A six-year-old enforcement tool that links people booked into local jails with federal immigration authorities is getting the ax as part of President Barack Obama’s immigration reforms.
Under the multi-million-dollar Secure Communities program, local authorities shared digital fingerprints from everyone booked into jail with federal authorities, who combed the prints for immigrants, those here legally and illegally, so they could be deported.
As more and more immigrants who had committed traffic or immigration violations were nabbed by local officials and turned over to immigration authorities, the program began to drive a wedge between immigrant communities and local law enforcement.
“Its very name has become a symbol of hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws,” acknowledged Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in a memo detailing the administration's decision.
Immigrants and civil rights groups as well as some local police officials said Secure Communities made policing more difficult because immigrants fearful or resentful of the cooperation with federal immigration authorities would not come forward to report crimes or assist with information or witness accounts that might be helpful in investigations.
Johnson noted that governors, mayors and state and local law enforcement officers refused to cooperate with the program and that many federal courts rejected local law enforcement’s authority to detain immigrants under the program.
Though the overarching goal of Secure Communities remained valid, stated Johnson, "a fresh start and a new program are necessary."
The memo drew responses by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. advocacy and policy counsel Jon Blazer. “We agree with Secretary Johnson’s conclusion that the program has failed to support community policing and has destroyed trust between local and law enforcement officials and DHS and immigrant communities and local police,” Blazer said.
Secure Communities began as a pilot program under President George W. Bush, but was greatly expanded by Obama’s former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
It also had been controversial because while it was initially pitched as a program that local authorities could participate in voluntarily, it was soon made mandatory, even though federal officials knew early on they would get local resistance. The program became a catalyst for protests of Obama as deportations under his administration grew.
In recent years, cities and local sheriffs had increasingly pulled away from the program by refusing to detain some of the immigrants who had been arrested on lower-level infractions, such as trespassing or failing to stop at a stop sign.
The Pew Charitable Trusts found that nearly 300 cities and counties as well as the states of California, Colorado and Connecticut had stopped or curtailed cooperation.
But not everyone disagrees with the program. Some local officials, such as the Travis County Sheriff’s Office in Austin, Texas, have been supporters of the program.
Secure Communities is to be replaced with what the administration is calling the Priority Enforcement Program.
As part of the president’s executive action immigration reforms, Johnson is rewriting the rules that Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to decide who is a priority for deportation. The aim is to ensure tax dollars and other resources go to removing the most dangerous and law-breaking immigrants in the country.
Homeland Security will still check electronic fingerprints of people booked by local officials, but will focus on immigrants who fit the profile of those that are at the top of the list for deportation and will work with the Department of Justice to deport federal criminals who are imprisoned, the White House said.
Rather than asking for a local official to hold a person longer than they would usually be held, ICE must ask to be notified of pending release of immigrants they have in custody.
“If local and state law enforcement picks up someone who is consistent with our priorities, they will notify DHS and because they are a priority, agents will come to remove them,” a senior administration official told reporter in a briefing before the president’s speech on the condition the official was not identified.
“If they are not consistent (with the priorities), agents will be notified, but they will not come forward to remove that person and after will be released from state custody according to state law,” the official said.
Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports limited immigration, said DHS already doesn’t show up for immigrants who have been picked up for low-level crimes so “I don’t know what that means as far as ending Secure Communities.”
“What they are saying is they are going to ignore people who come to our attention via Secure Communities,” Krikorian said. He said it is bad policing to go without the program because ICE repeatedly has passed on immigrants illegally in the country who went on to commit serious offenses.
Obama tried to emphasize that his administration remains focused on enforcement in his speech. “Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe they must be held accountable, especially those who may be dangerous,” Obama said.
That’s why the focus will be on “felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids,” Obama said. “We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.”