After meeting with staff at the New Orleans field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy called critics of the agency “dead, dead wrong.”
“We’re not going to abolish ICE,” Kennedy said. “Anyone who realistically thinks we’re going to abolish ICE is smoking some of that new medicinal marijuana. It’s not going to happen. You can always improve, but they’re doing the best they can.”
Renewed calls to abolish the 15-year-old agency under the Department of Homeland Security have followed reports of ICE agents’ abuse against immigrant families, increased targeted arrests in immigrant communities, and poor conditions at its prisons.
The New Orleans field office increased its arrests by 65 percent from 2016 to 2017, with nearly 8,000 arrests in the region that fiscal year. The agency also assisted in the deportation of more than 9,000 people from the region in that same time.
Nationwide protests in June also followed reports of immigrant children in detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border and a “zero tolerance” immigration policy from President Donald Trump’s administration, with a focus on criminally prosecuting and deporting people entering the country without legal permission. Kennedy said he supports that policy.
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He blames former Mayor Mitch Landrieu for rules that Kennedy says are preventing the New Orleans Police Department from working with federal immigration authorities, but there are no policies in place that prevent that communication, and he admits that local ICE officials aren’t raising those concerns. Kennedy insists, however, that Landrieu told NOPD, “Do not cooperate with ICE or federal immigration authorities because I am the mayor and I do not believe in immigration laws.”
“[ICE agents] just want to do their job,” Kennedy said. “But they’re being held back by a bunch of politicians who don’t know what they’re talking about.”
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A federal consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, with input from ICE, does not prevent NOPD from communicating a person’s immigration status to ICE. But Kennedy insists New Orleans is a “sanctuary city” harboring people living in the country illegally, part of an endless argument among New Orleans officials who say they’re not, and Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry who say they are.
Landrieu and mayors across the U.S., as well as former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, have refused to participate in a “deportation force” that would enlist local law enforcement for immigration enforcement. NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison also has argued that increased criminalization of immigrant communities would undermine trust with neighborhoods and potentially limit the numbers of calls for service to them.
Now Kennedy is asking Mayor LaToya Cantrell to “undo what Landrieu did” and revisit the consent decree.
In a statement to Gambit, Cantrell's communications director Beau Tidwell said, "Respectfully, the people and the public safety of New Orleans would be better served by Sen. Kennedy focusing on local public safety priorities."
"We need him to help to expand funding for the COPS program, to increase Byrne JAG funding, and to join Mayor Cantrell in addressing violence as a public health concern," Tidwell said. "As he is well aware: the NOPD’s policy on immigration is in full compliance with all federal laws related to sharing information about the immigration status of individuals in our community, and in compliance with our consent decree.”
A longshot congressional proposal to abolish ICE — echoed by waves of progressive candidates in upcoming elections — was met with a resolution from Kennedy and Senate Republicans to show support for the agency. Kennedy said people who support the agency’s dissolve “are like a rock, only dumber. You are lost in the deepest, widest sea of dumb.”
“They think some of these child pornographers, drug smugglers and terrorists who come in illegally are just confused or mixed up, or their mama didn’t love them enough, or their daddy didn’t love them enough,” he said. “They’re bad people. They’re just bad people.”
But studies routinely show that even as immigration increased in metro areas, crime rates have fallen more often than they’ve spiked. The ACLU also is battling Sessions’ Department of Justice for halting asylum seekers entering the U.S., as countless people flee political and gang violence, extortion and domestic abuse in Mexican and Central American countries only to be met with a byzantine claims process that most likely ends in a denial.
Sessions concluded that asylum seekers facing non-governmental threats and violence “will not qualify.”
In a statement to Gambit, Ursula Price, the new executive director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, said "rolling back policies that have made New Orleans safer in favor of talking points pushed by immigration hardliners is not what this city needs.”
Price pointed to the consequences of local law enforcement working as immigration enforcement as well as the increased presence of ICE in the criminal justice system.
“New Orleanians of all backgrounds have been working together to make our city safer while in other cities, rape, domestic violence and human trafficking are going unreported because their police officers do ICE’s dirty work," she said.
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