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Secure Communities Task Force Recommendations Fall Short

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Program Will Still Undermine Community Policing

The Task Force on Secure Communities, a non-governmental body appointed by the Department of Homeland Security this summer, just announced its recommendations to reform this deeply flawed program.  

According to Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice Education Fund, “Because of Secure Communities and similar programs, fear of deportation now equates with fear of police for many immigrant families.  This is a dangerous equation for community policing and public safety.  The Task Force report offers a strong rebuke of Secure Communities and the way DHS rolled it out across the nation.  But its recommendations fall short of what is needed to rebuild the relationship between immigrants and the police.”

During the summer, the Task Force on Secure Communities participated in field hearings and heard from dozens of community members about the impact the program is having on crime victims and witnesses, who often avoid contact with the police for fear of deportation.  One testimonial at the Los Angeles hearing came from Blanca, a member of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) who lives in Van Nuys, California.  According to Jorge-Mario Cabrera, Communications Director at CHIRLA, “Blanca was ticketed and arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for violating a city ordinance by selling ice cream within 500 yards of a school.  She was taken to a central police detention facility where she was questioned by what appear to be ICE officers.  Blanca was never prosecuted for the violation, but ICE fitted her with an ankle bracelet monitor and placed her in deportation proceedings, which she is still fighting.  Blanca is the single mother of three children and has no criminal record.”

Unfortunately, the recommendations contained in the Task Force report may not have changed the outcome for Blanca and others who participated in the field hearings, or whose cases have been documented by community groups.  Immigrants merely accused of minor offenses, including traffic violations, would still have their fingerprints sent to the FBI and DHS.  The federal government would then decide if they are an “enforcement priority” or not, resulting in the inescapable fact that state and local police would still be the conduit funneling immigrants into deportation proceedings—including people who are simply charged with or convicted of very minor offenses, like driving without a license.  Many people whose only “crime” is an immigration violation would still be deported through Secure Communities.  This remains a dramatic departure from the program’s supposed focus on the “worst of the worst,” i.e. those convicted of serious crimes.

According to Tramonte, “The language in the Task Force report makes it clear that some were fighting for stronger recommendations and realize that deportation after minor contact with the police, like a traffic violation or being accused of fishing without a license, makes immigrants fear law enforcement and hurts community policing.  Unfortunately, the final recommendations are unlikely to result in fundamental reforms.  Instead, DHS will proceed with ‘business as usual’ for the most part, and the relationship between police and immigrants will continue to suffer.” 

In fact, at least two members of the Task Force resigned because the report’s recommendations did not go far enough.  Art Venegas, former Sacramento Police Chief and one of the former Task Force members, wrote: “At the Task Force hearing in Los Angeles, I heard testimony from a woman who was arrested for selling popsicles without a license and put into deportation proceedings through the Secure Communities program.  When I look at the recommendations in this report, I think about that woman, and the wave of fear her arrest and pending deportation has caused in her community.  Had the task force recommendations been in place at the time, I believe she would have had the exact same experience.” 

Venegas also criticized Secure Communities for turning “the long-stand principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ on its head for certain groups of people.  If you are an immigrant, and you are charged with a more serious offense, you are ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and you will be referred for deportation.  As an immigrant myself, and as an American, I cannot support that differing standard.”

America’s Voice Education Fund (AVEF) believes the following reforms are needed, at a minimum, to bring Secure Communities in line with its stated goals and the tenets of community policing.  Unless and until these reforms are implemented, the program will continue to undermine community policing and put federal, civil immigration enforcement ahead of local crime-fighting.

1) Secure Communities should only be applied post-conviction. State and local police want criminals to be afraid of them, not ordinary immigrants.  As AVEF documented in the report, Public Safety on Ice: How Do You Police a Community that Won’t Talk to You? there is a very real chilling effect on members of the immigrant community when neighbors, friends, coworkers, and family members are deported after having casual contact with the police.  Immigrants are afraid to report crimes or information to the police, and criminals get a free pass. 

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.  Government statistics show that as of June 2011, 28% of the immigrants deported through Secure Communities have not committed any crime, and 59% have either committed a low-level offense or none at all.  The American Immigration Lawyers Association documented how common it has become for traffic enforcement to lead to deportation in its report, Immigration Enforcement Off Target: Minor Offenses with Major Consequences, as did the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network in their report, Restoring Community: A National Community Advisory Report on ICE’s Failed “Secure Communities” Program.  Deportation after a broken taillight tells members of the community that police are on the hunt for undocumented workers, not dangerous criminals.  This is not only a far cry from the program’s original intent, but it undermines community policing and public safety as a result.    

3) DHS needs to work with state and local governments, not force a flawed program down their throats. The federal government’s attempts to force states and localities into participating in Secure Communities are inexcusable. The federal government 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 require 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 decade.

Added Tramonte, “When a ‘law enforcement program’ is criticized by respected members of the police community, something is seriously wrong.  Secure Communities has turned law enforcement priorities on their head, putting enforcement of federal, civil immigration laws ahead of state and local criminal laws.  Immigrants are now afraid to work with the police to report crimes or serve as witnesses, and that makes us all less safe.  We need to get our priorities straight.  Secure Communities should not continue without sweeping structural reforms that put community policing and public safety first.”  

For more information, see:

America’s Voice Education Fund — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.