A group of local immigrant workers is the latest critic of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s $40 million crime-fighting surveillance plan, saying that federal immigration officials could use the cameras to track the whereabouts of people living in the city illegally and eventually deport them.

At a protest in Duncan Plaza last week, the Congress of Day Laborers blasted the Landrieu public safety initiative, which focuses on boosting surveillance through city-owned cameras and by gathering feeds from cameras owned by hundreds of private individuals and businesses. The plan would require all businesses that sell alcohol to have at least one exterior camera. 

Though city-owned cameras are already perched in targeted areas across various neighborhoods, the plan to require and monitor private cameras still requires City Council approval. The activist group is urging the council to reject it.

“Our fear is based in real-life situations that happen everyday,” said Jose Torres, an El Salvadoran construction worker who has taken refuge in First Grace United Methodist Church in Mid-City to avoid deportation. “In places like Kenner, the police regularly do collaborate with immigration (officials). In New Orleans it has not happened, but we have a fear that it could.”

A spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department said the camera system is meant to keep citizens safe, not to monitor people living here illegally.

Police Superintendent Michael Harrison “has made it clear that the camera system is intended to help deter and prosecute violent crime,” spokesman Beau Tidwell said. “This is not a surveillance operation that will have any role in immigration enforcement."

The Police Department, under the terms of a federal consent decree governing its operations, specifically forbids officers from inquiring about the immigration status of suspects, victims and witnesses.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has also refused to honor detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, except in cases of immigrants facing felony charges.

Both of those policies have prompted critics to label New Orleans a “sanctuary city,” although local officials have denied it, and the U.S. Justice Department in the fall removed New Orleans from its target list of cities it says refuse to comply with federal statutes requiring information-sharing with federal authorities.

Still, the activists point to more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws by the New Orleans ICE field office under President Donald Trump, who made limiting immigration a key focus of his campaign and has pledged to build a wall along the Mexican border.

Rather than prioritizing the arrests of immigrants who have committed serious crimes, as it did under President Barack Obama’s administration, the ICE office has begun to target all residents who entered the country illegally, in line with a Trump directive.

The office, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, made four times as many arrests of immigrants without a criminal record in the 2017 fiscal year as it did in the prior year, according to an analysis of federal data by the Pew Research Center released this month.

The office also deported 6,665 illegal immigrants through the first three-quarters of the 2017 fiscal year — more than the total of the previous three years combined, according to statistics released to The Advocate last year by federal immigration officials.

It was unclear how many of those arrests and deportations were made in the New Orleans area.

In criticizing the mayor's plan, the Congress of Day Laborers joins the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans and the office of the city’s independent police monitor.

The monitor’s office has warned that cameras could be used to track residents and that images and videos could be improperly released, either by the police or by hackers.

It has also raised questions about whether the plan will have a significant impact on crime.

Torres, who crossed the border illegally into the U.S. in 2005 and who hopes to avoid being separated from his daughters, who are U.S. citizens, remains unconvinced that the Landrieu plan’s benefits will outweigh its dangers.

So does Santos Canales, a Honduran native who is allowed, under a federal program, to live and work in the U.S. for a limited time. Both are asking the City Council, which is expected to consider the plan next month, to consider a different option.

“The reality is cameras aren’t going to change anything regarding crime,” Canales said. “If people want to commit a crime, they are going to do it regardless of whether there is a camera there.”

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.