Law Enforcement’s Use and Maintenance of Gang Databases May Create Stumbling Block for Latino Youths Hoping to Benefit from Comprehensive Immigration Reform*

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - 12:15pm
Candace Kattar

Law enforcement agencies throughout the country rely on databases to help them track, monitor and prevent or prosecute criminal gang activity. Yet these databases have come under scrutiny in a growing number of jurisdictions. First, and perhaps most importantly, the databases have been found to be over-inclusive and contain insufficient oversight of the data entries. The system offers no opportunity for an individual to appeal for the removal of his/her name and does not notify the individual that s/he has been entered into the database or to a parent or guardian if the individual is a minor, and contain inconsistent purging requirements. The names of active gang members, “wannabes,” friends, and associates of gang members or alleged gang members, are contained in these databases. Unlike sex offender databases, you can be included in a gang database without having been arrested or convicted of any crime, simply because in the opinion of a law enforcement officer you are “suspected” of being a member of a criminal gang. More importantly, and alarmingly, Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately represented in these databases across the country. Despite these multiple, serious flaws, including possible violations of procedural due process, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) relies on these databases to make determinations as to whether or not individuals are barred from the proposed Registered Provisional Immigrant Status benefits contained in the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Under Section 3701(c) the government may bar an individual if it deems that person to have associated with gang members. Thousands of otherwise eligible Latinos, never having been convicted of any crimes, may be barred from legalizing their status because DHS will find these names in the databases. As our high school dropout rates for Latinos continue their meteoric increase, and these young people are becoming increasingly disenfranchised, it is not surprising that their numbers soar in the gang databases. Community-based organizations that provide prevention and support services to young Latinos are all too familiar with the profiling of these young men and the erroneous labeling of them as gang members.
Since individuals included in the database do not know in advance that their names are included in these databases, it is entirely possible that many may spend thousands of dollars in legal fees, filing fees and penalties to try to legalize their status under the new legislation, only to find out that they are barred because their names are included in a gang database. Importantly, these databases also have different purging requirements. Depending on the time of year, and the amount of time that has passed since coming to the attention of law enforcement, an individual who was in a gang database at some point may or may not still be documented there. But whether or not that name is still in the database does not necessarily have anything to do with that person’s engagement in criminal activity. It may only have to do with the passage of time. This is the faulty and arbitrary nature of the system that will be relied upon to determine individuals’ qualifications for legalization.
We already have in place the ability to bar individuals from legalizing their immigration status if they have been convicted of serious crimes, whether gang-related or not. We do not need a sweepingly broad measure – association with gang members – in order to ensure our country’s security. The authors of Senate Bill 744 declare that “As a nation founded, built and sustained by immigrants we also have a responsibility to harness the power of that tradition in a balanced way that secures a more prosperous future for America.” Denying thousands of Latinos the opportunity to legalize their status based on specious information contained in a seriously flawed system of identification, will cause us to lose the power of that noble tradition and crush our prospects for a more prosperous future.
*We extend our sincere thanks to Maggio + Kattar Co-Founder and non-profit, Identity, (link to ) co-Founder Candace Kattar for sharing her thoughts with us in this editorial.