Round-Up: New Deportation Guidelines Announced During Week of Heated Secure Communities Hearings

Earlier this month, Deportation Nation reported that ICE terminated contracts with states for the controversial Secure Communities program.  As a result, the immigration debate has once again boiled over.

This week the Obama Administration announced new guidelines to unclog the immigration courts by allowing low-priority immigrant offenders to remain in the country and apply for a work permit. The White House promoted that DHS had for the first time “prioritized the removal of people who have been convicted of crimes in the United States.”

The decision coincided with advocates calling for the termination of the unpopular Secure Communities program. Protests held in Los Angeles and Chicago resulted in walk-outs and arrests as a result of public hearings with members of the Secure Communities Task Force.

Meanwhile, the FOIA war between ICE and an immigrant coalition made up of the Center for Constitutional Rights, National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Cardozo Immigration Justice Clinic continued to rage on. A New York judge ordered the reproduction of hundreds of documents, this time unredacted.

The government announced Thursday that low priority immigrant offenders will not be targeted for deportation under new guidelines. According to White House officials, the government will launch a case-by-case review of  approximately 300,000 cases of undocumented immigrants in removal proceedings, allowing those who pose no threat to society to remain in the country and apply for a work permit.

The announcement follows up on a June memo that laid out priorities for the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency across the board that addressed enforcement activity, detention decisions, budget requests and prosecutorial discretion. The memo also prioritized three tiers of high priority immigrants including those that pose a danger, recent border entrants, and repeat violators.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano informed lawmakers including Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) about the new guidelines responding to congressional inquiries about the agency’s enforcement priorities and the DREAM Act.

“From a law enforcement and public safety perspective, DHS enforcement resources must continue to be focused on our highest priorities,” wrote Napolitano in a letter to Reid. “Doing otherwise hinders our public safety mission – clogging immigration court dockets and diverting DHS enforcement resources away from individuals who pose a threat to public safety.”

According to Napolitano and officials, over 50 percent of individuals removed by ICE in a fiscal year were convicted criminals, thanks to the expansion of the Secure Communities program. Meanwhile, of those removed with no criminal convictions, two-thirds were apprehended at the border or repeat immigration violators, she wrote.

Last year, the Administration reported that it deported nearly 400,000 and almost a million people have been deported since Obama took office. Critics of the Administration’s enforcement and deportation policies have looked to ICE’s own data to argue that many of those deported have been non-criminals or low-priority offenders.

Officials said they don’t expect to see a dramatic change in the number of people deported but rather a dramatic change in the composition of the deportation population.

While advocates say this is a positive step in the right direction, many remain cautious.

“Many questions as to what the specific criteria will be and how these priorities will be implemented remain unanswered,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “We remain particularly concerned about how the administration will apply these priorities to immigrants still being detained for low-level offenses and minor traffic violations as a result of the infamous Secure Communities program, and how it will ensure relief for immigrants who do not qualify for prosecutorial discretion.”

Hundreds of advocates in Los Angeles and Chicago turned out for public hearings with members of the Secure Communities task force to persuade them to terminate the program.

The emotionally-charged hearings brought out many who chanted for the end the program and called for members to resign, groups also walked out of hearings in protest. In Chicago, several demonstrators were arrested after staging a sit-in that blocked traffic, while others marched on. Advocates also dropped off petitions in several cities at local Democratic Party headquarters to demand the termination of the program.

“The statement was to make it very clear that we are angry, that we are tired of having programs such as Secure Communities,” said Fanny Martinez in an interview with Democracy Now. “And in reality, doing the civil disobedience, we knew that we were taking the risk of possibly getting arrested, but under programs like Secure Communities, we are running the risk every day anyway, so really, this wasn’t a big difference.”

Martinez, an undocumented student and activist with the Immigrant Youth Justice League, was one of the individuals arrested and later released.

The hearings, which are being held in several cities, are aimed at collecting recommendations on how to improve the Secure Communities program. Upcoming hearings are set in Boston and Arlington, Va.

“It’s obvious to the world why DHS created the Secure Communities Task Force,” Chris Newman told Deportation Nation. “It’s a political ploy to respond to governors who opted out of Secure Communities. It’s also equally obvious, that DHS is not taking an earnest review of the program. Basically, the consensus is that DHS can’t be trusted to review itself.”

A Legal Director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Newman debated Secure Communities task force member Adrian Garcia on Democracy Now last Thursday about the hearings and whether the program should be terminated.

Garcia is one of 20 task force members who include current and former law enforcement officers, advocates, lawyers, and scholars. His county was also one of the first to participate in the Secure Communities program.

In the interview, Garcia said that the task force recommendations would also help Congress reform the immigration system and promoted the successes of the program.

“One hundred percent of the people go through this process,” Garcia said. “And as a result, we’re finding a variety of folks of interest with questionable immigration status, and those individuals are then referred over to ICE for their ultimate determination. But it’s working here, and we believe that we have a model program here.”

Still advocates like Newman disagree that the program is doing its job.

“I think the entanglement of local police in the enforcement of unjust federal immigration laws has diverted their attention,” Newman said. “It’s certainly contributed to a fear of immigrants and conflated immigrants with criminals. It’s contributed to a fear, within the immigrant community, of police, which makes it, I think, more difficult for police and sheriffs to protect our communities.”

Hundreds of previously redacted documents were reproduced this week unredacted by court order. The documents detail the administration’s changing stance on participation in the Secure Communities program and is part of on-going FOIA litigation by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

In one document, an angry email exchanged dated August 6, 2010 painted a picture of frustration among ICE officials over the changing participation policy:

“We never address whether or not it is mandatory – the answer is written to sound like it is but doesn’t state it. It’s very convoluted – or is that the point? I’m all about shades of grey but this really is a black and white question… Is it mandatory? Yes or No. Ok, so not such an easy question to answer.”

Last month, federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ordered the agency to release withheld information on how localities may “opt-out” or limit participation in the Secure Communities — even if it may be embarrassing to the agency. “The purpose of FOIA is to shed light on the operation of government, not to shield it from embarrassment,” she said.

The coalition of advocates are now seeking documents pertinent to the agency’s legal basis on imposing Secure Communities in unwilling states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York, who sought to suspend or terminate their participation in the program. They except more documents to be released to them this month.

“The previously redacted portions of these documents—now public for the first time—reveal the extent of ICE’s deceit and political game-playing in its communications with states and localities,” said Sunita Patel, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Perhaps more disconcerting, though, is the confusion and flip-flopping within the agency about their own policies and plans for deployment of such a high-impact and unprecedented program.”

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  1. […] In case you missed it, we have a lengthy round-up of last week’s immigration news on Deportation Nation: […]

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