ICE Access to PARS Degrades Public Safety in Philadelphia

In recent days there has been a fair bit of ink spilled over the agreement that allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to have access to Philadelphia’s PARS database. YPP was no exception to this. Nor was my old friend, Stu Bykofsky. Unfortunately we still stand at a deadlock on this issue. Here is what you need to know about this issue as a progressive.


First, here is a simplified explanation of what the debate is all about: Philadelphia has a database called PARS where it stores information about everyone arrested in the city and the victims of and witnesses to those crimes. The information in PARS is shared among a number of city agencies, including the police, the DA, the Public Defenders office, and the courts. Sometime in last couple of years (I’ve had trouble finding an exact date, but summer 2008 seems to be the consensus opinion), the city agreed to allow the local ICE office access to the PARS database. ICE sorts through the arrest records looking for anyone who may be an undocumented immigrant and begins deportation proceedings against those individuals. The contract with ICE is set to expire at the end of August and advocates on both sides of the issue are pressing for their voices to be heard on the continuation of the contract. In order for the contract to continue, two of the three members of PARS have to agree for it to continue: the courts, the police/mayor’s office, and the DA. At this point in time, it appears that the DA will vote to extend the PARS-ICE link and the police/mayor’s office will vote not to. The court’s position is uncertain at this point.


The reasons to keep the system are pretty easy to point out—by creating this link, we are able to find and deport undocumented individuals. And civil liberties advocates shouldn’t worry about this system catching the good guys, because as Bykofsky points out, PARS only lists people who have been arrested. So they are already bad people, right? As Bykofsky says so eloquently:

ICE isn't pulling random people off the street, and no one gets arrested for traffic violations or spitting on the sidewalk.

Yes, we believe in a presumption of innocence, but these people were in custody.

As further evidence that we need this system, Bykofsky points out that there have been undocumented immigrants in the past who have committed heinous crimes, therefore we should fear all immigrants or at least any policy that seeks to allow undocumented immigrants to be seen as needing protection of any kind.


The pro-debate is so simplistic it kills me. And I didn’t just create a straw-man argument so that I can tear it apart. Read Bykofsky’s piece on this. In fact, read any piece on this and you will find the pro-PARS argument is the same simplistic argument I made above. This isn’t too different from the arguments for 287(g) and Secure Communities, similar programs for a discussion another day. Philadelphia, by the way, also participates in Secure Communities.

There is a very basic problem with the ICE-PARS link: The ICE-PARS link severely degrades trust between immigrant communities and the police, which hampers public safety. The degrading relationship is caused by a combination of factors, including inadvertent arrests of victims and witnesses and the racial profiling that inevitably comes with a system that hooks together police and immigration databases.


In Bykofsky’s article, ICE spokesman Mark Medevsky states that ICE has no interest in victims and witnesses, only convicted criminal aliens. That strikes me as either a disingenuous cover up for ICE’s true intentions or a sad lack of foresight on behalf of ICE.

First off, if ICE was only interested in convicted criminal aliens, why would they need access to PARS, the system that shows everyone who is arrested, victims, and witnesses? Why not create a program that allows ICE access to a database of convicted individuals if that is the stated goal?

Second, while ICE may state that it has no interest running checks on victims and witnesses, victims and witnesses show up in the PARS database. Even if we can take ICE at its word that it will filter out information from PARS to only view arrestees, ICE has no control over whose names end up in the PARS database as an arrestee. If the police, unsure about who to arrest in a given situation arrest over-inclusively, they will almost certainly arrest innocent people, witnesses, and victims along with the actual perpetrator. All of these people will end up in PARS and will be checked by ICE. A perfectly sad example of this is domestic violence. Not infrequently, police arrest both man and woman in a domestic violence call, either unsure of who the victim is or with the idea of “settling this all at the station.” Again, both will be entered into PARS and ICE will get a look at both individuals. Despite ICE’s intention, victims can easily get caught in the police net. Any crime can bring about a similar situation. In an attempt to figure out what is going on, the police arrest everyone at the scene of the crime, everyone gets entered into PARS, and ICE gets a look at everyone involved.


To avoid a debate about the police, let’s suppose that there are a few bad apples in every bunch. Regardless of how highly an individual may respect the police department, there are inevitably going to be a few bad cops with bad motives. And even without explicit racial motivations, just about all of us exhibit subconscious racial prejudices. What happens when you pair these bad apples or unconscious motivations with a system where those who are arrested can be sent into deportation proceedings? You guessed it—racial profiling. The Warren Institute at UC Berkeley just finished a comprehensive study of the CAPs program in Irvine, TX (CAPs is somewhat similar to PARS) and found that in the months after CAPs was implemented, arrests of Hispanics for misdemeanors skyrocketed, jumping 150% in 5 months (page 5). In addition, traffic stops of Hispanics doubled in just 3 months (page 6). As you can guess, stops of other ethnic groups did not see such an increase. In other words, these arrests were clear examples of racial profiling—Hispanics were being arrested in alarming numbers based solely on the fact that they were Hispanic and not because they were committing any additional crimes. The conclusion by the Warren Center is stark: “If, as our research suggests, CAP creates incentives for local police to target Hispanics for discretionary arrests for minor offenses, then lawfully residing Hispanics are inevitably impacted by these enforcement measures” (page 7).


These points are not to be taken lightly. From the viewpoint of the average Hispanic individual, you fear the police in all situations. If someone robs your house, you don’t want to call the police for fear that you will be arrested (either as overinclusive arresting or racial profiling); if you are a victim of domestic violence, you don’t want to call the police to report the violence for fear of getting arrested; if some guys are selling drugs on your corner, you don’t want to call the police for fear of getting arrested. And these aren’t just speculative fears. One story recently shared in Philadelphia was of a teen who saw another boy slashing tires in the neighborhood; the teen successfully stopped the other boy from slashing tires, but when the police came both were arrested and put into PARS.

This fear of the police causes very real safety problems in the community. If people are afraid to call the police, even as victims or witnesses, crime will proliferate unchecked. The teen who saw tires being slashed will run away next time; the domestic violence victim will continue to suffer; and the drug dealer will continue to sell on the corner because no one is willing to talk to the police about the situation. This is very bad. Mayor Nutter has seen the light on this issue and agrees that the ICE-PARS linkage makes Philadelphia less safe, not more.

One last parting idea. Let’s turn this whole thing around. Should we create a link up between PARS and the IRS? Every single person that is arrested (again, arrested, not charged by the DA or convicted) can have the IRS do a quick audit of their last tax return. Bykofsky, are you volunteering?

Thanks for the excellent post, Mike

Thanks for the excellent post, Mike

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