Why Three Governors Challenged Secure Communities


October 18, 2011
Stay tuned for Lost in Detention, our upcoming film on the immigration debate. It airs tonight; check your local listings or watch it online.

At first, Jerry Stermer thought Secure Communities seemed like an attractive idea: Local police departments would use cutting-edge technology to identify illegal immigrants with criminal records. The worst of the worst would then be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] for detention and deportation.

“We are talking about murderers and rapists and arsonists, the most serious, and that was very clear,” says Stermer, senior adviser to Gov. Pat Quinn [D-Ill.]. “That’s what we heard about. That’s what we understood was going on.”

But when the governor’s office looked at ICE’s own statistics, it found that fewer than 20 percent of those deported from Illinois had been convicted of a serious crime.

Gov. Quinn and his staff weren’t the only state leaders questioning the gap between what Secure Communities promised and what it delivered. Within the span of a month this summer, three Democratic state governors — Quinn, Gov. Deval Patrick [D-Mass.] and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo [D-N.Y.] — tried to pull out of Secure Communities.

“More than 30 percent of those deported from the United States, under the program, have never been convicted of any crime, much less a serious one,” Quinn and Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau wrote in a May letter [PDF] to Marc Rapp, the acting assistant director of Secure Communities.

A letter from the Massachusetts secretary of public safety and security expressed similar reservations: “Mr. Patrick had concluded that he should not sign any agreement to join the program because it was not accomplishing its goal of deporting immigrants who were convicted of serious crimes.”

And Gov. Cuomo objected to the program’s impact on public safety in a letter [PDF] sent on his behalf to the Department of Homeland Security:

The heart of the concern is that the program, conceived of as a method of targeting those people who pose the greatest threat to our communities, is in fact having the opposite effect and compromising public safety by deterring witnesses to crime and others from working with law enforcement.

“Law enforcement works best when it’s engaged with the community,” Lake County, Ill., Sheriff Mark Curran, a former supporter of the program, told FRONTLINE. But instead, he said Secure Communities has had the opposite effect:

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.

But within the states, not everyone agrees that Secure Communities should end. The issue has been especially controversial in Massachusetts, with Sen. Scott Brown [R] recently writing Gov. Patrick a letter urging him to support and participate in the program. Sen. Brown also spoke about the issue, stating “the Secure Communities program is an important tool to help ensure that known terrorists and criminals who have entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visas are unable to remain in the country.”

Gov. Patrick has also come under fire for several recent incidents, including a car crash in which an illegal immigrant with a criminal record drove drunk and killed a motorcyclist. Several local Massachusetts sheriffs increased cooperation with DHS following the incident.

In early October, Cook County, Illinois released more than 40 illegal immigrants being held in their jails. While some applauded the move — “What we are doing is righting a wrong against people who are on the soil of Cook County under the protection of the U.S. Constitution,” Commissioner Larry Suffredin [D] told the Associated Press — others, like Commissioner Timothy Schneider [R] fear a “Willie Horton moment,” referring to the convicted killer who raped a woman after being released on a furlough.

In September, Cook County approved an ordinance that would not require county jails to hold illegal immigrants who have been convicted of misdemeanors or felonies. Those behind the legislation argue that it’s an issue of both immigration and economics — the government doesn’t reimburse the jail for holding someone for ICE.

While the controversy continues in Illinois, Massachusetts and New York, a fourth governor is feeling the pressure. Members of Congress from California have pressed Gov. Jerry Brown [D] to also declare his opposition to the program; thus far he has not done so.

But despite the reservations of three Obama allies, his administration is doubling down on Secure Communities. In August, it announced that state participation in the program is mandatory and earlier this month, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano made it clear the program isn’t going away. Opposition to Secure Communities has led DHS to make adjustments to the program, instructing ICE on using prosecutorial discretion [PDF]. It’s also promised to review some 300,000 pending deportation cases. But ICE director John Morton has said he intends to implement the program nationwide by 2013.

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