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Federal agents have quietly launched a program aimed at deporting undocumented immigrants who have violent criminal records.
The Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, or CARI, has sparked immigration raids at grocery stores, Bible study groups and parks where immigration agents handcuff and fingerprint suspects on the spot.
The raids have created "a terrifying effect," said Jacinta Gonzalez, an organizer with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, which authored a December report exposing the program. “We haven’t seen raids with this magnitude, this intensity and this technology in other parts of the country.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, says the CARI program is narrowly focused on apprehending violent criminals who are a risk to public safety. ICE touted these efforts in 2013, saying that 82 percent of the people it deported from inside the country last year had a criminal record.
The Workers' Center report, however, called CARI a “stop and frisk” program for the immigrant community that is actively separating families.
Erlin San Martin was leaving his house to pick up his 2-year-old son at day care when two plainclothes immigration agents approached him last September.
The agents had one question for the 27-year-old Honduran immigrant.
“They wanted to know if I had ID, which made me very nervous,” said San Martin.
The agents handcuffed him, led him to an ICE vehicle and scanned his fingerprints with a mobile biometrics unit that searches immigration and criminal databases.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said that San Martin was targeted because he had been deported once before, in 2006.
He added that CARI determines its targets "based on the totality of an individual's public safety threat, beyond their status as an immigration fugitive."
But San Martin did not have a history of violent crime.
Erlin San Martin
Former ICE detainee
Nonetheless, he was put in the back of an ICE vehicle, where he would stay for several hours.
“My feet were shackled, and I was handcuffed from 5 in the afternoon to 10 at night,” said San Martin.
During that time, he said, the agents stopped for a meal, met with other ICE officers and then drove around New Orleans arresting people until the vehicle was full.
“I heard one of the agents say to another, ‘This is like going hunting,’” said San Martin. “And the other responded, ‘Yeah, I like this s---.’”
San Martin was taken to ICE headquarters in downtown New Orleans. Agents removed his leg shackles but not his handcuffs. He was finally allowed to call his wife.
He said he asked the immigration agents if they had kids. They said yes, but that their kids were from the United States.
It turns out that San Martin and the agents had something in common. Christopher San Martin was born in the U.S. two years ago, after Erlin arrived to take a construction job in New Orleans.
While San Martin was locked in a detention facility for a month, the Workers' Center requested that ICE use discretion to keep him in the country with his family.
ICE denied the request in October, but its response also revealed that San Martin had been arrested under the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative. It was the first public acknowledgment of the CARI program.
CARI is a nationwide effort that began in May 2012 when ICE boosted the number of immigration “fugitive operations teams” in field offices like New Orleans by 25 percent.
ICE officials told Al Jazeera in an email that CARI “focuses ICE’s limited enforcement resources on identifying, arresting and removing at-large criminal aliens who pose a risk to community safety.”
But agents are also arresting people like San Martin for violating prior deportation orders — even if those people have U.S. citizen children and no violent criminal record.
San Martin has won an “order of supervision,” which allows him to live with his family until immigration officials make a final ruling on his deportation case.
“These machines were intended for war situations,” said the Workers' Center's Gonzalez. “And now they’re being used in the streets of New Orleans.”
ICE has used the mobile "IDENT" units for nearly 10 years. In an email, ICE officials called them an “invaluable resource” that “allowed ICE to exercise discretion for 75 percent of individuals scanned” in New Orleans.
The Workers' Center wants to know why so many innocent individuals are handcuffed and fingerprinted in the first place.
“This is exactly what the Constitution prohibits,” said J.J. Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the center.
New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice
An ICE official spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity about allegations of racial profiling. The official maintained that CARI raids go after specific criminal suspects, but that immigration agents also handcuff and fingerprint people in the area around that suspect.
“We may scan people in the immediate vicinity because that makes sense to do,” the official said. “We want to make sure that there’s nobody else there that might be a violent criminal.”
The CARI program was established the same month that ICE officials were pushing for an increase in deportations of criminals, according to emails obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. The internal documents from April and May 2012 show ICE officials in Washington, D.C., pushing the agency's field offices to increase removals of "criminal aliens."
In an email, David Venturella, the assistant director of ICE field operations in D.C., informed agents in Atlanta that they were “1,200 criminal removals under when compared to last year.” He added, “The only performance measure that will count this fiscal year is the criminal alien removal target.”
Venturella later left his post to become an executive at GEO Group, one of the largest owners of immigration detention facilities in the country.
In New Orleans, CARI raids slowed after a November protest that saw immigrants’ rights activists block rush-hour traffic outside ICE’s headquarters for three hours. Several undocumented immigrants were arrested in the civil-disobedience action demanding an end to the CARI program.
But the raids have picked up again, according to Gonzalez.
“They will raid a house looking for one person, but subject everyone in the house to fingerprints,” she said.
ICE’s home raids have been the subject of legal challenges. In a class-action suit that was settled last April, immigrant families in New York alleged that ICE agents had entered their homes unlawfully. The suit culminated in a $1 million settlement that also required ICE to change its practice of entering private residences without consent.
ICE recently raided a home in New Orleans, arrested a pregnant woman and placed her in deportation proceedings, said Gonzalez. The woman has no criminal history. Instead, she came under ICE scrutiny after calling the police to report that her car had been broken into.
“How pregnant women are a priority for removal at this moment is beyond me,” said Gonzalez.
Tune in to “Fault Lines,” Friday, Jan. 31, at 9:30 p.m. ET for the premiere of "The Deported: America's Immigration Battle" for more on immigration reform and the debate over deportation practices in the United States. And join the live tweet during the epsiode premiere by following the hashtag #TheDeported on Twitter.
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