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Despite Recent Tweaks, "Secure Communities" Deportation Program Still Fundamentally Flawed

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Program Will Continue to Damage Community Policing Unless DHS Implements a Complete Overhaul

Responding to growing criticism from law enforcement and elected officials across the country, who say DHS’ Secure Communities program is hurting the relationship between local police and the community that is essential to fighting crime, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton announced minor changes last month.  Morton also announced the creation of a task force to recommend further reforms needed to the program; the task force is scheduled to issue recommendations in early August. 

Let’s be clear, the program is not fixed. Unless the Secure Communities Task Force recommends broad structural changes, and DHS implements them, the program will continue to harm community policing and put civil immigration enforcement ahead of crime-fighting in local communities. 

Boston Mayor, Thomas Menino, submitted a letter to the task force expressing his concerns that the program has created fear of police in immigrant communities, making them less likely to report crimes to the police.  In a similar letter to members of the task force, the National Latino Peace Officers Association (NLPOA), echoed those concerns, saying, “The immigrant community needs to know that they can work with state and local police to put criminals behind bars and not risk their own deportation.”

When ICE Director John Morton announced the creation of the Secure Communities Task Force, he also issued a new memo clarifying that all ICE agents and attorneys have the authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion and potentially cancel the deportation of an individual in certain circumstances.  This memo addresses what happens to immigrants after they are funneled into the deportation system through various means, including Secure Communities, and includes no guarantees.  The Morton memo does nothing to limit the ways in which immigrants are referred for deportation in the first place, which is the core problem with Secure Communities.  Until programs that involve state and local police in civil immigration enforcement, like Secure Communities and 287(g), are narrowed to focus only on serious, convicted criminals, immigrants who have not committed crimes will continue to fear the police and public safety will suffer.

Read on for background about the Secure Communities program, the impact it is having on the ground, concerns raised by law enforcement leaders, DHS’ track record on listening to criticism about that program, and what reforms 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. Cardozo School 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.

DHS Has Shown Blatant Disregard for These Concerns

The federal government must be willing to hear, understand, and incorporate concerns from stakeholders in the states.  But DHS has already indicated that it will try to force states and localities 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 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 on states’ rights to determine their own policing policies, something is fundamentally wrong. 

Real Reforms Needed

To bring the program in line with community policing, the Secure Communities Task Force must make sweeping structural recommendations, and DHS must be willing to implement those reforms.  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.  Low-level misdemeanors, such as fishing without a license, or traffic violations, should not trigger deportation.  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 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 state and local law enforcement agencies and allow them to opt-out of or tailor the program if it doesn’t meet their needs–not force them to participate in 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. 

For more information, please contact Pili Tobar at ptobar@americasvoiceonline.org or 202- 463-8602, ext. 308, or see:

  • UncoverTheTruth.Org, a project of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Benjamin H. Cardozo School of Law collecting Secure Communities data released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.