The New Orleans Police Department has been detaining Latinos suspected of being in the country illegally and turning them over to federal immigration agents, an immigration advocacy group says.

A federally appointed firm that is monitoring sweeping reforms at the Police Department is reviewing those complaints, according to a recent report.

The report doesn’t name the group, but Yihong “Julie” Mao, a staff attorney for the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, said her group has raised concerns with the consent decree monitor about the issue.

She said she hopes the practice will soon end, once the department revises its policies on nondiscriminatory policing.

Her organization believes there should be a clear separation between police who enforce state and local laws and immigration officials who deport people based on federal laws. More importantly, the federally enforced consent decree to reform the Police Department forbids officers from taking action based on real or perceived immigration status.

A recent incident occurred in March, Mao said.

A police officer stopped a member of her group, a construction worker, for a traffic violation in Mid-City, according to Mao and a Workers’ Center letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The officer issued him a citation and held him for hours, without explanation, until agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrived to take him away.

The man has filed complaints with the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, according to the Workers’ Center.

Advocacy group says Latinos are being racially profiled

Late last year, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice uncovered a pilot program, the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, reportedly implemented in and around New Orleans by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The program is designed to go after undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records. An official with ICE is quoted in the report as saying “ICE only conducts targeted enforcement. The Criminal Alien Removal Initiative teams go to a pre-selected location, looking for that individual.”

But the immigration advocacy group contends the program has moved well beyond that mission and has become a “stop and frisk” program for immigrants.

The group wrote in a report that “ICE squads are conducting indiscriminate raids at apartment complexes, grocery stores, laundromats, Bible study groups, and parks — often working with local law enforcement — based purely on racial profiling.”

Stories in the report include an allegedly race-based raid of a grocery store on Broad Street, where ICE agents allegedly “kicked a Latino man in the knees until he was bleeding through his pants,” and a traffic stop on Canal Street where an agent allegedly admitted he stopped the subject because he appeared to be Latino.

In August, The New York Times editorial board said the New Orleans program shows how the Department of Homeland Security, working with local law enforcement, “has vastly increased the numbers of low-priority minor offenders and noncriminals it sweeps up.”

NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble confirmed that the department participates in that program. But the department only deals with criminals, he said.

“We continue to work with ICE agents on criminal deportation warrants, such as investigations involving violent offenders,” he said in an email. “The NOPD does not get involved in any civil deportation matters.”

Court monitor says it’s looking at immigration enforcement

The NOPD is implementing reforms to eliminate police brutality, racial discrimination and corruption. It’s part of a federal consent decree meant to bring its practices in line with the U.S. Constitution.

One part of the consent decree says officers “shall not take law enforcement action on the basis of actual or perceived immigration status, including the initiation of stops or other field contacts.”

Late last month, the consent decree monitoring firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton released a report on the Police Department’s progress in meeting the terms of the consent decree. A paragraph addressed the immigration issue.

“One citizen group brought to our attention allegations that NOPD was inappropriately involving U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in their unrelated law-enforcement practices,” the court monitor wrote in the report. “Similarly, this group identified what they believed to be significant shortcomings and flaws in NOPD’s current immigration-related policies.”

The monitor’s report goes on to say that the comments from the group “inform our review of NOPD’s immigration practices and its written policy.”

Members of the monitoring team are not allowed to speak to the media. Gamble said that the paragraph wasn’t an official “finding” by the monitor, noting that it appeared in a section of the report about citizen feedback.

“This was a complaint provided to the Monitor by one unnamed citizen group,” he said.

NOPD policy prohibits immigration stops but mandates cooperation with feds

The NOPD released a new “Immigration Violations” policy last year, after the consent decree was approved.

It was part of a package of more than 200 policy revisions. But they had not been reviewed by the monitor, the Department of Justice or the federal judge in charge of the consent decree before being finalized — a violation of the consent decree. And those policies are still under review by the monitoring firm and could be revised.

The Police Department has since submitted revised guidelines on immigrations violations and is awaiting feedback, Gamble said. “We anticipate that the policy will be approved later this year.”

He said the department’s current immigration-violations policy contains language taken directly from the consent decree. That’s true, including the language prohibiting officers from stopping people because they think they are in the country illegally.

But the policy explicitly allows officers to maintain records on citizenship and immigration status and share it with federal agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And it mandates cooperation with federal agencies on immigration enforcement.

“The overarching concern we have is, it’s very much an ‘enforce federal policy’ rather than a bias-free policy,” Mao said.

She was one of the authors of a white paper that called it a “confusing policy that permitted NOPD officers to inquire about immigration status, enforce federal immigration violations, and participate in Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) community raids.”

Mao said new guidelines should explicitly prohibit the department from taking part in such activities.

“As new leadership at the NOPD considers a new policy, we hope that the NOPD can finally get it right,” she said. “NOPD should no longer assist ICE in these activities given the constitutional concerns. Plus it just goes against best policing practices.”

Last month during a community meeting, members of the Congress of Day Laborers asked Mayor Mitch Landrieu about upcoming changes to the department’s immigration policies.

Landrieu didn’t offer any specifics on the new policy. He said he planned to see the group, which is affiliated with the Workers’ Center, on Sept. 10.

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Garnesha Crawford, confirmed that he was planning to attend the group’s Wednesday meeting.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...