Over-policing strains Chicago’s Mexican immigrant communities

By Balim Tezel and Ingrid Cherry, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Latino communities in Chicago have a complicated relationship with law enforcement.

Press release announcing findings of the investigation into the Chicago Police Dept. Jan. 13, 2017

In January, the U.S. Justice Dept. issued a report that concluded that the city’s “own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” The report produced an agreement between the Justice Dept. and the city. The agreement looked toward a relationship that “respects the rights of residents, promotes mutual confidence between the police and the community, and improves public and officer safety.” It called for a consent decree enforceable by the federal courts.

Within the first 100 Days of Trump’s presidency, the agreement and call for a consent decree were in doubt. On June 7, the Justice Dept. announced it had not reached an agreement with the city on federal oversight of police reform.

Long before Donald Trump took office as President, Latino voices were calling attention to the dangers and under-reporting of over-policing in Latino communities.

A study conducted by Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer, Jr. concluded that police are 50 percent more likely to use brutality on [blacks and] Latinos than on whites.

According to a McClatchy-Marist Poll released in March, 52 percent of Americans believe that 60 race relations will get worse under President Trump; 64 percent of Latino surveyed do.

As the Trump administration dialed up the rhetoric against undocumented immigrants and Mexican migration and put into place more immigration officers and greater cooperation between ICE agents and local law enforcement emboldened to partner to arrest and deport immigrants with any history of criminal activity, no matter how remote or minimal, Chicago’s Latino communities were caught between a rock and a hard place.

For predominantly Latino communities, such as Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Brighton Park, South Lawndale (which includes Little Village) and Hermosa, over-policing entails everything from interactions that stem from “the war on drugs” to criminalizing actions in school to street loitering to immigration status checks and raids to criminalizing undocumented immigration to juvenile detentions to incarceration.

Latino communities, like African-American communities, have faced a history of police brutality in Chicago. Specifically, in Latino communities, over-policing is an issue that has prompted discussions on ways to end discriminatory practices and ensure un-infringed rights for minorities.

Now, as many Latino communities in the U.S. fear the connection between law enforcement, ICE and deportation, Chicago has positioned itself as a sanctuary or welcome city – One Chicago – that has publicly touted its refusal to cooperate with immigration officials.

Will this turn into an opportunity for greater communication between Latino communities and Chicago police, and less fear?

With this story, we explored what it might take to open up conversations between police and Latino communities. It became a frustrating experiment. We called police to request interviews with officers who regularly interact with the Mexican immigrant community. Here’s a log of the run-around:

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We followed through and interviewed prominent members of Chicago’s Latino communities. Here’s an excerpt from one conversation. It was with Analia Rodriguez, Executive Director of Latino Union of Chicago:

Tezel: What causes over-policing within the Mexican-American community?

Rodríguez: We definitely think that it has to do with racism. I mean we definitely live in a system where white people are in power and most of the police officers are white…The darker you are, the more likely [you are to] get arrested or pulled over.”

Tezel: And how does this affect the lives of the people who live within [the Mexican immigrant community]?

Rodríguez: I can tell you in terms of how it effects the members of the union. So, every time they are waiting for work at the corner of hiring sites, there are always police around.  It kinda becomes like second nature that you know that you are being watched all the time. That is a problem; I mean when we talk about communities when they are being stopped by police for no reason, asked about their papers, all kinds of stuff.

It makes people afraid especially right now under the new administration to have someone say you are all gonna go to jail and end up in a detention center. In the community we work with, there are people who are afraid of calling the police because they may be in contact with ICE. What that means is that you may end up in a detention center. You end up getting deported. There goes your house, there goes your children, there goes everything you have.”

Tezel: Can you give me specific anecdotes about over-policing?

Rodríguez: People would just be standing there [at construction hiring sites] and there would be a police car right next to them. So, that policeman was actually getting paid just to stand with them. Wouldn’t even getting out of the car. So, we thought that was unnecessary, there was nothing there. They were just waiting for work…In another corner of the hiring site, the police car would come around every hour and tell them to go away; to walk away. The workers would literally walk around the block and then would come back and stand again waiting for work. But it was a constant of like ‘oh they are gonna come around, oh they are gonna come back.’

[Rodríguez explains that the workers are being hired by people who know them and trust them. She

Drawing copyrighted by Ingrid Cherry. 2017.

also observes that the over-policing is happening at hiring sites that are in predominantly Latino immigrant parts of town. She adds that fear of any law enforcement is tied to fear of ICE. The anxiety that Latino immigrants deal with in the face of deportation has hindered them from reporting any labor abuses.]

Rodríguez: What happens is that if they are actually a victim of a crime, they are less likely to call the police and report it because they are afraid they might get deported. Because employers threaten to call ICE, thhey say, ‘I’m not gonna pay you and I can sexually harass you but you can’t say anything or I’ll call ICE.’ The new Trump administration has actually made sure that law enforcement knows that they have more freedom, they have more discretion in what they can and cannot do…if you didn’t trust law enforcement before, now you are less likely to do so.

Tezel: What do the Mexican immigrants wish they could tell the police? Like what do they want the police to understand about the way they’re treated?

Rodríguez: “I think in general there should be a way of kinda building good relationships between the communities and the police. A relationship that they could trust…I think they want to be able to trust the police and feel like they are protected at some level…I cannot speak for the entire community but, these people want to be treated just like everyone else and not be picked on because of the color of their skin…It’s just a lot of assumptions that people make if you are not white. So, if there was a way we could even start having a conversation around race, why they are picking on people, why it is that they want to search some people and pick on them. I think it is just like a very complex conversation to have.

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Byron Sigcho, Director at Pilsen Alliance, a community center within a traditionally Mexican immigrant community, says that “culturally there is a natural fear of police…a part of it has to do with culture.”

Sigcho has some ideas on where the culture and over-policing stem from. Sigcho says that police brutality within the Latino community begins with “a lack of opportunities and a complete failure of the academic system.” He continues that “they [the government] make more money with youth in prison than they do with them in school and providing opportunities.”

The issue of over-policing and police brutality is one that starts to affect community members from an early age. It shapes the ways they think about and behave around authority.

He says that under Trump’s presidency, members of the Mexican American community have begun to take more action. “This has got to be the time when people say we need to wake up. The nightmare has gotten uglier,” Sigcho says. Sigcho argues that Trump’s promotion of violence that “invest[s] more in guns, more in military, more in police and less in school” has spurred communities to take action. Sigcho notes that more Mexican Americans are activated by Trump to join committees and do something within their community to bring about change.

He also acknowledges that change needs to come at an institutional level. He cites police oversight and a chance for the community to have constructive conversations as steps that should be taken, and says that the government “cannot disregard tough issues because the police do not want to talk about it.” He adds that talking about accountability is one thing, but seeing it in action is what people want now.

Organizations like the Chicago Cultural Alliance (CCA) are attempting to change the bottleneck in communicating with police. Executive director Emily Reusswig says that “within our [CCA] membership, our heritage organizations are trying to be a support to our community at large.” This support entails cross-cultural collaborations on art projects showcase issues like violence and the Mexican American experience. Reusswig says that the object of these exhibitions is “to fight against the misinformation of immigrant contribution in the United States.” In defining culture, Reusswig, focuses on both the past and the present; something that ties into tradition but also gives people the opportunity to change. This two-pronged definition of culture is essential to Mexican-American relations with police. In today’s political climate, it is important for members of the community to remember ways in which policing has shaped their culture in the past, as well as the ways that they are seeking change for the future, she says.

The Latino Union’s Rodriguez agrees. During a roundtable with journalism students from Medill at Northwestern University, Rodriguez makes it clear that over-policing and ICE raids within the Mexican community predate Trump and his message by many years.

In fact, Rodriguez notes, the most deportations in American history happened under President Obama. “The machine that Trump is using is not something new, it is something that Obama created that he [Trump] is just putting into motion.”

One major change that has happened under the Trump administration, according to Rodriguez, is media coverage. While this exposure has done a lot to raise awareness, it has also created fear within the Mexican community.

This is because the news media often cover stories of what’s going wrong rather than ways to make it right, she says. This leaves it up to organizations like Latino Union of Chicago to disseminate information. Rodriguez maintains that at the beginning of Trump’s presidency, people were very concerned with learning their rights. However now, “people are taking it to the next level—we know our rights, but what is the next step?” Rodriguez says.

Rebecca Harris, Development and Communications Manager at Latino Union Chicago, adds that in light of all of this, “Latino Union is part of a bunch of other places that are trying to make Chicago a better sanctuary city.”

Measures taken to make Chicago a true sanctuary city involve changes in the ways police are allowed to arrest and document Mexican immigrants as well as people of color in general. Harris and Rodriguez explain that the current system allows police to add individuals to a gang database, which is shared with ICE and the FBI.

The criteria for adding a person to the database is arbitrary and almost always minorities are targeted. There is no way for someone to know that they are on the database, and for an undocumented immigrant, this means unknowingly having their information in the hands of people able to deport them, Harris cautions.

Still, Neusa Gaytan, Senior Vice President of Programs at Mujeres Latinas en Accion, says that under Trump’s administration, “we [the Mexican immigrant community] have seen more conversation and more unified efforts with African Americans, making an alliance for the brown and black communities… looking at ourselves as immigrants and finding ways to fight against police brutality and homicide.”

Gaytan adds that “having this unified voice, being together and intersecting with other groups makes us much stronger.” If outsiders look at this political moment as a part of Mexican American culture, then it becomes obvious that Mexican immigrants are not allowing policing issues to obliterate their identity.

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