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The Daily Need

‘Lost in Detention’ spotlights government’s controversial Secure Communities program

People rally in support of immigration reform and the DREAM Act in Lafayette Park outside the White House in Washington, on Tuesday, July 26, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The Obama administration reached an immigration milestone earlier this year: one million deportations.

That’s a dubious achievement for a president that championed the cause of comprehensive immigration reform during his 2008 campaign and obtained 70 percent of the Latino-American vote that year. On last night’s Frontline special, “Lost in Detention,” correspondent and Need to Know host Maria Hinojosa explored the way that immigration policy and detention facilities have toughened up against undocumented immigrants under the Obama administration’s watch.

“Lost in Detention” focused on two major targets: the highly controversial federal program Secure Communities, and the U.S.’s sprawling network of immigration detention facilities, which critics say are rife with abuse and mistreatment. Need to Know has reported on both of these topics in the past, but the controversy surrounding Secure Communities has become increasingly visible in recent months.

Secure Communities, a government program started in 2008, began as an opt-in program for local law enforcement to share arrest data with federal immigration authorities to streamline the process of detaining and eventually deporting dangerous criminals. In the years that the program has been in operation, however, Secure Communities has been roundly accused of being responsible for the deportation of thousands of low-level offenders and non-criminals. Hinojosa visited several families who were abruptly separated after a family member was arrested and detained – often for minor, non-violent offenses – as a result of the Secure Communities program.

Local law enforcement have increasingly expressed fears that the program hurts public safety by making undocumented immigrants or those close to them afraid of reporting crimes or cooperating with police. Just last months, a task force assigned to review Secure Communities criticized the program, saying, “To the extent that Secure Communities may damage policing, the result can be greater levels of crime.” Even despite the critiques, five members resigned from the task force, arguing that the recommendations laid out in the report did not go far enough to remedy the problems caused by the federal program.

Although Secure Communities began as a voluntary program that states were allowed to opt into, states have found their choices increasingly restricted. Two governors who originally signed up for the program – from Illinois and New York – and the governor of Massachusetts, who had not opted in, have publicly opposed the program in recent years, but faced obstructions in suspending their contracts with the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency. In August, the federal government, via a letter to state governors around the country, declared that it no longer needed state agreement to operate legally in those states. ICE terminated all contracts and re-declared its intent to expand nationwide by 2013, thereby making Secure Communities mandatory in all states.

The issue has become particularly controversial in Massachusetts, where Governor Deval Patrick has been outspoken against the program. Last month, a undocumented drunk driver with a criminal background killed a motorcyclist in the town of Milford, Mass. The victim’s family vehemently argued that under Secure Communities, the drunk driver would have been deported long ago, and the fatal incident would not have occurred. Immigration advocates, however, argued back that drunk driving was not a problem inherent to undocumented immigrants, and that the program was not the answer to making communities safer on the whole.

In August, the Obama administration announced a shift in its deportation policy to focus on high-level criminals, in an effort to combat the many criticisms levied against the Secure Communities program. The government reassessed some 300,000 active deportation cases, providing long-awaited reprieves for thousands of undocumented immigrants without serious criminal backgrounds. However, the government made no indication that it was altering plans to expand Secure Communities, which critics have said is responsible for sweeping up thousands of non-criminals in the immigration court system to begin with.

The debate over whether the federal government legally has the authority to operate without state consent will likely shift with the Supreme Court’s impending decision over state and federal roles in immigration policy. This term, the Supreme Court is scheduled to issue a ruling over Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB 1070, which the Justice Department argues infringes on federal authority over immigration policy in the U.S. Although the case does not directly involve Secure Communities, the ruling could have major implications over the federal government’s right to expand and enforce the program without state support.

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  • Blackmon Thomas

    If your purpose in airing “Lost in Detention” was to garner sympathy from me, it failed. The mother knew that there would be consequences for her illegal act if she were caught and that these may be visited upon her children. And if they wish to be together again then smuggle the children back across the border to Mexico, this is a talent she obviously has. Also, her husband speaking in Spanish drew no sympathy; he should have learned English during his 11 years here. I’m 65 years old and never heard the phrase, “press two for Italian or German or Polish, etc.” on the telephone. Seems the present crop of illegals is either too lazy or too stupid to learn English. But, do not fret for in the next ten or so years, the 5 children of these folks will be able to vote along with the millions of other off-springs and basically steal the country for themselves. I‘d be curious to see if they make Spanish the official l language and outlaw English

  • blackmonthomas’seducater

    Blackmon Thomas,
    I do feel for your small mind & wish you would learn SPANISH as you call it for the least …I speak 5 tongues better than you, faster than you & THEN SOME! You are from the ignorant & hatred filled lost children that was offspringed by your own words today….reach out to your community & make PEACE!!

    This is not your america it is – EVERYONES AMERICA..GOD BLESS YOU!!  

  • Feisty Maguire

    I kept waiting for your episode on Immigration to ask the question,
    “Why is our government focused on punishing the worker rather than the employer who is fueling the demand for illegal laborers?”  or,  “Why do our state and federal governments seem willing to “look the other way” and quietly allow certain industries (like agriculture, forestry, and construction) to continue to profit from illegal laborers while so many legal US citizens are out of work?”

    I would love to have seen the politicians try to answer those questions, even though we already know the answer.

    Clearly, our government looks the other way and fails to punish businesses, because our former “democracy” is swiftly becoming a corporate state; an oligarchy, where laws are drafted and enforced for the benefit of corporate interests, not in the best interest of the citizens or the natural resources of the state or nation. 

    Creating a tension between “the illegals” and “the citizens” is a distraction from the real problem, a corrupt government more willing to make “examples” of the illegal workers than punish the businesses that hire them.  If our government operated “in the sunshine” and was honest about its willingness to subsidize certain industries, then it would allow LEGAL US Citizens to work, like the “undocumented:” tax-free, for cash, and with no federal or state withholding or social security contributions/deductions. 

    When politicians imply that “there are jobs in America that no American is willing to do,” they are being racist and illogical.  In “real life,” there are working conditions that no HUMAN, when apprised of the actual health consequences of work-related exposures (as in to dangerous agricultural pesticides and herbicides) should be asked to endure.  Likewise, there are wages so low, that unless awarded in tax-free cash, are insufficient to pay for the basic living costs associated with living “legally” in the United States. 

    If all agricultural settings were organic, there would be plenty of legal workers delighted to have a fulfilling job doing wholesome physical work out in the fresh air and sunshine.  Likewise, if all industries with job opportunities presently filled by a largely illegal work force were forced to offer legal Americans the same “tax-free, all cash” wages offered to illegals, again, legal citizens would be leaping at the opportunity to have tax-free “take home pay” equal to the wage quoted.

    WE THE PEOPLE continue to allow OUR Government to subsidize big business by selectively “looking the other way” for certain industries.  That’s the real issue.  Can we focus more on the real cause of the illegal immigration problem (state and federal government “sanctioned” subsidizing of certain industries by allowing them to continually utilize illegal laborers without consequence)?  

    The truth is, in an oligarchy, the corporate state cares only about profit, and does not distinguish “undocumented worker” from “citizen worker,” other than the fact that the former offers notably higher net profit and lower overhead costs than the latter. Clearly, a business has more incentive to hire the lower cost, lower overhead worker, so why on earth would it direct its minions (politicians) to craft or enforce laws that would be clearly deleterious to its net profits?

    Citizens: let’s take back our democracy, and demand that ALL workers be given fair wages and decent working conditions; and that business be held accountable for breaking the laws of our land.

    Sometimes, when laws are broken, reparation has been an acceptable form of “punishment.”  Perhaps every “undocumented worker” could be given the opportunity to become a “whistle-blower,” disclosing the name of the employer and the total wages that the employer failed to collect the necessary withholding taxes (social security contributions, FICA, unemployment insurance, etc.).  Then the “lost tax revenues” and associated fees could be recovered from the offending business.  If businesses were forced to pay the lost wage-related tax revenues, then some of the costs of the illegal population presently borne solely by the taxpayer (health care, public education) would be mitigated, and voters might feel more charitable about lobbying for immigration reform. 

    Many of us who have worked alongside the kind and generous hard-working immigrants who have entered our workforce as “illegals,” recognize that all of us “workers” share similar goals and aspirations: a decent life for ourselves and our family.   While we, as legal workers, resent the inequity of being “penalized” with withholding taxes, income taxes, etc. as “legal workers,” and know that our wages are lower than they would be if we were not “competing” with “undocumented” laborers, we also understand that the inequity is a failure of “the system,” a failure of our government to enforce laws equitably.

    Let’s hold our governments accountable; make them enforce immigration laws on the businesses and industries that openly primarily hire undocumented workers. 

    We love the “Need to Know” series, and would appreciate journalists covering the “business” side of the immigration reform challenge in the future.  Most Americans have kind feelings towards our South and Central American “neighbors” and culture, and do not share the enmity and racism implied by the political pundits and main stream media when they cover the illegal immigration issue.  We appreciate PBS’s series, like Need to Know, that offer a more objective perspective on domestic, international, environmental, and social justice issues like this one.

    Thank you