by Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh
Far from the U.S.-Mexico border, local police arrest thousands of illegal immigrants. Congress wants to make sure these people are deported. To get the job done, it’s relying on a program called Secure Communities. But there’s a hitch: Despite its name, the program may actually hurt public safety.
Secure Communities relies on local law enforcement agencies to share their arrest data with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). After an inmate’s fingerprints are scanned they’re sent to a database of state, FBI and immigration records. If ICE agents find a match, they can issue a “detainer” on the inmate and pick him up.
“The Secure Communities strategy provides ICE with an effective tool to identify criminal aliens in local custody,” said the program’s executive director, David Venturella.
Congress appropriated funding for Secure Communities in 2008 as a way for police to help ICE prevent undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records from being released from jails. So far, the program has led to the removal of 47,000 people.
But the government’s own data shows a quarter of those it helped deport — 12,293 people — were considered non-criminals. Others were picked up for relatively low-level offenses such as driving without a license or shoplifting and then transferred to ICE custody and removed.
Because of the program’s failure to focus on high-level offenders, critics say it’s causing fewer immigrants to share information with police that can help solve cases or prevent future crimes.
“This is creating a huge distrust, a huge void in our community-police relations,” said Cesar Espinosa, who works for the Central American Resource Center in Houston. Both the city and the county here are enrolled in Secure Communities. “We have a lot of folks who ask us, if I report a crime, will I be asked for my paperwork?”
Among those most in danger are undocumented women in abusive relationships. They fear being arrested if police respond to their domestic violence calls, and having to leave their children behind.
Civil rights advocates say Secure Communities encourages police to arrest people who have not committed a crime simply to check their immigration status, which is a form of racial profiling. For example, in Travis County — home to Austin, Texas — non-criminals accounted for 82 percent of the deportations resulting from Secure Communities.
“This indicates police officers are picking up people on pretext, the criminal charges are getting dropped or dismissed, and they’re getting shuttled into deportation,” said Bridget Kessler, a fellow with the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
Despite its shortcomings, Secure Communities is set to expand to every jail in the country by 2013. More than 500 jurisdictions have joined since it began in 2008, and there is no clear way to opt-out.
In April, San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey tried to opt-out because he already has a program to notify ICE when his department has immigrants in custody who’ve been charged or convicted of felonies. He estimated ICE picked up about 100 people a month. But he said ICE told him there was no way to refuse enrollment in Secure Communities.
“At this point it appears it is a program that is forced upon individual law enforcement agencies no matter what the community wants or cares about,” said Hennessey.
Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh co-produce DeportationNation.org. Their work is supported in part by a Soros Justice Media Fellowship, a program of the Open Society Institute. Thanks to Bryan Parras, Tish Stringer and Duy Linh Tu for technical assistance.