Secure Communities on Thin ICE


There are ten million undocumented migrants in the United States who risk deportation if apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE only has 20,000 employees  – only a fraction of whom are enforcement agents. Although ICE is the second largest investigative agency in the federal government, ICE does not have the resources to arrest, detain, and deport 10 million people. Thus, ICE must find other agencies to help it carry out its mission.

In case you were wondering, ICE’s mission is, it is “to promote homeland security and public safety through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws governing border control, customs, trade, and immigration.”

All that? With 20,000 employees? The NYPD has 34,500 uniformed officers in New York City alone. As you can see, ICE can’t do it all alone. Thus, this federal agency seeks cooperation with other agencies. One of their key collaborators is the local police, who are charged with protecting and serving their communities – not with enforcing federal immigration laws.

Nevertheless, police officers have become the primary on-the-ground enforcers of immigration law inside the United States. One way this has happened is through the Secure Communities program. Under this program, the local police check the immigration status of any immigrant booked into a county jail. The federal government has been pushing this program for two main reasons: 1) They don’t have the officers to carry out their mission and 2) Programs like this allow immigration law enforcement to be selective and get dangerous criminals off the street.

The problem is, study after study shows that Secure Communities is not catching dangerous criminals. Instead, Secure Communities encourages racial profiling, drives a wedge between community members and police, and primarily catches people with low-level (or no) offenses. A study by the Warren Institute, for example, revealed that 93 percent of people turned over to ICE under Secure Communities were Latino, even though Latin Americans make up only three-quarters of all undocumented immigrants. Another study reveals that, in Illinois, 77% of people arrested by ICE in Illinois under Secure Communities through July 2010 have no criminal convictions. The reason Secure Communities programs can pick up people without criminal convictions is that the Program only requires that people be arrested, not that they are actually convicted of any criminal activity.

The Center for American Progress has released a study where they examined the everyday lives of undocumented immigrants in North County, San Diego, the first community in California to sign on to Secure Communities. They completed 30 in-depth interviews with migrants, in addition to 851 surveys. Their study revealed that undocumented migrants were reluctant to report crimes, out of fear that they could be arrested and deported. In addition, many undocumented migrants reported that they avoided public places and even walking down the street, out of fear of being arrested. Some parents stopped picking their children up from school once they perceived that there was a crackdown in immigration law enforcement. In sum, they found that undocumented migrants often live in fear. This fact is particularly pernicious when we remember that over half of undocumented migrants live in mixed-status households. That is, they live in houses with legally present immigrants as well as with U.S. citizens. The grave impacts of undocumented migrants living in fear are often felt by their U.S. citizen and legally present family members, causing reverberating effects well beyond the ten million undocumented migrants in this country.

As the Center for American Progress and other studies make clear, cracking down on undocumented migrants by obliging local police departments to add to their already overburdened system does not make us safer or more secure. Instead, it creates fear and uncertainty in communities.

Tanya Golash-Boza is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Kansas and the author of Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 America, published by Paradigm Publishers.


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