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It’s one of the Obama administration’s most important and secretive immigration enforcement programs. But despite growing concerns from civil libertarians and immigration activists about the way the program’s been designed and implemented, it’s caused barely a ripple in Congress or in the establishment media. And the White House continues to stonewall those seeking release of basic details about the program.
Known euphemistically as “Secure Communities,” the program looks and sounds innocuous, and even beneficial. Why shouldn’t the nation’s jails be equipped with a federal database to help identify illegal immigrants who’ve been convicted of serious felonies like rape and murder to ensure that they’re deported — rather than released back into civilian life after they’ve completed their sentence?
Because that’s not what Secure Communities is actually being used for, in fact. Rather than weed out incarcerated felons that could menace the public order, the program’s been targeting low-level misdemeanor offenders, including people who may be guilty of little more than running a stop sign or driving with a broken taillight.
And because those targeted by the program are “screened” through a special database at the time they’re arrested, Secure Communities is actually focused on criminal suspects – those merely accused of wrongdoing – not aliens already convicted and serving time.
Even worse, according to the federal government’s own data, it turns out that many of these people, even the low-level offenders, are innocent. But they are getting rounded up and processed for deportation just the same.
Secure Communities started as a pilot program in North Carolina and Texas in October 2008, in the waning days of the Bush administration. At present, more than 450 separate jurisdictions in at least 24 states, epecially on the US-Mexico or US-Canada border, are working with the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement the program.
That’s more than six times the number of jurisdictions cooperating with DHS to implement Section 287(g), a separate immigration enforcement program that allows state and local police to request federal training to identify and apprehend aliens. That program’s come under fire for much the same reason Arizona’s new immigration enforcement law has: it diverts precious police resources away from serious crime fighting, and critics charge it also leads to racial profiling.
But rather than abandon Section 287(g) outright, Obama last summer agreed to scale the program back. But not so with Secure Communities.
In fact, Obama’s quietly moving to fast-track the program. Nearly two-thirds of the cooperating jurisdictions have signed on in the past six months alone. And by 2013, under the Obama plan, all 3,100 of the nation’s jails in all 50 states are slated to have the Secure Communities database in place.
And who is on the current list? Arizona, of course. Last December, Gov. Jan Brewer signed an agreement with DHS that authorized all of the jails in the state to help remove illegal aliens brought in for booking.
Which makes the Obama administration’s recent lawsuit against Arizona seem hypocritical – if not downright Orwellian, in fact.
Given widespread public support for Arizona’s new enforcement crackdown, many Americans might well support Secure Communities, too. But it would help if they knew more about the program so they could make an informed decision.
But Obama won’t release basic details about how the program operates, or what it’s accomplished to date. In late June, the Center for Constitutional Rights and other legal groups sued Obama and the DHS under the Freedom of Information Act demanding that they release those details. The Justice Department has yet to respond to the their suit.
And it’s not just illegal aliens who could suffer the effects of this program. DHS has admitted that its database has a 5% rate of “false positives,” meaning legal immigrants and even US citizens who are wrongly identified as illegal aliens but still subject to deportation.
Right now, the numbers involved are relatively small. But a 5% error rate for tens of thousands of criminal suspects who will eventually be screened annually could add up to thousands of wrongly detained persons – and millions of dollars in lawsuits.
There’s also the danger that over-zealous police departments could decide to go after illegal aliens who are congregated on street corners looking for work, charge them with “loitering,” knowing full well they’ll be identified as illegal aliens once they’re are booked at a local jail, and run through the new federal database.
Currently, many of these aliens carry false IDs and there’s no way of knowing whether they’re legal or not. Eventually, the new database, which is based on more secure identification documents, will allow such a determination to be made.
Another point at issue is that local jurisdictions appear to have no authority to opt out of the Secure Communities program. San Francisco, a leading “sanctuary” city, recently tried to pass a resolution against Secure Communities, but California’s Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown, who’s running for Governor in a tight election in which controversy over immigration figures prominently, rebuffed the city.
What should DHS do? At a minimum, it should release all operational details about Secure Communities immediately. Continued secrecy only undermines the public trust. DHS director Janet Napolitano should also appear before the relevant congressional subcommittees to answer questions about the program.
In the interim, DHS should scale back the scope of the program to accord with its stated guidelines – targeting “criminal” aliens. One option is to limit the database screening to persons already convicted and incarcerated. Another more expansive option: allow criminal suspects to be screened – but only those accused of the same major felonies.
In the final analysis, it’ a question of policy “congruence.” Obama has said that he is stepping up immigration enforcement to make it possible to convince Congress to pass a legalization program. But stepped up enforcement is supposed to target future illegal aliens, not those currently living here who should qualify for legalization.
Unless illegal aliens are convicted felons – which would deny them the right to be legalized anyway – Secure Communities shouldn’t be focused on the illegal alien population generally.
Unless Obama’s planning to drop the legalization program, and abandon comprehensive immigration reform altogether. But if he is, he should say so. And preferably before November.
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org