FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Hector Mendez, who lives in Norwalk, says he made a daring four-day dash across the desert from Mexico to the United States six years ago and has not looked back.
“I had to pay coyotes (human traffickers who charge up to $20,000 to sneak immigrants into the country) every penny I had to get me here, but it was worth it,” said the 34-year-old restaurant kitchen worker, who has also labored in various little jobs just to survive.
“But I still have a better life here than in my country. Americans don’t understand what it’s like to live without any hope of having a job in filthy conditions,” said Mendez, who declined to say where he works or lives and put his hands in front of his face when asked if his picture could be taken.
“No picture,” he said. “That would be too risky.”
Mendez, who is an illegal immigrant, said he is much more fearful since last year’s launch in Fairfield County of Secure Communities, a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that targets illegal immigrants and deports them to their native countries. A fellow worker was detained and deported under Secure Communities six months ago after being arrested for driving without a license, he said.
“He had to drive to work, but there’s no way to get a license if you aren’t a citizen,” said Mendez. “I want to be a citizen, but it’s not easy these days and I can’t take the chance of being sent back. I can’t live like that again.”
Immigration lawyers, advocates and even state and federal officials are concerned that the program, which has now gone statewide, will be used by ICE to deport people arrested for minor offenses.
In fact, the Task Force on Secure Communities, a subcommittee of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, has concluded both ICE and local police often overstep their boundaries.
“There are circumstances in which Secure Communities results in the removal of persons who are minor offenders or who have never been convicted of a crime, and because statements by ICE have left much confusion about the full reach of its enforcement priorities, many jurisdictions are concerned about the impact on community policing,” a task force report said.
“Many Task Force members would (recommend) suspension of the program until major changes are made, or even termination of what they believe is a fundamentally flawed program,” the report states.
Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling denies that local police arrest people for minor offenses to have them deported.
“Yes, we have worked with ICE when they request help in trying to find a particular individual,” Rilling said. “But after we arrest someone and turn them over, it’s completely in the hands of immigration officials. The idea that we’re going around rounding up people to deport them is ridiculous.”
However, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other state officials are leery about Secure Communities. Malloy delayed implementation of the program for six months and has indicated he intends to keep a close watch on it.
“What it does is essentially convert local law enforcement officers into de facto agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and that perception in the community is very dangerous, as people are afraid of going to local police,” said Michael Lawlor, the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning.
“The governor shares the opinion of many police chiefs that this policy could lead to a situation where victims and witnesses in the immigrant community would be reluctant to cooperate with local and state law enforcement,” Lawlor said. “The program could even result in making far more immigrants victims of violent crime as they become more fearful of reporting anything to local police.”
Malloy has asked Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone to review how the program is implemented and whether “corrective action is needed.”
But Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for ICE in Washington, D.C., says the program is working.
“Secure Communities has demonstrated its effectiveness in transforming immigration enforcement to a focus on criminal offenders,” Feinstein said. “In just two years, ICE has dramatically increased the removal of convicted criminals and reduced the number of noncriminal immigration violators removed.”
Still, immigration attorney Alex Meyerovich, with offices in Norwalk and Bridgeport, said many of his clients are “terrified” of being targeted.
“This is just another example of the idiotic and completely arbitrary deportation process used by our government,” Meyerovich said. “We are wasting millions and millions of dollars to entrap and deport people who pose absolutely no threat to this country and just come here seeking a better life. They are willing to work in the most menial jobs that most Americans wouldn’t even consider … and many come back three, four, even five times after being deported.”
This is the second in a two-part series about the plight of illegal immigrants in Fairfield County and increased efforts to deport them.