January 9, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 2

Community & Editorial

A Bush-era policy continues to threaten the security of local immigrant communities

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Several months ago, I expressed concern about Secure Communities to a friend. She assumed I was talking about food security and access to adequate nutrition. More recently, during a similar conversation, an acquaintance assumed I was talking about creating safe havens in our schools and places of worship. Both had misunderstood me. Instead I was referring to a controversial program of immigration enforcement championed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Secure Communities, introduced under President George W. Bush, links duties of local and state law enforcement with federal immigration enforcement. Under the Obama administration, the program rapidly expanded to include virtually every county in the United States. Immigrant rights advocates and people concerned with civil liberties are justly concerned about implementation of the program in Washington state, since it relies on instant electronic information‐sharing between local law enforcement agencies and ICE. 

As has been true for some time, law enforcement officers take fingerprints of people who have been arrested and check them against FBI data. Under Secure Communities, the FBI forwards the fingerprint data to the DHS to identify matches in the Automated Biometric Identification System, a database with information on over 91 million individuals. ICE receives automatic notification when the fingerprints match a record.

This occurs for anyone who has ever had contact with DHS, including naturalized U.S. citizens and persons who have applied for or received visas.  If ICE believes the individual is deportable, the agency will request the person be placed on a non-mandatory, two-day detainer, sometimes called an ICE hold. Even if the criminal matter in question is resolved, ICE asks that person still be held for up to two business days, in order for ICE officials to take the person into custody. In Washington, this means transfer to the Northwest Detention Center, a contracted, privately-owned, 1500-bed facility in Tacoma, one of the largest in the country.

DHS touts Secure Communities as a tool to improve public safety by deporting dangerous “criminal aliens.” But its own data shows otherwise: Implementation of Secure Communities has led to the wrongful detention of an estimated 3,600 individuals through October 2011, including U.S. citizens, and crime victims and witnesses.

Many law enforcement officials have criticized Secure Communities for eroding trust between local law enforcement and communities and thereby threatens public safely. It silences victims of domestic violence and other crimes by increasing victims’ fear of contacting the police. Furthermore, it wastes public resources. Local jurisdictions are not reimbursed for the full cost of holding a person in custody. In addition, ICE is not always able to pick up the individual within two days, so some people are erroneously held in custody for much longer. Pre-conviction information sharing often funnels low-priority, non-violent offenders and the wrongfully accused into this program.   

Secure Communities opens the door to racial profiling. Evidence exists that police do stop people for minor offenses who look or sound “foreign” as a pretext to check immigration status.  People from Latin American countries are disproportionately represented among those identified for deportation through Secure Communities. The program sends the wrong signal to local law enforcement whose responsibility is to enforce local law, not federal immigration law.

People who are transferred into immigration custody enter a harsh system that divides families, separates children from parents and deports valuable community members. Demographers estimate that more than

4 million children have parents who live in the United States without authorization. Right to counsel is not guaranteed and little discretion exists in the immigration system, which severely limits the opportunities for individuals to fight cases. 

In recent weeks, President Obama has spoken of his commitment to immigration policy reform. As part of that commitment, the administration should end Secure Communities. In the meantime, we in Washington state should follow the lead of local governments in California, Illinois and Washington, D.C., that have developed policies limiting jail-based immigration enforcement. Our state legislature also has an opportunity to take leadership and pass statewide legislation that would confine the effect of Secure Communities.

Fairness, family, and equal justice are deeply held American values. Let’s apply these to everyone. Let’s make our communities truly secure.

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