A joint investigation withInvestigative Reporting Workshop

Sheriff Mark Curran: Why He Changed His Mind About Secure Communities

Mark Curran, the Republican sheriff of Lake County, Ill., was initially onboard with the Obama administrations immigration program known as Secure Communities: “When you have local, state and federal law enforcement all sharing information, all working together, … that’s when we work best.” After seeing it in action, however, he’s become an outspoken critic. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 29, 2011.

… Why did you decide to take a public position, basically saying you don’t think Secure Communities is a smart decision? …

… My faith comes from Christianity. I’m a Catholic. That’s basically the center upon which I make all decisions. …

I looked at what’s transpired in terms of individual stories. I’ve talked to people that have been here 20 years, have four or five children that are here, came here initially under the guise that they could provide for their family.

As you know, the borders were not enforced, and it was not a secret. You could talk to anybody that was in Mexico at that time, or Latin American countries, that wanted to come into the United States. They would tell you that they knew that they could come here, that they could work, that they could provide for their families. In many instances they did.

“We’re not really happy, because we really want comprehensive immigration reform. We’re sick of all this garbage and smoke screen that we’re doing something.”

When they were done providing for their families, they’d go back at the end of the summer season, in many instances, and come back and forth throughout.

There was no, “Excuse me.” There was no attempt to determine citizenship status. That all changed.

Who are the people you see in your community who are undocumented but who make up part of this community, and who you worry could get swept up under a program like Secure Communities?

I’m worried about the people that have been here for long periods of time, … these people that our country lured into America in many instances, telling them that they could find jobs, jobs that we couldn’t fill — migrant worker jobs; low-wage jobs in restaurants; jobs in landscape. …

Once they’re here, they have been working. They have been providing for their families the best they can. They have been told at some point in time by politicians on both sides of the aisle that there will eventually be a process by which [they] will be able to achieve citizenship. They have had this hope. It’s never happened.

We never really wanted to have immigration laws in this country. For a long period of time, we were schizophrenic in the sense that our borders were wide open. It’s documented. I’d challenge anyone to tell me otherwise or show me otherwise.

We didn’t care about whether or not employers were hiring illegal immigrants. E-Verify was not in place until recently, … so you can get into this country easy enough. Once you are here, nobody really cares whether or not you’re a citizen. … Police and law enforcement everywhere were told it’s none of their business whether or not somebody is a citizen or not, so don’t be asking the question.

If that isn’t sending the message to these people that … you’re able to do what you’re doing, just keep doing it, then I don’t know what it is. …

So if we’re going to have any sense of fairness, shouldn’t we take care of the people that have thrown down roots? They have a stake in this country. They have brought their children up in this country. Or should we deport them and leave their families, who have been here and [who] are U.S. citizens, behind?

Equity, fairness, morality, all of the arguments along the subject of comprehensive immigration reform are clearly on the side of we need to do what’s right.

But these immigrants somehow end up [here in] the sheriff’s department. Once they have been brought into here, that means there may have been a crime. Is there a problem in terms of jumping the gun? They were just picked up, but they haven’t in fact been indicted, processed, etc.? …

… We know that there is a disproportionate number of people that are arrested in minority urban areas. That’s partly due to a call for resources in that area. Majors in those areas want to do what they can to put a lid on crime and arrest as many potential lawbreakers as they can.

You get out into the other areas, they don’t want to see the police arresting their kids, unless there is something crazy going on, and police stay away. Those are agendas that are set.

So you look at that, and you look at the fact that we have Latinos and other people that are illegal immigrants that are coming into the correctional system, having been arrested, and then they appear before a judge. The judge has to determine bail, but also he’s going to determine whether or not they have ties to the community. They’re an illegal immigrant. That’s one of the factors that a judge must consider. Are they a flight risk?

Then they are in jail for a very small amount of time, and ICE comes into the picture, and they ask to put a “hold” on the person. Once that hold is on an individual, then no amount of bond or no judge leniency can allow that person to be released.

So they are going to be kept in court throughout the proceedings no matter how long they are. If [it's] a year long, they’ll be in jail for all of that time. [That's] different from your typical inmate. … Whereas anybody else is entitled to bond, somebody that has an immigration hold is not. These people disproportionately are incarcerated.

What makes you so uncomfortable about Secure Communities?

What makes me uncomfortable about Secure Communities is the fact that we need to be talking about comprehensive immigration reform, and we need to be doing so unabashedly. …

So when we need to be talking about comprehensive immigration reform and then we’re talking about Secure Communities, we’re really talking out of both ends of our mouth. That’s sending mixed messages.

When I deal with the Latino community in Waukegan [and] the immigrant communities throughout Lake County, there is fear that’s running through these communities. They know the horror story of their uncle or their brother who committed the most ticky-tack of offenses, got incarcerated as a result and is now being deported. It just sends chills through their spine, … because they’ve seen the effects of that.

Basically we talk about comprehensive immigration reform, but we only give it lip service. Then if the polls show that we need to be doing something regarding illegal immigrants because of paranoia and lies that have been spread, well, we’ve got Secure Communities in place.

This administration deports much more than the Bush administration deported.

What do you think about that?

I think it’s very troubling. …

I think that there’s a higher power that’s at work in this world, … and when we are driven by polls, that shows a lack of trust in terms of the higher power, a lack of trust in terms of our faith creeds. …

You say that one of your concerns is that Secure Communities is separating families. What do you mean? …

… When you take a father out of the house and deport him, or a mother out of the house and you deport her, and you leave those children now without one of the two spouses, to me it’s not a good recipe for those young children and their future.

If the future of this country is the young people, causing that many more children to be raised without their nuclear, two-parent family, that is not something that I believe our Lord would bless, ultimately.

It’s not a good recipe for the future of America. It makes us a lesser country. Something is callous; something is hard with[in] our hearts in terms of that philosophy that we can’t see through that. …

I believe in the rule of law. … We’re talking about people that have been here for [20] years and they have five children that are U.S. citizens. And they came here under this message: “Don’t worry about it. You can get into this country. You can work, and nobody’s ever going to ask about it.”

Now we’re going to deport them? To me that’s absolutely wrong. It would be different if we had comprehensive immigration reform got to the table; … [if] we offered that path to citizenship where they would pay a fine, where they would have to learn the language, where they would pass a citizenship exam, where they would be in a line where this would transpire.

If we were to offer all of that, and people in some case or another decided not to avail themselves of that, and now we are breaking up family, well, I’m sorry, there is a rule of law, and we have been equitable. Then we can say that. …

You’re a Republican?

Yes.

There are many Republicans who believe that these people … are illegal immigrants. Even if they haven’t broken any laws in this country, they broke the law by coming in without papers or overstaying their visa. It’s not about sob stories; it’s the rule of law, and they have to be deported.

… There is no rule of law.

First of all, we do not do anything regarding employers that hire people who are undocumented.

Secondly, we haven’t had a rule of law for decades, and as a result of that, people have been coming here, have been working. In order to have a rule of law, we need to have comprehensive immigration reform and fix this broken system. Then we might have a rule of law. But to pretend that we have a rule of law right now is nonsense.

Beyond that, in terms of Republican/Democrat politics, I will always prioritize my faith over my political affiliation on every issue, and to me it’s an easy choice. I don’t fit neatly into the Republican agenda. I don’t fit into the Democratic agenda on many issues. That’s my core on which I am going to decide issues.

It is interesting, though, that you started as a Democrat who then became a Republican, but as a Republican you are very critical of more enforcement on the issue of immigration. …

I started as a Democrat. I think the Democratic Party is right on a lot of issues, [but] I think on some issues they are not the Democratic Party that I was raised in. I started to become disillusioned and moved away from them. It was the right choice for me.

But this partisan bickering — they’re right, they’re wrong, what have you — I don’t think that’s in the best interest either, and as far as Republican/Democrat, I try to be intellectually honest in terms of the fact that [just because] somebody says something doesn’t make it so.

We have to examine the issue. We have to discern for ourselves where the truth lies. And if we know where the truth lies, we should embrace it with courage.

On the issue of immigration reform, like I said, I’m Roman Catholic, but I did not agree with the church for the longest period of time. … As I started to see evidence of the truth being on the side of immigration reform, I figured: “You know what? If this means political death, so be it.” I’d much rather die on the side of truth, because I think ultimately there is a judgment beyond the voters. …

I could talk about it from a faith perspective. But people don’t want to hear that especially if they’re not Roman Catholic.  But the truth is there in terms of, we have to have comprehensive immigration reform, from an equity standpoint. …

Do you worry that with Secure Communities in place, there are 911 calls that are not being made into the sheriff’s office to say, “I’m worried about this [public safety issue]“; to say, “I was a witness to this [crime]“; saying, “There is this problem out on the street”? Do you worry that you aren’t getting these calls?

No question about it. I know that’s happening. Anecdotally I’ve heard instances of that happening, and I know that just from the perspective of people that are living in these communities.

Fear is running through them right now. The squad car rounds the corner, and you’ll see people scram. It’s not because they are engaged in criminal activity necessarily. It’s because they have this perception that they are illegal, or they know somebody that might be undocumented, and they don’t want to have anything to do with law enforcement.

What does that do to you as a law enforcement officer, to see people running away from the sheriff’s car?

Law enforcement works best when it’s engaged with the community, when you have programs like Community Action Police, or you have a neighborhood watch and the community becomes part of the law enforcement network. …

With budget cuts, law enforcement is getting downsized everywhere. To have the community not working with you, that’s a frightening proposition.

In 2006, you did an audit of your jails here at the sheriff’s department in Lake County. What did you find?

We found that a little over 20 percent of the jail was undocumented immigrants.

What did you think about doing about that issue?

At that point in time I had a different opinion, and … I believed that this was all a consequence of violation of the rule of law. I saw things very black and white, and as a result, I thought, let’s close down these borders and let’s start deporting these people as fast as we can. Let’s return the rule of law to its place.

You actually thought that if you had 20 percent of your jail filled with undocumented immigrants, better to just get them all deported to make space.

I was of the mind-set that if you came into this country illegally, that’s a slippery slope, and you began your day in America with a lie as a premise, and as a result, bad things were likely to follow. …

What happened? You had a change of heart?

I did. I spoke to a number of people that opened my eyes to some extent.

I spoke to one individual, [Peter Robinson], who was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan when I was out in Washington, D.C. He was working with an immigrant group and asked me to look at some issues then.

I had the opportunity to speak to Cardinal [Francis] George — he’s the bishop of Cook and Lake County — and a number of priests at that occasion. I was encouraged to look at what … the United States [Conference] of Catholic Bishops had said on the issue.

I started to delve into the issue on the Internet, looked at what some evangelical ministers had said, Jewish rabbis had said on the issue. Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal, who I have a lot of respect for, I started to look at his position.

As I started to look at both sides of the issue — and I continued to look at those that were calling for deportation, but I also looked at the counterarguments, and as I did that, I realized that all the truth lay in the fact that before we start doing anything else, we need to start addressing comprehensive immigration reform.

What about that slippery slope? You started your day in America by doing something illegal by coming into the country without papers or overstaying your visa.

I think when you study history that it’s just not that clear, and people cross borders all the time.

If I prioritize God as my highest priority and then family second and then country after that, and I’m going to sit there and say that some guy that came to America under a set of rules that were very lax to provide for his family somehow [has fewer rights] than me, I think that’s very hypocritical.

When you first started to hear about this program, Secure Communities, what did you believe was going to happen with this?

When we received the call, we were told that all these other counties were already onboard with Secure Communities. A number of other sheriffs — I have tremendous respect for them — they were onboard with it, and we have tried to be a team player.

I think in law enforcement, especially since 9/11, it has been impressed upon us that you need to forget about getting the personal credit; you need to work as a team. …

When you have local, state and federal law enforcement all sharing information, all working together, all contributing to each other’s task forces, that’s when we work best. …

In Secure Communities, … Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a partner in law enforcement. So my perspective as chief law enforcement officer in Lake County would be … to help them out on a level that I can, enforcing local laws.

You were told that Secure Communities was going to make your community more secure, and you believed that.

To be honest with you, I don’t know that. I was told that it would help make it more secure, but by the same token, I didn’t know what they were going to accomplish that wasn’t already being accomplished. I was a little bit skeptical of that whole “It’s going to make it more secure.”

I was looking at it more from the perspective of they are another team of law enforcement professionals that we need to work with, because at some point in time we’re going to need them. We’re going to need them for information. We may need them [for the] resources that they have, that we don’t have the troops to help fight the war on crime that we’re fighting.

You have not stepped away from Secure Communities in Lake County?

We have not.

But you publicly, from an individual perspective, have stepped away from Secure Communities?

What’s happened at this point is that we are still participating in Secure Communities, and we’re waiting for a meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the local level to find out what they’re doing to fix the problem in the communities, urban areas where people are being deported. And in essence, what we have encouraged them to do is one, to be more transparent.

We hear these stories of somebody got deported for no crime whatsoever. It’s hard to verify that, because the information is basically not out there. We need to put it up on a website … so that everybody in these communities has access to it, so they can see why somebody is being deported and correct that public relations nightmare that is attached to Secure Communities right now.

They need to in essence assure the greater public that the people being deported have committed certain litmus offenses for which they have been found guilty and convicted. And they need to get out there [and work] with these people … and work with the neighborhoods.

Secure Communities is this big, evil entity that [people] know about but have never seen or met anyone from. There is a huge public relations problem.

So they need to fix these problems, and once they do so, we are happy to continue to work with them. But we’re not really happy, because we really want comprehensive immigration reform. We’re sick of all this garbage and smoke screen that we’re doing something.

So you haven’t officially been able to walk away from Secure Communities, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department?

We haven’t walked away from them completely, because in many ways, we have more leverage by telling them, “This is what you need to be doing,” and seeing if they’ll entertain us and talk to us while we are still participating. “We want you to correct these problems.”

Is ICE listening?

I received a personal phone call from John Morton, the director of ICE, a month or so ago. He said that there would be meetings, and we would work to correct these problems, and that we’d be up there at your office to talk to you. They scheduled a meeting and canceled it. They have never rescheduled.

President Barack Obama says that if enforcement is needed, he’s going to deliver enforcement, and he has: more detentions and deportations than any other presidency. Is he doing the right thing?

No, I don’t think so. …

As long as people can easily say the Republicans are the bad guys on this issue, then I don’t think the president feels much need, because he’s got a demon on the field that nobody wants, that nobody is going to vote for, so [he doesn't] really have to move in the direction of comprehensive immigration reform, because poll numbers say that it’s way too risky, and they are not going to vote Republican. The heck if they’re going to vote for these people. …

Are you upset that President Obama has become so pro-enforcement on the issue of immigration?

Yeah, I guess I am. I am upset for him. I mean, in all candor, I didn’t vote for President Obama, so it’s not like he let me down, what have you. I am upset because there is a lot that can be done by way of executive order for these people.

I try to make sure that my motives are as pure as possible. I think that they are, one, love; two, equity and justice. I have a motive toward seeing the right thing done for these people. If [President Obama] could do it, he’s not doing it. …

… Yesterday we spent the day with a family of five U.S.-born children. The … mother was essentially stopped for a traffic violation and ended up being deported, and the children are in a state of shock. Now every time the littlest one sees a police officer, he runs away and says, “Daddy, I’m scared those are the people who take away people’s moms.” When you hear that, what goes on for you?

… I have three little boys of my own, and I just can’t imagine. You know, it’s horrible. …

I can’t believe that we think that a God, our God, is going to bless policy that is doing that, especially where there has been such inequity in regard to immigration reform for so long.

What do you think of the fact that Gov. [Pat] Quinn [D-Ill.] in May decided to opt out of Secure Communities?

I attribute his motions honorably. I think that he recognizes the fact that a sizable percentage of his base as a Democratic governor is Latinos, and he’s probably heard more anecdotes of people who are treated poorly and are hurt very badly as a result of the fairness of the system. …

Is it interesting for you to be essentially in agreement with a Democratic governor even though you’re a Republican sheriff?

It’s going to happen if people are intellectually honest. … [If] your highest priority is not political affiliation, then you are going to cross over and you’re going to agree with Democrats on a number of issues, and some of the Democrats are going to agree with Republicans on a lot of issues. …

Do you worry, as a law enforcement official and as a law professor, that if you deny due process to any individual in this country, with or without papers, that that makes it easier the next time for due process to be denied to an American citizen?

Absolutely. … When the rights of one are in jeopardy, then the rights of all are. I think that that’s clearly a concern, because if our law tends to go in that direction and say that something is no longer constitutional, … what’s to prevent it from being broadened or expanded to take that right away from you or me as well?

The Department of Homeland Security says what Secure Communities does is give you as a law enforcement official more tools to get that very serious criminal immigrant out. Is that true?

That’s not true at all. That’s the problem with it. They have created this title, “Secure Communities,” so that in the event that something bad happens where we have another terrorist attack on American soil, they can say: “We’ve had Secure Communities in place. We’ve been doing all this. Look at our deportation numbers. Look at how hard we have been working on the issues.”

It’s all a big fallacy, because the reality is that out of our jail we do not deport any higher percentage with Secure Communities than we did before. And ICE in essence has thrown this fear into the Latino communities about Secure Communities because of the title and the depersonalized nature of it. But we were deporting all the [same] violent murderers, rapists, burglars, what have you, prior to Secure Communities that we are now. Nobody was sliding through the cracks. …

Do you believe that this whole program of Secure Communities is essentially some kind of major public relations issue? …

That’s exactly what it is. Secure Communities does not do anything that we couldn’t do before as far as catching the worst people and making sure they are deported. …

It gives the appearance to those who don’t live in those urban areas where there’s lots of undocumented immigrants: … “Look at what we’re doing. We have Secure Communities. Look at how tough we are.”

It doesn’t do anything.

Because if an undocumented immigrant has committed a serious crime, you as law enforcement will come into contact with that person if you are doing your job. That person will be put into jail no matter what. …

Exactly right. … If you were to go around the country and ask local sheriffs what does Secure Communities do, I think we would all sit there and tell you, “Wow, not a whole lot,” other than throw fear into the communities.

… Most of them are not prepared to verbalize the fact that they’ve got real issues with Secure Communities the way you are as a Republican sheriff.

I think probably my political future may live or die on this issue, but I’m fine with that as well.

You’re OK with that?

Absolutely, because in the end, if you cling to political law office is like it’s something that you have to have, I think you are going to be miserable, number one, and you are going to have let down the oath. You are going to have let down the people that were searching for some integrity and some authenticity maybe they saw in you. As a result of that, they voted for you.

Have you ever encountered people within your county that say: “Sheriff, you know what? I’m really mad at you about the fact that you’re talking out against Secure Communities. … I want to feel secure. I want to know that illegal immigrants are being deported”?

The problem is, we are dealing with this in a very detailed interview with you, but this is an issue that is generally dealt with in sound bites, and people don’t do research. They don’t know the history of these people. They don’t know the history of our immigration policies. They don’t know the details as far as how things work, so they get hung up on this sound bite world we live in, and I become the bad guy. No doubt about it.

I have a drawer full of hate mail — I mean, horrible e-mails. I get them to my home; I get them to my work. And oftentimes I get blasted just walking down the street.

Do you get the reverse in other communities, where they say: “Sheriff, we’re glad you’re here. Thanks for speaking out against Secure Communities”?

Yes, I have. You know, in faith communities, I think that people have warmly embraced that. …

In the jail here at the sheriff’s department, you could be housing illegal immigrants who are being processed by immigration, and you would be getting paid for that. … Were you asked whether or not you would lease some of your jail space to ICE or privately run facilities that would then take charge of these undocumented immigrants? …

We have not [been asked].

If you were asked, what would you say?

I don’t think it’s going to happen, because McHenry County to the west has a nice facility, and Kenosha County, Wis., to the north has one.

But I do believe that there is such thing as an unholy dollar, and at this point in time, I’m grateful that I am not faced with such a dilemma in tough economic times as having to make a dollar in such an unholy manner.

You mean by housing immigrants?

Yes, while they are waiting for a fair process to happen, and sad stories are getting swept up into the mix.

McHenry County houses immigrants in their jails. The money that they are being paid by the federal government to house these immigrants … pays for the entire McHenry County jail system. Eleven million dollars — that’s money that could be used here in your county or not?

Could we use $11 million? Certainly. I don’t think there’s any sheriff in the country right now that’s going to tell you they couldn’t use $11 million. …

Lake County is in many ways small-town America. So what are you worried about in terms of the lasting impact of what you say is this family separation that is occurring in the dragnet of immigration pickups? …

I think boys that don’t know their mother have a hard time in terms of being affectionate and loving on the level that they need to. Boys that don’t know their father, well, we know that our jail, as all jails in this country, consists of about 70 percent of the population [who] never knew their father. There is no big disciplinarian in the house. …

And look at the biblical adage that we reap what we sow. Breaking up families arbitrarily, I absolutely worry about the future of America continuing to move in this direction, no doubt about it.

Breaking up families.

There are consequences of consequences that will be seen for long periods beyond. …

Are you worried that Secure Communities basically creates a situation where there is racial profiling?

No question. … You leave open the process to arbitrary judgments, to law enforcement being able to question on the basis of status, you don’t think there are going to be individuals within [the law enforcement] community that are going to target Latinos, are going to target who they think is an illegal immigrant? Absolutely they are. There’s going to be abuse in the process. …

blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
Frontline Journalism Fund

Supporting Investigative Reporting

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.
PBSCPBMacArthur FoundationPark FoundationFord Foundationwyncote

FRONTLINE   Watch FRONTLINE   About FRONTLINE   Contact FRONTLINE
Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.