Photo: Say No to Secure Communities Program
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is preparing to announce the constitution of a new Secure Communities Advisory Committee, a group assembled to analyze growing concerns about the program’s scope and implementation and to recommend improvements. Earlier this week, ICE also re-iterated that all states and localities will be forced to participate in the program, disregarding governors and law enforcement officials in Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, California, and elsewhere who are trying to cancel their participation in the program because of its negative impact on community policing and crime fighting. When law enforcement leaders reject a “law enforcement” program, and when the federal government tramples over states’ ability to determine their own local policing policies, something is fundamentally wrong. The Secure Communities Advisory Committee could be an important step toward bringing this program in line with its stated goals. But that will only come to pass if DHS is willing to make real, fundamental reforms.
Read on for background about the Secure Communities program, the impact it is having on the ground, concerns raised by law enforcement leaders, and reforms that are needed to reverse
the damage done to community policing.
Rhetoric Versus Reality
ICE Director John Morton has repeatedly said he believes federal immigration enforcement should focus on the “worst of the worst,” yet the policies and practices of his agency have failed to meet that standard. Secure Communities was designed to focus on dangerous convicted criminals, but has actually swept up thousands of non-criminal immigrants and hurt the relationship between local police and the immigrant community.
The truth about Secure Communities was revealed earlier this year when ICE released a series of documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Benjamin H. CardozoSchool of Law. According to ICE’s own records, 29% of all immigrants who have been deported under Secure Communities have no criminal records whatsoever. Sixty percent of all deportees under Secure Communities either have no criminal convictions or have only been convicted of minor crimes, such as traffic violations. In many states and counties, Secure Communities’ track record is even worse—a staggering 72% of immigrants deported in Jefferson County, Louisiana (New Orleans) under Secure Communities were non-criminals. And non-criminals and low-level offenders accounted for 68% of all Secure Communities deportations in the state of Illinois—fueling concerns that recently led lawmakers to decide to end the state’s participation. Illinois, as well as New York, Massachusetts and California, have acted on the understanding that states and localities can opt out of the program—as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee last September. In recent months, however, DHS has flip-flopped, and now claims that states and localities have never been able to opt out. The ICE documents released earlier this year show that even within ICE, employees and contractors have long been confused or intentionally deceptive about opting out. Representative Zoe Lofgren wrote in May that “I believe some of these false and misleading statements may have been made intentionally, while others were made recklessly, knowing that the statements were ambiguous and likely to create confusion.” Additionally, in March, the New York Times reported that other internal documents released by ICE showed that the agency had put political pressure on local officials to participate.
The Chilling Effect on Crime Reporting
For years, law enforcement leaders have warned of the dangers of turning police into deportation agents, because they want everyone in the community to feel safe reporting crimes. By sweeping up so many non-criminals and individuals whose only offense is a traffic violation, Secure Communities is sending a clear message to members of the immigrant community that any contact with the police could lead to their deportation.This has a dangerous chilling effect on crime reporting by immigrants. A report released this year by the Police Executive Research Forum found that “When undocumented immigrants witness crime, they are often unwilling to report it because of their illegal status, depriving local police of information that might help them solve crimes.” This is also true of immigrants who are victims of crime, especially of domestic violence. Victim advocate Leslye Orloff noted in Congressional testimony this year that only 19% of battered undocumented women are willing to report their abuse to police, and warned that “the heightened fear of detention and deportation that increased immigration enforcement through 287(g) and Secure Communities is making it even less likely that immigrant victims will report and aid in the prosecution of rape and sexual assault.” Victims of domestic violence have already been caught up in the Secure Communities dragnet; an unknown number of immigrants have declined to come forward and report crimes for fear of deportation. When they stay silent, law enforcement and public safety suffer.
Growing Criticism from Law Enforcement and Elected Officials
For this reason, governors from Illinois, New York and Massachusetts have sought to remove their states from participating in the program, and the California legislature is considering the TRUST Act, which would allow counties throughout the state to opt out of the program. As early as September of last year, communities in Arlington, Virginia and San Francisco, California were raising concerns about Secure Communities and looking to opt out. Concerns are mounting as more data has been released about the way the program is functioning.Governor Cuomo of New York summed up the sentiment of many state officials who’ve opted out of the program, stating, “The heart of concern is that the program, conceived of as a method of targeting those 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 has also expressed growing concern with Secure Communities and the way it hinders their trust with the immigrant community. Sheriff Michael Hennessey of San Francisco County, described the dysfunction of the program in a recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed: “My main criticism of Secure Communities is that it casts too wide a net and scoops up the fingerprints of everyone not born in the United States whether or not they pose a criminal risk.”Leaders like Hennessey are calling for a more targeted program that won’t interfere with the relationships they’ve built through years of community policing.
Real Reforms Needed
Feeling the heat from widespread criticism of the program, ICE announced some initial adjustments to Secure Communities, including the creation of the Advisory Committee.While this could be a step in the right direction, the key question is whether DHS will be willing to make sweeping, structural reforms to bring the program in line with community policing and smart use of state and local resources. Given the Department’s track record with ignoring, undercutting, and even coercing states and localities who have raised concerns about the program, strong public scrutiny is needed to ensure the federal government works with the Advisory Board members and other stakeholders to make real and enforceable changes to the program.
We believe the following reforms are needed, at a minimum, to bring Secure Communities in line with its stated goals and the tenets of community policing:
1) Secure Communities should only be applied post-conviction. State and local police want real criminals to be afraid of them, not ordinary immigrants. When non-criminals are deported after contact with the police, it scares immigrants away from having contact with law enforcement, even when they are victims of or witnesses to crimes.
2) Secure Communities should only be applied to individuals convicted of serious crimes. Lowlevel misdemeanors, such as fishing without a license, or traffic violations, should not trigger Secure Communities. Deportation after a broken taillight sends a chilling message to the immigrant community that police are on the hunt for undocumented workers, not dangerous criminals, and again undermines community policing.
3) DHS needs to deal honestly and openly with state and local governments. The federal government’s attempts to coerce states and localities into participating in Secure Communities are inexcusable. The Administration needs to work with law enforcement and address their concerns, not force them into a program that hurts their ability to fight crime. The Administration must also clarify the limits of police authority, and sanction rogue law enforcement agencies that overstep them. Clarifying and enforcing these limits will help repair the damage done to police-community relationships over the past several years, as police roles in immigration enforcement expanded.
Unless and until these reforms are implemented, members of the immigrant community will fear contact with local law enforcement, and public safety will suffer.