy in human rights cases by combining legal action and public action, which includes garnering support from elected officials and the general community.
ULA outlined its typical approach as beginning with a demand letter and visit to the employer, landlord or other party involved in an alleged human rights abuse prior to an initial investigation. The organization pursues legal action if a resolution is not reached while gathering community support on behalf of the complainant. It also requests system changes through legislative and city political contacts.
Members and complainants also share experiences and information to educate themselves. The operative philosophy, according to the group, is that the victims learn to advocate for themselves.
“Because many immigrants are undocumented, their ability to avail themselves of their rights is limited by their status and fear of deportation,” the ULA website reads. “Many don’t know what rights, if any they possess, and are often afraid to seek assistance for fear of retaliation.”
Overall, ULA cites major topics of focus as immigration reform through political equality rather than over-emphasizing border security, and supporting the National Day Laborer Organizing Network’s Not One More Campaign, which is an initiative to halt what they described as unfair deportations.
Along with advocating for the rights of immigrants, the organization is also involved in the issues of racial profiling by police, police brutality, abuses by immigration authorities, wage theft, sexual harassment on the job, work-related injuries, and a lack of sufficient health care and job security. ULA has recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages for workers and won compensation for victims of discrimination and human rights violations.
Members, many of whom are minorities working in low-income jobs, pay voluntary membership dues and collectively determine organizational policy during weekly meetings.
ULA committees include members from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador and Puerto Rico. They also run groups for women, youth leaders and members representing the homosexual/lesbian community.
(Photo from NDLON.org)