A few steps from the doors to New Orleans City Hall Feb. 23, children took turns thrashing a colorful pinata shaped like an oversized surveillance camera. Surrounding the entrance were cartoonlike effigies of cameras, mocking a proposed plan requiring cameras outside nearly every bar and restaurant that could stream to law enforcement, joining a growing network of newly installed surveillance cameras throughout New Orleans.
After a few minutes, the pinata broke open. Candy poured out.
Immigrants, their families and advocates routinely protest outside the doors of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Massive crowds outside City Hall also have rallied against a series of executive orders from President Donald Trump on immigration. Now those fights against a new administration are meeting a creeping parallel within local government.
Immigrant advocacy organizations are joining a growing opposition to a $40 million public safety plan proposed by the city, part of which would stream video from cameras installed throughout the city into a central nervous system at the newly launched Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, which shares feeds with the city's Department of Homeland Security, the Louisiana State Police, the FBI and other "law enforcement partners," as well as the data storage companies that ultimately will be responsible for the footage.
New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officials say the surveillance network won't be used for immigration enforcement; NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison has stressed the department's role in building trust with immigrant communities to prevent crimes from going un- or under-reported, and the NOPD's federal consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice strengthens anti-bias and anti-profiling protections within the department.
But there's fear among immigrant communities that it won't be enough to keep ICE out of New Orleans.
"Our fear is based in real-life situations that happen every day," says Jose Torres, who has lived in New Orleans for nearly 13 years after fleeing El Salvador. "Police do not collaborate directly with ICE, but we're very concerned with this camera situation. Will ICE have access to this? These are private companies. What control do we have over that? While it's a fear right now, it's a well-founded fear."
ICE agents from the New Orleans field office made 7,968 arrests (5,059 for "criminal" offenses) in the last fiscal year, a 65 percent increase in arrests from 2016, when there were 5,174 arrests. During that same time from 2017, ICE deported 9,471 people from the region.
ICE's arrests throughout the U.S. reached more than 143,470 in 2017, which saw a surge in arrests following Trump's inauguration. ICE made 110,568 arrests between Jan. 20 and Sept. 30.
The New Orleans office, which includes Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, peaked in 2011 with 12,895 arrests, but arrests began to dip sharply in the following years, reflecting a national trend after President Barack Obama's administration issued a mandate that deprioritized some immigration cases and focused on people involved in more serious crimes. Last year, however, the number of arrests spiked for the first time since 2010.
Whether or not New Orleans' camera network will be used by the feds, the further expansion of a surveillance network into lower-income neighborhoods in a city largely populated by people of color has increased fear and speculation among residents in those communities, who see cameras as adding insult to injury as crime persists in their neighborhoods.
Immigrant advocacy group Congress of Day Laborers, an arm of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, fears camera footage could wind up in the hands of ICE, either as a "law enforcement partner" under the policing umbrella, or as a buyer scooping up footage from the company storing it.
"There's a lot of reasons our communities are living in fear," says Santos Canales with the Congress of Day Laborers. "We've all seen a wave of racism and discrimination arise since the election. It's very open, so much so that our community doesn't feel safe anywhere. We feel like we always have to be watching our back, that there may be somebody watching us differently, keeping eyes on us, looking for any reason to implicate us for things we didn't have anything to do with."
Despite assurances from NOPD, ICE already appears to be looking into local technology to track immigrant communities.
A story first published by The Verge last month revealed how Peter Thiel's Silicon Valley data services company Palantir Technology has worked alongside City Hall and local law enforcement since 2012 using its "predictive policing" software to identify people who could be involved with or victims of gun violence. Palantir also has a contract with ICE to build out a platform that allows ICE to search government databases to gather personal information. The Department of Homeland Security also is able to search social media accounts linked to people who have interacted with immigration enforcement.
In January, ICE entered into a contract with West Publishing and Vigilant Solutions to allow the agency to search national license plate reader databases. That information would allow ICE not only to search for addresses attached to license plates but also track where those vehicles have routinely traveled — at work, a doctor's office — to map drivers' footprints and the people and places to which they're associated.
NOPD recently purchased 22 license plate readers and will bring another 80 online in the coming months. Those cameras also will stream into the Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, along with footage from cameras installed in crime "hotspots" throughout the city and — if the New Orleans City Council votes in support of a proposed plan this month — cameras installed outside every business that sells alcohol, creating one of the largest surveillance networks in the U.S.
Canales has lived in New Orleans for more than a decade after fleeing Honduras, which endured escalating political violence leading up to and following a 2009 coup. He's able to live in the U.S. with a temporary protected status designation, but he fears the Trump administration's realignment of immigration enforcement could dissolve his stability at any moment.
"We're all at risk right now," he says. "I've always felt good in this city. We've really gotten accustomed to it. We've become a part of life here. We work here, we pay taxes here‚ this is our home. I feel part of this city. I feel part of this community. ... But the smallest error, the smallest mistake, you could fall out of the good graces and be deported. For many of us there's no guarantee we could return, not to mention the conditions we could face while we're there."
Rachel Taber, an organizer with Congress of Day Laborers, says cameras could end up penalizing people living in high-crime neighborhoods by them being profiled by law enforcement.
The group is calling on the City Council to invest in initiatives that strengthen families and improve access to jobs, "not more incarceration and criminalization," Taber says.
Canales says unless there's a written policy affirming that local policies against racial profiling will extend to the companies and agencies responsible for the cameras, the city can't guarantee it's surveilling its residents equally. And without law enforcement's trust in the communities it serves, Canales says people aren't likely to report crimes they've witnessed if they continue to fear for their own safety from police.
"You're not seeing the same level of surveillance around Tulane University or Loyola University," he says. "Perhaps law enforcement believes some demographics are more liable to commit crime, but we know everybody is equal."
When he was 18 years old, Jose Torres made the long, difficult journey through Mexico and across the Rio Grande after fleeing violence in El Salvador. He was detained in the U.S., briefly, then forced into labor at a Texas ranch, where his employer threatened to report Torres to police if he left. He escaped to New Orleans in 2005, where he worked among day laborers and construction workers to rebuild homes following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures.
Immigration authorities caught up with Torres in 2013 after he was charged with a DUI. He received probation, paid fines and completed community service and substance abuse counseling. He ultimately was granted a stay of deportation to remain with his family, including his wife and two young daughters, but he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be told to leave the country.
On Nov. 15, 2017, Torres was scheduled to appear for a check-in appointment at the New Orleans ICE office, which would hand him a ticket to "self-deport." Instead, standing on the steps of First Grace United Methodist Church in Mid-City that morning, Torres announced that the church offered him sanctuary.
First Grace — which also provides meeting space for the Congress of Day Laborers — gave Torres "some degree of safety" by opening its doors that, the community hopes, will keep out law enforcement, Pastor Shawn Anglim told Gambit.
"You remember that you were once in that place, you were once treated as a foreigner, as strange, as a stranger," Anglim said. "Being a human being means providing a space for people who once felt that way. The word 'sanctuary' is to harbor, to protect, and that's what we're doing here for Jose."
Four months later, Torres sits with his hands clasped on a table inside a small office at First Grace, where he continues to live.
"No parent wants to be in those shoes or in that situation, where you're separated from your children," Torres says. "Children are what motivate us to wake up every morning and keep working and move forward with your lives. Having an order of deportation or being deported, it's horrible."
The debate over New Orleans' role as a "sanctuary" city for people living in the country illegally has reached the state attorney general's office, the U.S. Congress and the White House.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has adamantly refused defining New Orleans as a "sanctuary" city, pointing to policies with the NOPD that allow communication between the police and ICE.
In January, Landrieu, who also serves as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, canceled a meeting with U.S. mayors and Trump, whose administration issued another round of warnings to two dozen jurisdictions that the Justice Department warned are in jeopardy of losing certain funding if they can't prove cooperation with immigration enforcement. In a statement, Landrieu said Trump's "decision to threaten mayors and demonize immigrants yet again — and use cities as political props in the process — has made this meeting untenable."
Though New Orleans isn't designated a "sanctuary" city, Landrieu has come forward in the defense of cities who have fought against federal intervention into immigrant communities seeking sanctuary status.
Meanwhile, state Attorney General Jeff Landry has emerged as his fierce opponent: Landry wants an appeals court to overturn a ruling that effectively blocks Trump's "sanctuary" order after a federal judge declared it unconstitutional in 2017. Landry also has butted heads with Landrieu and state lawmakers over Landry's support for a local measure that aims to strip funding to cities he believes harbor people living in the country illegally.
But statewide law enforcement largely agrees its hands are tied when it comes to enforcing federal law — while Landry and ICE see them as local arms of immigration enforcement, local police see it as a strain on their own limited resources.
At a Feb. 26 forum, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto said his office won't stop "ICE holds," the practice of local and state police detaining people suspected of living in the country illegally on behalf of ICE when they enter local custody — but like his predecessor Newell Normand, he's pushed against efforts from state lawmakers (and Landry) that pressure local cops to ban "sanctuary" policies or risk losing certain funding. Lopinto — currently in a race against John Fortunato in a March election for parish sheriff — says he's "not at a point to enter the parish into a sanctuary city where we don't cooperate."
"If that costs me a vote, so be it," he said. "I'd much rather be housing a person that is an actual criminal than housing someone who is just undocumented. That's a federal issue that has to work itself out, and it's not fair for me or my opponent to try and solve a federal issue we can't solve locally."
Torres fears his deportation would break his family apart. With two daughters, one of whom suffers chronic health issues, Torres previously could've relied on prosecutorial discretion to allow him to remain with them in the U.S. Now, he says, "It almost doesn't matter what your story is."
"None of that matters to Immigration," Torres says. "I could be pursued by Immigration at any time. It's very hard as a father."
Torres says additional surveillance measures ultimately will lead to more families being separated.
"When a child suffers that kind of trauma, if we're talking about crime prevention, we need to look at the roots," Canales says.
In September, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) agreed to new guidelines aimed at limiting law enforcement interaction and intimidation on campuses. The policies provide a set of instructions for school administrators when police — including ICE agents — enter a school, including asking for a warrant seeking student data or access to the student and making "every reasonable effort" to notify the student's parent or guardian before police can see them.
"School should be a safe place for all children," OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a statement. "The Orleans Parish School Board holds this as a basic principle."
Though the policy change applies only to schools run directly by OPSB, it was a triumph for family advocacy group Nuestra Voz, which led a campaign among parents, teachers and other community members to get the issue on the OPSB's agenda. Nuestra Voz also is campaigning to get a similar policy into Jefferson Parish schools.
What began as a protection for immigrant students has expanded the organization's reach to support black families and students, which Nuestra Voz director Mary Moran says disproportionately interact with law enforcement on campuses. The organization has grown into a student representative body that not only helps Latino parents advocate for their children's access to education but also acts on behalf of all students — last month, the group presented its 30 NOLA Ed Watch school accountability campaign to the New Orleans City Council.
The group's role was amplified as a critical voice speaking for the hundreds of immigrant students in Louisiana following Trump's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which gives protections to more than 800,000 "dreamers" who came to the country as minors, including roughly 2,000 young people in Louisiana.
The New Orleans City Council also passed a resolution calling on Congress to preserve DACA and grant "dreamers" permanent legal status.
DACA protections were set to expire this month, but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the Trump administration's challenge of the Obama-era ruling until lower courts have heard the case. Last month, the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also issued new guidance to accept new applications for DACA status.
It's a short-term victory for thousands of people while Congress is deadlocked with Trump over the program's future.
For the roughly 11 million in the U.S. without legal status, including 70,000 people in Louisiana, mounting the challenges to federal and local policies on immigration begins with organizing among those communities. Immigrants with little legal recourse have manifested power in local organizing — the Congress of Day Laborers has brought the fight to the New Orleans City Council.
"We need afterschool programs for children, we need job training and dignified jobs and dignified housing," Canales said to the crowd outside City Hall Feb. 23. "We live here, we work here, we pay taxes — this is our home. We want to be recognized as part of this community."