PUEBLO — a political and social services organization dedicated to empowering area immigrants and Latinos — announced a new initiative Wednesday to fight Secure Communities (S-Comm), the federal program that works with local law enforcement agencies to deport undocumented serious criminal offenders.
Standing before the towering façade of Trinity Episcopal Church, PUEBLO activists introduced their new Keeping Families Together Commission, which will work to raise public awareness and promote legislation to take down S-Comm.
“What we want is to have Santa Barbara be united and not be divided because of [S-Comm],” said Mark Alvarado, PUEBLO’s executive director.
PUEBLO’s new initiative comes amid growing national opposition to the controversial S-Comm program, which requires local law enforcement to share fingerprints of detainees with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which can then deport identified undocumented immigrants. But critics — including the governors of Illinois and New York, who have already suspended S-Comm in their states — say S-Comm breaks up families by deporting noncriminals or low-level offenders rather than the serious criminals who pose a threat to society.
According to ICE, which runs S-Comm, 80 percent of S-Comm deportees in Santa Barbara County have been classified as “noncriminal” or low-level offenders, a percentage that is six points higher than the national average. Since the inception of the program in Santa Barbara in January 2010, more than 964 undocumented immigrants have been removed from the county.
As a result, “A lot of people are looking at Santa Barbara County as a flash point because of the high level of deportations here,” Alvarado said.
PUEBLO’s new commission hopes to weaken S-Comm by advocating in favor of the TRUST (Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools) Act, which would allow individual California counties to opt out of the program. The legislation now awaits a vote in the State Senate by the end of this month.
“Really what we’re trying to do is keep our finger on the pulse of the statewide issue,” said Alvarado of Keeping Families Together. “We’re really geared about not letting this issue fall to the wayside.”
A number of community activists spoke at the event Wednesday to voice their support of PUEBLO’s new initiative. Reverend Mark Asman — who is a rector at Trinity Church — denounced S-Comm for “using fear as a way to intimidate members of our community.” Damian Leon — a UCSB student who leads the campus immigration advocacy group IDEAS — echoed Asman’s sentiment before sharing his own childhood experience of getting off a school bus to narrowly avoid being deported by ICE.
Manuel Unzueta — who teaches American ethnic studies at SBCC — also spoke at the event, which was scheduled on the first day of Fiesta to celebrate the contributions of immigrants to Santa Barbara’s history. After praising Latino immigrants for helping build Santa Barbara, Unzueta joked that Old Spanish Days could be more aptly named “Old Mexican Days” since “we don’t have a lot of paellas here; it’s mostly tacos.”
Former Santa Barbara mayor Marty Blum — who signed on to endorse the commission Wednesday — said she thought the new commission was a “great idea,” adding that she thought it was “a terrible thing” that families have been broken apart due to offenses such as talking on a cell phone while driving.
At the end of the event, PUEBLO advocates took out their cell phones to call Sheriff Bill Brown to urge him to support the TRUST Act and only detain serious criminals while S-Comm remains in place. But Sheriff’s spokesperson Drew Sugars said that support is unlikely to come anytime soon.
“We’re not going to do anything different from what we have been doing,” said Sugars, who added that the Sheriff’s Department does not enforce immigration and is only “upholding the laws as we are required to.”
Sugars also said the Sheriff’s Department thinks the TRUST Act may not be necessary amid a restructuring of S-Comm by ICE that may alleviate some of the criticism of the program.