PATRICIA SCHNEIDER is a reporter at The Capital Times in Madison, Wis. Schneider covers race and ethnic communities, neighborhoods, social services, non-profit organizations, immigration and social justice services. She has established, strengthened and broadened ties to minority communities. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Cell: 608-692-3932. Work: 608-252-6408.
“Jail Policy Rocks Latino Community,” The Capitol Times, July 14, 2010
Story Behind the Story
By Pat Schneider
Jan. 29, 2011
A controversy had been roiling over the Dane County sheriff’s practice of reporting undocumented inmates to Immigration and Customs Enforcement at booking since early 2008. But the story on exactly what was going on, and why, kept changing, and a picture of the practice’s impact on the community was difficult to come by given the reluctance of many unauthorized residents to speak at length at public forums or to the press.
In hearings before several county and city of Madison panels in 2008 and 2009, the sheriff defended his practice variously as part of routine cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, mandated by federal law requiring notification of the consulates of foreign nationals being detained, required by international treaty on the treatment of prisoners, and his prerogative as an independent elected constitutional officer. His supporters in the Dane County community spoke with increasing vehemence of the need to deport criminals; critics of the policy spoke of hard-working men arrested for driving without a license and deported.
Numbers on the how many inmates were deported through the practice originally were declared to be untracked, and so unknowable. Then they were tracked, but only stingily released, community leaders complained. Meetings with Latino community leaders promised by the sheriff soon petered out, and positions hardened. By the May Day 2009 immigration reform rally, the sheriff was plastered on protest signs as the face of arbitrary policy that broke up families. Positions hardened. Latino leaders say they can’t get any information out of the jail. In 2010 an investigative task force empanelled by the County Board, whose proclamation that county agencies steer clear of immigration matters was shrugged off by the sheriff, held a series of hearings where immigrant families spoke the disruption and fear generated by a policy that inadvertently made their communities less safe. By June, the task panel recommended an end to the policy, and the City Council had gone on record against the reporting policy.
My goal in the story was to find out who was being turned over to ICE, on what authority, and what the impact was in the community.
Were the people turned over to ICE “criminals”? Hapless motorists without the driver’s licenses that unauthorized residents now can neither obtain nor renew under state law? The Sheriff’s Office reported that it had not tracked charges on which inmates turned over to ICE were being held, but it readily enough turned over a list of the names and dates of birth of inmates on whom ICE had issued a hold from 2007, when ICE boosted its enforcement efforts, though 2009. From that it was a relatively simple – if very labor intensive – matter of accessing the cases through the Wisconsin’s on-line courts records system. While it was simple to access virtually every one of the cases, it was less simple to interpret what I found on many into a readily reportable form. As is common here, where police and the district attorney tend to charge as heavily as possible to leave room for plea agreements, many inmates were turned over to ICE convicted of lesser offenses than those they were charged with when ICE put a hold on them.
After hours and hours of looking up people online, this much was clear: The vast majority of inmates turned over to ICE were neither blameless drivers nor violent felons. Most were Latino men convicted of drunk driving (a felony in this state at 4th or greater incidence). We opted not to try to crunch numbers beyond annual totals turned over to ICE for a complex story already covering a lot of ground. If I had it to do over again, I’d have developed a database in which to enter my information so it could easily be crunched. But frankly, our newsroom doesn’t have the expertise for that.
I learned other things about the ICE reporting policy: it’s in writing; no money from ICE is accepted for the inmates on hold. And the practice: Inmates often were picked up the day after or sometimes the day of a guilty plea. Others were picked up on or just before the completion of their sentences on misdemeanor offenses.
The second challenge for the story was the sheriff’s unwillingness to be interviewed for the story. I made an appointment through his secretary for a 30-minute sit-down interview one month before the scheduled publication date of the story. She called and cancelled the next day. He rebuffed numerous efforts to reschedule, talk by phone or communicate by email on the issue over the next three weeks.
Because of this, the focus of the story shifted more and more to the impact of the policy, rather than its basis and application. When the sheriff finally consented to a phone interview several days before publication and after the initial edit of the story, he offered jail safety as the rationale for the policy, saying he needed the criminal background information available through ICE, and through them, Interpol, to be aware of the propensities of the inmates in the jail.
With the focus of the story on the impact in the community, I had many statements from community leaders, service providers and school officials on its chilling effects. Finding the family of a deported inmate willing to talk proved more difficult.
One was at last obtained through a contact in the community, and I conducted the interview with the assistance of an interpreter hired by the newspaper. This is the first time I had worked with a hired interpreter rather than one picked up on the spot, and I feel it is definitely the way to go to get the most professional, objective translation.
Ideas, information and resources, and passion through the Immigration in the Heartland fellowship helped a great deal in completing this story. The story generated 150 comments online – most supporting the policy of turning inmates over to immigration authorities. A lot were fear-infused, and some contained hateful remarks about immigrants. That’s always upsetting to me but par for the course on hot-button issues like immigration.
Doing the story further enhanced my knowledge of immigration issues – something I’ll need as the conservative Republican majority ushered in to the statehouse in the November election considers an Arizona-style immigration law one of their number has promised.
Thanks to all.