Immigrant advocates and a Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department official led an all-day discussion Friday on U.S. immigration policy and how it is affecting the South Coast. The discussion, hosted by PUEBLO and BorderLinks, was attended by about 50 people.

Mary Watkins, an event organizer and faculty member at Pacifica Graduate Institute, said the purpose of the discussion was to help prepare the Santa Barbara community for the coming debate on comprehensive national immigration reform through encouraging informed civic dialogue in the county.

The morning focus was on the Secure Communities Program, an initiative of the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch of the Homeland Security Department. Watkins said many Americans are unaware of the Secure Communities Program and need to hear from a variety of stakeholders about its aims and effects. Unfortunately, ICE Ventura Field Office director Ray Kovacic and Los Angeles Field Office assistant director Robert Naranjo were unable to attend the discussion as planned because of the then-anticipated federal government shutdown. Don Patterson, chief deputy in charge of the County Jail and representing the Sheriff’s Department, said the ICE program was intended to aid in the deportation of dangerous criminals.

Nationwide, however, ICE is detaining and deporting approximately 230,000 people (in 2010) who do not fall into this category. When immigrants without documents are charged with minor infractions and need to appear in court, they sometimes do not appear for fear of deportation. Unfortunately, this triggers a warrant for their arrest. Under the Secure Communities Program, all of those arrested are fingerprinted and their prints run through a Homeland Security database. Those who do not have proper immigration documents, even if innocent of the offense for which they were arrested, are held in the county jail for up to 48 hours, awaiting ICE officials to take them into detention and deportation proceedings. Last month, 92 people were transferred into ICE custody from the County Jail.

Immigrant advocates noted the irony that a program supposedly creating security is instead creating insecurity and fear in Santa Barbara’s immigrant communities. Families are fearful of separation through deportation of one of its members. They are also increasingly fearful of contacting police for help, even in situations of domestic violence. This sets back previous efforts in Santa Barbara to create community policing that forms a strong relationship between residents and law enforcement.

“About 1,100 people are deported every day from the U.S., most with minor offenses,” said Belen Seara, executive director of PUEBLO, or People United for Economic Justice Building Leadership through Organizing. “Many of the deportations are caused by immigrants incriminating themselves during ICE interviews.”

Language translation problems, lack of knowledge of rights, and inadequate legal representation make it difficult for people to defend themselves in the proceedings initiated by the Secure Communities Program, Seara said.

As counties face budget shortfalls, use of underutilized jail beds and newly built detention facilities are bringing in revenue to many municipalities throughout the United States. The Homeland Security Department pays approximately $85 to $140 per day to detain an immigrant. Deportation of each immigrant costs $12,500. The building of detention facilities is being outsourced to corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America, providing financial incentive for the detention of immigrants in the United States. This network of privatized prisons has grown rapidly, said Watkins.

DREAM Act advocates from IDEAS gave moving testimony about the difficulties of gaining a college education without access to federal loans.  Unfortunately, the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara does not support undocumented youth, even if they have lived here their entire lives. The Adsum Education Foundation is now accepting donations to be targeted for the educational support of these young people who were sorely disappointed by the failure of the DREAM Act to become reality, an act that would have provided access to educational loans and an eventual path to citizenship.

Speaker Francisco “Chavo” Romero of Colectivo Todo Poder al Pueblo in Oxnard, focused on the hardship imposed on immigrant families by police DUI checkpoints. Immigrant families rely on a car to work. When caught in a checkpoint, the cars of those without documents are towed and impounded for at least 30 days. This results in $2,000 of fines and storage charges, he said. Many are too fearful of deportation to pick up their cars. The hidden truth is that this is a way for municipalities to make money. Last year, $41 million, plus the revenue from the sale of impounded cars, was accrued for California’s near-empty coffers. Attendees discussed how other states allow immigrants to get driver’s licenses, which also makes it more likely cars will be insured. The question was posed: Should Santa Barbara be financially profiting from those who work so hard in our community, and contributing to their hardship and anxiety?

The group also learned about the recent gang injunctions in Santa Barbara, and the history of such injunctions in other parts of California. These injunctions curtail the movement of those named even in their own neighborhoods. Jackie Inda of Movimiento Esperanza and representatives from Mi Palabra gave testimony about working with those caught in the injunctions.

Chavo said immigrants without documents are caught now in what he calls a human-rights catastrophe. Participants called for next steps to include concerted dialogue between the Sheriff’s Department, the Santa Barbara Police Department, ICE, and immigrant advocates. Community dialogue about what Santa Barbara residents themselves think will make Santa Barbara a secure community is also needed, as well as critical analysis of the root causes of insecurity in different sectors of the community.

Mary Watkins Ph.D. is a core faculty member and coordinator of community and ecological fieldwork and research in the M.A./Ph.D. Depth Psychology Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute.