TOPEKA — Thousands of people who are arrested or removed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement have no criminal conviction or just a minor traffic offense, according to records compiled into a new statewide data tool made available by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.
Information sourced from the Syracuse TRAC system details the number of ICE arrests and removals in Kansas and the highest level of crime committed, if any. In 2019, 43,069 people were removed by ICE in Kansas, down from 77,858 in 2018.
Findings indicate more than 31% of people arrested and 26% of those removed from Kansas from 2015 to 2018 have just a traffic infraction or no criminal charge at all — both above national averages.
Michael Sharma-Crawford, of Sharma-Crawford Attorneys at Law, an immigration-focused practice, said he wasn’t surprised to see the low bar for ICE arrests and removals. He said the term “illegal immigration” has led many to believe that all immigrants who cross the border are criminals, but that is not the case. It is a civil offense to seek refuge in the United States without obtaining citizenship.
“The truth is it is not criminal,” Sharma-Crawford said. “Driving down the road without your wallet, you are more of a criminal in that moment. That concept of illegality and violations of law, when do we get so holier than thou?”
ICE arrests and removals have slowed recently because of the spread of COVID-19, but advocates and attorneys say those numbers are likely to creep back up in 2021 and beyond. Experts like Sharma-Crawford say not all ICE arrests are bad, but removing those who simply want a better life only hurts families and communities.
The ACLU of Kansas released these immigration statistics Thursday, along with data on arrest disparities, corrections spending and more in a new free data tool. The goal is to spur civic engagement and accelerate thoughtful policymaking, said Nadine Johnson, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas.
“Our state and local government in Kansas often struggle with the concept of transparency with our injustice,” Johnson said. “With this project, we are not waiting on Topeka or any city hall to decide to open up. We are shining a light on issues and actions needing to be addressed.”
Johnson said a handful of law enforcement agencies and county governments refused to supply information. Those agencies and counties are identified on the site.
ICE statistics in the data project show removals are highest in metro counties like Johnson County, Sedgwick County and Wyandotte County, but also a large amount in the southwest corner of the state where there are majority Latino populations.
Outside of those with no conviction, criminal charges most commonly seen in ICE arrests include driving under the influence (13.2%), battery (4%) and domestic violence (3.4%). The database also lists rare cases of sexual assault, drug possession, larceny, cocaine possession and burglary.
An often-overlooked aspect is the way deportations and arrests limit the available workforce in some rural, agriculturally focused communities in areas like southwest Kansas, Sharma-Crawford said. He said he has seen and heard firsthand from clients who are farmers and ranchers how vital immigrants are to their work.
“That’s a worker, and that’s a family person who, nine times out of 10, are not coming back — not legally at least, and not without massive risk,” Sharma-Crawford said. “So, you have disrupted a family and disrupted a business, and in so doing pulled on the thread of that community? Is that really what we want to do in this day and age?”
The ACLU data tool backs up his claims. If not for international immigration into the state of Kansas, most counties would have lost population in the previous decade.
Only 12 of 105 counties showed growth over the previous decade without new immigrants factored in.
Debbie Snapp, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, works with immigrants in many of those communities. She said behind the numbers in this data tool are real people who need the thoughtful policy changes the ACLU of Kansas is advocating for.
“Our biggest concern is just the kind of fear that families live with on a daily basis,” Snapp said. “Most of these people would like to be able to normalize their legal status, some way. They’re willing to work, but the legal immigration program in a process is so broken and so old that it’s hard for people to figure out how they can get that path to legal status.”