Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Advocates see the plan, which forbids police officers from racial profiling, as “one of the best in the country.”
Immigrants who live and work in New Orleans haven’t always had the rosiest relationship with their city’s police force. But by the end of February, that strain will undergo a much-awaited change, as the city’s new immigrant-friendly, “bias-free” policing policy finally goes into effect.
Here’s Jolene Elberth, immigration organizer at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an immigrants’ rights group that has been pushing for this policy, in a press release:
“NOPD’s bias-free policing policy is one of best in the country. It’s a big first step toward police accountability at a time when Black Lives Matters and others are building a national movement for more accountable law enforcement.”
Post-Katrina New Orleans saw some notable demographic changes, among them significant growth in the city’s Hispanic population. Latinos laborers flocked to New Orleans in large numbers when reconstruction and cleaning jobs opened up. Ten years after the storm, many of these newcomers laid down roots there, via NOLA.com:
While the population of the region as a whole remains at about 80 percent of pre-Katrina levels, the Latino population has nearly doubled since the storm.
The city’s police force wasn’t all that welcoming to these new residents. Over the last few years, raids, detentions, and deportations of undocumented residents—many with young, American-born children—have left the Latino community in New Orleans feeling targeted by local police.
In 2013, the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office started to decline requests from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to detain immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. The move was the result of a settlement in a federal lawsuit filed by two immigrant workers against the sheriff after they were held for months at the Parish jail—well beyond the 48-hour detention period set by ICE. Orleans Parish was the first jurisdiction in the “Deep South” to enact such a rule, The New York Times noted at the time. While similar ones have been adopted in other parts of the country, the Orleans Parish policy was a particularly big win for immigrants; again, via the Times:
In some respects, the policy in New Orleans goes farther than some others, refusing cooperation with federal immigration enforcement at a number of different points.
But even after this significant step, local police continued to pick up Latino workers for small civil offenses, such as loitering, and placed them in deportation proceedings. An email exchange obtained by the Los Angeles Times last year showed that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security acknowledged instances of racial profiling of Latinos by local police in the New Orleans area.
The new policy forbids all such actions in the field. According to its rules, the “NOPD shall not engage in, assist, or support immigration enforcement” unless there’s an “articulated, direct threat to life or public safety,” or a criminal warrant or court order that requires them to do so. The police department is also putting together a team of bilingual officers to better reach Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking residents. Currently, 12 officers in the NOPD are set to take a language certification exam. Once they clear it, they will get a 5 percent raise.
Here’s the police department’s superintendent Michael Harrison, via NOLA.com:
“Immigration is a federal issue. It is not a local issue," Harrison said. "In our policy, we are not investigating immigration status. We are investigating whether a crime was committed in our city, whether or not that person is a victim, a witness or a perpetrator. But the immigration status of that person is not part of any investigation we are conducting or we will be conducting."
Activists have long argued that these kind of inclusive policing will improve policing not just for immigrants, but the entire community—and research backs up this case. This new policy is a step towards a culture change, Fernando Lopez, another immigrant organizer at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, tells CityLab. It signals a shift towards understanding that what undocumented immigrants are fighting for isn’t special treatment, it’s actually equal treatment.