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Take Local Police Out of Immigration Enforcement


Nations and organizations around the globe observed yesterday as International Migrants Day. Twenty-two years ago, on December 18, 1990 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, affirming the fundamental principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Unfortunately, this year the United States’ treatment of migrants has been dismal.  Nearly 400,000 people have been deported, often without adequate due process.  Anti-immigrant and xenophobic laws have been passed in state legislatures of Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina, and Utah.  The US has increased fear and isolation in our migrant communities.

Last week the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (DOJ), to its credit, made public the findings of its investigation, initiated in March 2009, into civil rights violations in Arizona by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MSCO) headed by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The investigation uncovered what many local advocates have suspected for years: that Sheriff Arpaio and his subordinates engaged in a pattern and practice of racial profiling against Latinos and also unlawful retaliation against individuals critical of the Sheriff’s policies.

Shortly after the DOJ’s findings became public, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ended its agreement allowing certain Maricopa County deputies to act as immigration agents on behalf of the federal government, a step community leaders have demanded for years.  These agreements with local law enforcement, called 287(g) agreements, are authorized by Congress under section 287(g) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act to allow local police to act as immigration officers.  In ending the agreement with Maricopa, DHS acknowledges that abuse of authority will occur when law enforcement agencies, especially those like Arpaio’s, get in the immigration business.

However, while DOJ’s investigation and DHS’ suspension of the 287(g) agreement with Maricopa are steps forward, a hugely problematic situation remains.  DHS continues to have a relationship with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office through another program, Secure Communities, the federal deportation dragnet program, which will continue its legacy of mass deportations and destruction of communities.

Through Secure Communities, local law enforcement agencies automatically provide immigration authorities fingerprint information for every person arrested. After comparing the fingerprint information with its own databases, ICE can either try to deport the person or store the information in a massive database for future use. Secure Communities is already used in 1882 jurisdictions and 44 states, even in places where local officials and organizers have asked not to have any part in the program and in jurisdictions with human rights records as horrific as Maricopa County.

Think about the consequences of such a widespread program. With Secure Communities, immigration agencies automatically learn the identity of any non-citizen in the custody of local police and can initiate deportation. This is the case even if the arrest was illegal and even if the charges are dropped or never prosecuted.

Secure Communities Through a Human Rights Lens

First, a central norm in human rights is proportionality: the punishment must fit the crime. With Secure Communities, we have witnessed record deportations and detentions, often for minor offenses where the criminal courts don’t even seek jail time.

Second, even though human rights standards require freedom from all forms of discrimination, Secure Communities is plagued with racial and ethnic profiling. Anti-immigrant jurisdictions use it to hide illegal and race-based arrests, and the federal government allows places like Maricopa County, Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans, places with well documented histories of racial profiling and abusive cops, to use Secure Communities without meaningful oversight.

Third, human rights principles require full and fair hearings and urge release from detention over incarceration, but in localities with Secure Communities, immigration holds prevent release of thousands of non-citizens at the expense of local jailers and with the consequence of coercing criminal pleas and deportation.

Fourth, human rights treaties provide special protections to women, children and victims of violence, but Secure Communities is criticized for placing trafficking and domestic violence survivors at risk of removal.

Fifth, a common thread in human rights is the idea of engagement. A government should listen and engage with the people it represents and allow us to have a real voice in setting policy. But Secure Communities, despite heavy resistance and requests by states and localities to end the program, has been forced on us.  Even though the people and officials of places like San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Arlington, and entire states such as New York, Illinois and Massachusetts have said they don’t want anything to do with Secure Communities, it’s being implemented anyway.

The Center for Constitutional Rights has the honor and privilege of representing one of the national leaders in the movement towards immigrant justice – the National Day Laborer Organizing Network – in a lawsuit against federal agencies for information about Secure Communities. Through this lawsuit we have uncovered literally thousands of pages of internal documents that expose a record of the federal government’s deceit and misrepresentation.  These documents have been used in a national campaign to uncover the truth behind police and ICE collaborations. Advocates around the country have questioned the government’s policy, educated local police and state officials and created a groundswell of resistance against merging the criminal and immigration systems.

Secure Communities is now a symbol of government dishonesty and deception. The Obama administration was not transparent with Congress about Secure Communities’ true purpose when it asked for over $2 billion for the program; it tricked state and local officials into believing they could limit or opt out of the program; and worst of all the government sold untruths to the public to get this program launched at any cost.

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-general of the United Nations, once said: “Human rights are what reason requires and conscience demands. They are us and we are them. Human rights are rights that any person has as a human being. We are all human beings; we are all deserving of human rights. One cannot be true without the other.”

The United States has failed to recognize the universality of human rights for migrants, rights we are all entitled to just because we are human.

As we begin a new year, let’s take a step forward toward recognizing the fundamental human rights of all people. The United States must change course. DHS should recognize the complete failure of programs like Secure Communities that put local police at the center of immigration enforcement.  Terminate them immediately, especially in cities with open DOJ investigations or historic records of police misconduct, and start to honor our commitment to human rights for migrants.

SUNITA PATEL is a human rights attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights and can be reached at

BILL QUIGLEY is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and volunteers with the Center for Constitutional Rights and can be reached at .


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