Federal law enforcement agencies reach out to communities but many Latinos still remain wary
By Alan Abrams, La Prensa Senior Correspondent
Toledo: A high-level contingent of federal law enforcement officials held an unprecedented meeting with a wide representation of Northwest Ohio’s Latino community leaders and activists in Toledo September 16, 2010—Mexican Independence Day.
The goal is to promote a new initiative of collaboration with Latinos against common enemies such as labor and sex traffickers.
However, for many of the Latinos in the audience, the seeds of suspicion and mistrust planted, nurtured, and harvested over generations and decades may be difficult to dispel—especially in light of the recent immigrant bashing seen around the United States towards Latinos and Arabs.
The informational meeting was organized and coordinated by Angelita Cruz Bridges, the newly-minted civil Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) in the Toledo branch of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Among the key speakers were Tom Pérez, U.S. Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights and Steve Dettelbach, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. Also present were high-ranking officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and the office of Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray.
The downtown Toledo assembly drew a wide range of Latinos including Judge Keila Cosme of the Sixth District U.S. Court of Appeals, Toledo councilman Adam Martínez, Toledo Public School Board Chairman Bob Vásquez, Toledo City Prosecutor Arturo Quintero, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority board member Margarita De León, community activist Ramon Pérez, former Toledo Council member Lourdes Santiago, and many others actively involved in immigration issues.
Dettelbach introduced Tom Pérez, the point man for the presentation, citing his long résumé of public service including stints as counsel for Senator Edward M. Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee, deputy attorney general for the civil rights division under Janet Reno, secretary of labor of the state of Maryland, and a senior official on the transition team of president Barack Obama. Pérez is now the U.S. Department of Justice’s leading civil rights official where, under attorney general Eric Holder, he was at the forefront of mounting the successful federal challenge of Arizona’s S.B. 1070 anti-immigration law.
Pérez was heralded as being “the person who wrote the book on human trafficking and how to deal with it.”
Pérez spoke of his agency’s success in prosecuting hate crimes targeting immigrants and the increased presence of hate crimes on the Internet. “They not only spew vitriol but they threaten people, and that is a federal crime,” he said before changing focus to the issue of human trafficking,
“We have a dedicated human trafficking unit with 94 outposts in U.S. Attorney offices nationwide. We work with ICE and other federal agencies including our local law enforcement counterparts from the First Responders onward.”
Unfortunately, that was not exactly an inspirational message when only minutes earlier the story had been recounted of the murder of a Latino immigrant in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania “not too far from here” in which it was revealed that “one of the First Responders was the de facto stepfather of one of the assailants” and subsequently those indicted for the hate crime included “five of eight members of the police force including the chief and his deputy.”
Pérez also praised “our non-profit partners such as victim witness programs” and spoke of the “internationalization of our efforts. This is no different than gun or drug trafficking. There are very complex and violent international cartels involved in the trafficking of humans. Whether it is sex trafficking or labor trafficking, this is a hotbed.
“It is not just happening in Los Angeles, New York, or Miami. It is everywhere. It is a problem in Northwest Ohio because of the rural aspects of immigration and the easy availability of I-75 and the other corridors. We are working with our partners in all the areas of civil rights including fair housing, fair lending, employment, education, and voting,” added Pérez.
However, some in the audience seemed uncomfortable with Pérez’s attempts to build a coalition. Their concerns appeared to be based upon longstanding fears that government agencies such as ICE were more concerned about deportations of undocumented individuals, particularly in this current environment of anti-immigrant frenzy whipped up by rightwing elements.
Pérez said that even President Ronald Reagan had advocated immigration reform, but he acknowledged that its opponents who talk about border security want to see “the borders hermetically sealed before they talk about immigration reform.”
He cited the results of his most recent visit to Arizona “where they have doubled the number of Border Patrol agencies and you can see the results. Local sheriffs told me the jail population is down 20 percent.”
That’s when activist Ramón Pérez spoke up echoing a strong sense of frustration from many in the audience. “There is a gap between the state agencies and the border patrol. We don’t know who the good guy is or the bad guy. Their attitude in the past has been one of let them eat each other up. Speaking from a lay community perspective and not as a social service agency or attorney, it may be difficult to accomplish.”
Tom Pérez responded by explaining he had attended a meeting in Detroit with federal law enforcement agencies, the NAACP, and Muslim-American groups—three diverse groups who also have a long history of mistrust.
Said Pérez, “I was told after the meeting by the gentleman from the NAACP that he never thought he’d have the FBI on his speed dial. “
Pérez then challenged Ramón Pérez to do the same – even if it took a year and more meetings of this nature.
This prompted a response from outspoken sex trafficking coalition organizer Celia Williamson of the University of Toledo’s social work department who quipped, “I didn’t think I’d ever be hanging out with nuns, the FBI, and ICE.”
So will a meaningful dialogue result from meetings such as this—especially when so many migrant farmworkers are undocumented and don’t want to see local police agencies involved in enforcing immigration issues?
“We’re only as good as our word,” said Tom Pérez.
He vowed to take the success his agency has had in prosecuting sex trafficking and “impart it to labor trafficking, whether it be of migrant workers, restaurant workers, industrial workers, or immigrants who are abused.”
Other questions posed by advocates in the audience involved the fear of undocumented workers reporting domestic violence abuse if even the victims are afraid of deportation.
A Department of Homeland Security official explained that there are fewer than 100 ICE special agents in Ohio and another 100 involved in detention and removal. “There are no more than 200 officers in the entire state. ICE does not drive around looking for people who are here unlawfully. It is not in our mission or mandate. No one in Ohio or Michigan is randomly driving around looking for anyone, other than ICE officers serving warrants,” he explained.
Pérez asked rhetorically “How do we build that trust with immigrants when sex trafficking and human exploitation are very strong in this area?”
Activist Williamson said when “authorities were first approached by us about sex trafficking, they said it wasn’t a problem here. Judges and churches said it didn’t exist here. And the ultimate focus upon Toledo as a center of this activity ultimately proved otherwise.’
That inspired others in the audience to speak up with questions like: “How can we really start trusting each other? How do we work together if we can’t trust you?
Tom Pérez believes the problem can be solved. “Step one is to build levels of communication and levels of trust,” he said, adding: “It requires a leap of faith and will take a lot of sweat equity.”