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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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