There isn’t much landscaping work in Rockland County during the winter, so the Jornaleros Project rents space from a church where day laborers can stay indoors, find warm clothes and pass the time taking English classes. During the rest of the year, the project often advises workers on how to deal with employers who refuse to pay them.
“It’s a community that’s easy to pick on,” said Juan Pablo Ramirez, president of the Jornaleros Project and an immigrant from Colombia. Many of the workers he assists are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Ramirez said employers sometimes threaten to call immigration authorities when workers ask to be paid. Now he expects they will just threaten to call the local police.
That’s because Rockland County, along with nearby Putnam County, has activated Secure Communities. The controversial immigration enforcement program automatically shares arrest data from local jails with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“It’s going to be even more scary for someone to confront their employer,” said Ramirez.
Police in the area insist the program is simply an information-sharing program that will not change how they enforce state and local laws since the county began participating on Jan. 11.
“It’s business as usual,” said Captain William McNamara of the Putnam County Sheriff Office. “We’re not interested in profiling or usurping to local government federal immigration laws.”
Putnam and Rockland are the first of 62 counties in New York that are expected to activate Secure Communities by 2013, along with the rest of the country. Since it began in 2008, the program has been initiated in 969 counties in 37 states.
The two counties are mostly bedroom communities that lie about 30 miles north of New York City, where resistance to Secure Communities is strong. The NYPD police commissioner has expressed concern about the program, and more than a dozen city council members have asked the state to rescind an agreement it signed with ICE last May that clears the path for its expansion.
“We are particularly concerned for immigrants in counties outside of NYC who are more isolated from groups that are organizing and protecting for immigrant rights,” said Michelle Fei, Co-Director of the Immigrant Defense Project and a member of a statewide group focused on stopping Secure Communities.
Hostility towards immigrants in Putnam County flared in 2009 when an undocumented immigrant killed a mother and daughter during a drunk driving accident in the Village of Brewster. After the incident, violent language appeared in comments posted to a local message board.
“I volunteer to feed this piece of garbage into a wood chipper alive with his hands taped to his ankles,” read one comment. “These animals must be dealt with. If the government does not do something, someone will.”
In 2008, the village of Suffern, in Rockland County, tried to join 287(g), a federal program that deputizes local police to enforce immigration law. Its application was declined in part because the county — like most areas in New York — already targets immigrants in jail and prison for deportation through the Criminal Alien Enforcement Pro¬gram (CAP).
In Putnam County, the Sheriff said he has used CAP to report at least 500 “criminal aliens” to ICE after they gave a foreign country of birth during the booking process.
But the addition of Secure Communities to the county’s law enforcement tool box has caught many residents off guard.
“We were disturbed by the lack of transparency,” said Betsy Palmieri, a long-time member of the Hudson Valley Community Coalition. She said the program was activated without any chance for public input.
Advocates say immigrants who fear that any interaction with police would result in their information being shared with ICE are less likely to report crimes.
“Our taxes pay for the police department,” said Palmieri, “but we’re not consulted on programs like this that do not make us feel more secure.”
An ICE spokesman said the number of people transferred to their custody from the two new counties won’t be tallied until the end of January. He said he did not know which New York counties would be next to join.
Palmieri and Ramirez said they plan to begin holding workshops for immigrants on what to do when they are stopped by police. Ramirez said Secure Communities has a mandate to target immigrants who pose a threat to public safety, but most of those detained in other areas with the program have been nonviolent offenders or simply lack legal status.
“The immigrant community here in Rockland county is a hard-working, family-oriented community who wants to give back and get involved, but a program like this does not help,” said Ramirez. “It causes division. It causes mistrust. And it’s unfortunate that it’s going to begin here