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By Deon Osborne
TULSA, Okla. — A group of Tulsa immigration advocates debated with Tulsa Sheriff’s Office and ICE officers at an annual TCSO steering committee at the 6th Street VFW #577 on Monday afternoon.
Activists, attorneys, social workers, and religious leaders expressed concern about Tulsa County’s partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A contract called 287g authorizes local law enforcement to detain people suspected of being undocumented immigrants and hold them for days, sometimes months at a time until ICE picks them up to begin deportation proceedings.
“I’m here to support the campaign to end 287g locally, as well as hold power accountable,” Xavier Doolittle said.
A leading member of Tulsa’s branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, Doolittle said there needs to be solidarity with workers across all borders, all nationalities and all citizenship rights.
“We’ve dealt with two cases where there was a (labor) dispute involving undocumented workers, and in one case it ended with a deportation,” Doolittle said.
The meeting consisted of a presentation by Tulsa officer Beth Wootkin, who explained the function of the contract as an enhancement to the current work ICE is doing to “identify, arrest and remove aliens who present a danger to national security or are at a risk to public safety.”
In defending the contract, which uses Tulsa County taxpayer’s dollars to house and hold undocumented immigrants for ICE, Wootkin said the partnership resulted in 645 detainments of foreign-born nationals at the Tulsa County’s David L. Moss Detention Center during fiscal year 2018.
Wootkin attempted to draw support from the crowd by claiming that 645 detainments were “not that many.” But members of the audience expressed disapproval of that characterization.
Despite audience members’ questions about the data such as: how many deportations were for minor offenses, how many complaints have been filed and reviewed, and how to seek clemency for a client, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office could not provide any factual details, except for personal anecdotes.
Audience members were asked to submit a freedom of information requests for more details, even though the expressed purpose of the annual meeting is to provide oversight and transparency for the community.
There is currently no evidence pointing to reduced crime levels in Tulsa County as a result of 287g, despite the partnership’s mission to enhance public safety. Instead, advocates in the audience conveyed story after story on how their personal clients have been affected.
A social worker who does outreach and intervention for domestic violence victims said she has seen a drastic decline in the number of immigrant victims coming forward for help since Trump took office and instituted a change in immigration policy.
The social worker, who asked not to be named, said she receives at least 50 percent fewer requests for help from the immigration population since Trump’s inauguration.
“So people aren’t even getting protective orders to keep them safe,” she said.
Though broad research indicates immigrants do not commit crimes at higher rates than U.S. born citizens, the social worker emphasized that abusers sometimes use the undocumented status of their victims as a tool to keep them silent.
“My hope is to have better communication with ICE,” she said. My role today is to let them know how this is affecting the community. Not just on an individual basis.”
An ICE field director for Dallas and Oklahoma confirmed that the new approach to immigration enforcement, where priority is given to anyone illegally residing in the country regardless of the crime, was a direct result of Trump’s presidency.
“I don’t personally know why they changed,” Dallas Deputy Field Office Director Norman L. Parrish said.
“Under President Obama, he gave us a certain number of priorities under his executive orders. When the new president came in, President Trump, he gave us new executive orders,” Parrish said.
Parrish told the audience he’s simply enforcing orders and that ultimately Congress decides any changes to immigration policy. Parrish said he’s concerned that ending 287g would allow serious criminals to slip through the cracks but would be open to having more community meetings about the issue.
While committee members and officers could not offer any hard data on the efficacy of the 287g contract in making Tulsa safer, some advocates asserted that it actually makes communities less safe.
While disagreements between officers and the audience persisted, both sides agreed on the need for more civil dialogue to make progress.
In the meantime, asylum seekers and undocumented families in Tulsa continue to live in the shadows.
For advocates interested in ending the contract, they may have an opportunity next year. The contract comes up for review and renewal on June 30, 2019, though the County Commissioners who vote on it are not expected to go against the sheriff’s office.
Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has written for OU’s student newspaper the OU Daily as well as OKC-based Red Dirt Report. Deon received the Governor’s Commendation in 2017 for his videography highlighting a statewide distracted driving prevention program and runs a freelance video marketing service at indepthwithdeonfilms.com. He now lives in Tulsa, where he works as a policy intern at the Oklahoma Policy Institute.