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The Fallacy of 'Secure Communities'

Author: Kristin Lewis
November 2, 2011


Even as the Republican nominees bicker over who is the toughest on illegal immigration, with proposals as absurd as an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Obama administration has proven it's no pushover on enforcement.

John Morton, the immigration and customs enforcement director, recently announced a record number of deportations, the third year in a row that a new record was set. ICE credits much of its success to a targeted enforcement strategy, focusing on removal of criminal offenders and others who pose a threat to national security.

But a central component is a controversial program called Secure Communities, which requires local law enforcement to work with ICE. This not only compromises public safety, it violates basic rights granted to both citizens and non-citizens in the United States.

This program is set to expand to all 50 states by 2013. City leaders, however, should refuse to allow local agencies to enforce immigration policy—which the federal government has stringently defended as its own jurisdiction.

This policy was first introduced by the Bush administration in 2008, as a pilot program in 14 jurisdictions. But the Obama administration has greatly expanded it —and it's now active in 44 states and territories.

Under this program, local law enforcement is required to work with ICE. Local jurisdictions must hand over fingerprints of arrestees, which are run through a database to determine immigration status.

But the first data analysis of the program, in a study recently released by the University of California, Berkeley Law School and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, found startling figures that question the program's effectiveness and legality. Clear patterns of racial profiling, absence of due process and cases of mistakenly detained U.S. citizens were all evident in the random sample analyzed. This last finding is particularly startling; if Secure Communities were really a simple information-sharing program, then no U.S. citizen should ever be detained.

In addition, the main objective of the program is to remove criminal immigrants, who have actively threatened the security of a community. Yet, in the sample population studied, of those issued removal charges, roughly two-thirds of detainees had only been charged with being Present Without Admission — meaning they had entered the country without authorized documentation, or been charged on other immigration-related offenses, like visa overstay.

One result of the program is that immigrant populations increasingly view local police to be acting as immigration officers. In communities where the police rely heavily on local information, fear of deportation can cause many crimes to go unreported, making neighborhoods less safe.

Cities with large immigrant populations should follow the recent leads of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Washington Mayor Vincent Gray. Security is the top priority in these cities, but both mayors realize that the inherent flaws in this program risk public safety and infringe on basic rights. Both mayors have recently backed refusals to hand over detainees to federal custody, arguing that a community's trust and its ability to work with local law enforcement are essential for upholding public safety.

To be fair, the Obama administration has adopted a smart approach to immigration enforcement by stepping up the removal of criminal immigrants, who have committed serious offenses, and shifting focus away from deporting those who just seek better lives for their families.

But maximizing federal resources should not come at the expense of local capital. And for an administration that has repeatedly argued that immigration policy and enforcement lie under the umbrella of the federal government—and has even sued the state of Arizona on these grounds—its public statements and actions appear almost schizophrenic.

The federal government needs to devise a new enforcement system that can rebut the accusations from states, and some conservatives, that it is not serious about illegal immigration. But until a more effective, and lawful, system is realized, city leaders should not comply with this flawed program that diverts resources from local law enforcement, compromises local officers' ability to maintain the trust of their communities and splinters cities rich in diversity by criminalizing non-citizen populations.

Kristin Lewis is assistant director of the Task Force Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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