Last year. Perla Rodriguez, a graduate student at UC Davis, was driving in downtown Sacramento when she was stopped by a police officer on a traffic violation. Perla was sent to county jail for fingerprinting. Under a federal program called Secure Communities (better known as SCOMM) local police must take fingerprints of every person arrested and check them with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Perla was born in Mexico, brought to the U.S. as a baby, and became a naturalized citizen five years ago. However, the local police didn’t believe Perla when she told them that she was a US citizen. Perla’s sister went to jail and showed the officers Perla’s U.S. passport. Still the officers were not convinced.
For some reason, Perla’s legal status appeared as Pending in the ICE database. An immigration officer was called in. Perla’s family waited. Finally, the officers realized that Perla was indeed a U.S. Citizen. Perla was in jail for three days and three nights before she was released.
A judge did not find Perla guilty of any traffic violations.
Perla did not receive any compensation for the time she spent in jail nor for her psychological suffering. No one even apologized.
“Those three nights and two days seemed eternal,” said Perla. “At one point I tried to sleep through the day to numb my nerves, yet sleep was hard to attain under that level of stress,”
Perla felt claustrophobic in jail, and she says the officers toyed with her family’s emotions, telling Perla’s mother that Perla might be deported.
“My mother felt like she was working against the system because there was nothing she could do.”
Perla’s story pains me and it makes me fearful: How many Perlas are out there? How many innocents have slept in jail because ICE’s database is backlogged? How many years back does the backlog go? How many people have been deported in error? Who audits ICE? In Arizona, many naturalized US citizens carry their US passports wherever they go. However, after what happened with Perla, I am not sure that a passport is enough. What should a naturalized citizen carry to avoid going to jail?
Instead of making communities more secure, Secure Communities (SCOMM) is sowing panic and putting lives in jeopardy. There’s something deeply rotten with Secure Communities, and I applaud Assembly member Tom Ammiano for trying to pass a bill to make this program optional rather than mandatory for California’s cities.
Araceli Martínez Ortega is a Mexican journalist who has lived in California in the last nine years. This collaboration is about her personal journey through Las Americas and wherever she goes.