House Bills 200 and 223 would harm immigrants, entire communities

Unlawful detainer action (Illustration by Nick Youngson, Blue Diamond Gallery, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A number of years ago, I was followed and questioned by federal immigration officials. Three men knocked on the door of the hotel room where my cousin was staying while visiting me in Billings, welcomed themselves in, and asked for our immigration papers. They said they had seen us at a local store and followed us.

I was born in Mexico, I speak with an accent and I have brown skin. I immigrated to the United States with my mom and brother when I was 11. California and Montana have been my home ever since. I am a legal permanent resident, but that didn’t stop the immigration officials from following us and interrogating us that day. I felt threatened in my own community, and my cousin was nearly detained.

Being racially profiled is something I frequently experience. More recently, I was pulled over for having snow and dirt on my license plate on a day that the roads were covered with snow and sand. My car certainly wasn’t the only one on the road with a dirty license plate.

Because I’ve been racially profiled so many times, I live with questions all the time: Am I treated differently; am I targeted or profiled in some way because of my brown skin or accent.

When Rep. Barry Usher argued that House Bills 200 and HB 223 — bills that would ban sanctuary cities and force local law enforcement to carry out the duties of federal immigration officials — have nothing to do with racism, I cringed.  With all due respect to Chairman Usher, separating policing or immigration enforcement from race in this country is nearly impossible.

The truth about these bills is that they will create even more fear for Montanans with dark skin and accents. Living in fear will force people into the shadows and dissuade them from interacting with the police and reporting crimes, for fear of being profiled, harassed and possibly deported. If these bills become law, all communities will be less safe.

There’s even more about why these bills would be harmful.

I have personal experience at the intersection of the criminal justice system and the immigration deportation system.  In 2013 I was charged with a crime and was put in the Gallatin County Detention Center. When I tried to post bail while I awaited my trial, I was told by local officials that federal immigration officials put an ICE hold, also called a “detainer,” on me. There was no use in paying my bail, they wouldn’t let me out anyway. As a legal permanent resident, I was confused. Not being able to get out on bail caused me to lose my job and housing — all before I was convicted of a crime. The damage was already done; it would be very hard to get my life back.

No local officials would help me figure out what was going on, and so from my jail cell, I wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security asking them why they were detaining me on an ICE hold. I heard back: They had no interest in me, and they didn’t know why Gallatin County was holding me on a detainer. There was confusion among the two agencies, and even though I had this letter from federal officials, because of a faulty ICE hold being carried out by local officials, I was forced to stay in jail for more than a year before my trial.

Throughout my entire experience, judges and prosecutors have never failed to remind me that I am an immigrant. For example, during my sentencing, the judge sentenced me to double of what the district attorney had offered me. Even though I am a legal resident, there is always a threat hanging over my head – that they can treat me worse and threaten me with deportation – because of who I am and where I was born. It shouldn’t be that way.

Both for community safety and process reasons, there are good reasons why local law enforcement and state criminal legal systems are separate from the federal immigration system. For the safety of our communities and the humanity of all of us, they should remain separate.

Arciga lives in Missoula.