Rapid Spread of Secure Communities May Ease Up

Is your state or local jurisdiction still on the fence about joining Secure Communities? Are you part of an opt-out campaign where police already share arrest data with ICE? Please leave a comment below to share your experience.

by Renée Feltz

The controversial Secure Communities program that shares local arrest data with federal immigration agents is set to expand nationwide by 2013. It is already active in 574 local jurisdictions across 30 states. But that leaves 20 more states and hundreds more counties yet to sign-up. As opponents push for a clear way to opt-out of the program, its rapid growth may ease up.

Some of the push-back against Secure Communities is coming from states that have remain uncommitted to participating since the program began in October 2008.

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter (D) confirmed to the Associated Press in August that his office is working on a modified agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – “if the governor decides to move forward.” Almost three weeks later, there is no indication Ritter has agreed to enroll the state in Secure Communities.

“It’s already kind of a win for us, considering we thought this would be in place by mid-July,” said Alan Kaplan, who coordinates civic engagement for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Plans to join Secure Communities also seem stalled in Washington, where advocates say Governor Chris Gregoire (D) previously listened to their concerns.

“We think we know that no jurisdiction in the state is currently operating the Secure Communities program,” said Jorge Barón, Executive Director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “What we don’t know is where we are in moving the process forward.”

Neither Gregoire nor Ritter’s office replied to Deportation Nation’s requests to confirm whether their states had signed Secure Communities agreements – modified or otherwise.

Barón said he’s worried Gov. Gregoire will be swayed by misleading input from ICE.

“How they sell the program does not match what it looks like in places where it has been implemented,” said Barón. “The majority of the people caught in this program are not who ICE advertises it will target.”

ICE maintains Secure Communities focuses on deporting dangerous “criminal aliens” charged with felony crimes. But its own records from 2008 to 2010 show more than a quarter of those deported after being identified by the program were “non-criminals.”

This mismatch between the program’s goals and outcome has prompted advocates to try to reverse agreements in states or counties where it is already activated.

“There is still a misunderstanding that Secure Communities is related to fighting crime,” said Jen Rock, who is a organizer with the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia, where police began sharing arrest data with ICE almost two years ago. “We have to continue to try to prove that’s not true.”

In testimony this June before the House Subcommittee on Civil Liberties, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said local participation in federal immigration enforcement would discourage witnesses who may be undocumented from participating in criminal investigations. He cited a year-long Police Foundation study that such participation could also make victims of crime reluctant to seek police assistance. Other law enforcement associations support the program.

Most states sign a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with ICE before law enforcement agencies at the local level can sign-up for Secure Communities. But in Pennsylvania, no MOA appears to be in place even though three counties are enrolled. Advocates’ requests for copies of an agreement have gone unanswered..

Neighboring New York state signed a Secure Communities MOA in May 2010. Now advocates there are asking lawmakers to repeal the program. They are especially vigilant against its activation in New York City.

State Senator José M. Serrano (D), whose district includes East Harlem – a neighborhood with a large immigrant population – released a report in September 2009 condemning police involvement in immigration enforcement.

In late August, ICE clarified how local jurisdictions can request to opt-out of Secure Communities. It described the process in a post on its website that responded to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Cardozo Law School – National Day Laborer Organizing Network v. Department of Homeland Security – which seeks the release of information about the program.

On the last page of the memo, one paragraph notes that if a local jurisdiction “does not wish to activate” Secure Communities” it must notify the state and ICE with a formal letter, and ICE will request a meeting “to discuss any issues and come to a resolution which may include adjusting the jurisdiction’s activation date or removing the jurisdiction from the action plan.”

The memo “made clear that Secure Communities is a voluntary program,” said Sunita Patel, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

But the first effort to use this opt-out process has not yet yielded results. San Francisco County Sheriff Mike Hennessey sent a letter formally requesting a meeting to discuss de-activating the program, which began in June 2010 despite his vocal opposition. California signed an MOA in April 2009. Hennessey’s spokesperson, Eileen Hirst told Deportation Nation, “There have been no new developments,” noting he “has heard nothing from either ICE or Attorney General [Jerry] Brown.”

“For the federal government to deny places like San Francisco the opportunity to opt-out is like forcing local police to carry out an immigration mandate,” said CCR’s Patel.

Immigrant rights advocates in states yet to enroll say they want to make sure the opt-out process is clarified before their states agree to participate.

The inclusion of clear opt-out instructions is one of four demands Colorado activists submitted to Gov. Ritter if he wants them to support an MOA, along with a commitment not to share with ICE data from low-level arrests or information about domestic violence victims.

In Washington, Jorge Barón says if Gov. Gregoire signs an MOA with ICE, advocates will adapt education materials they developed for her, and use them to raise awareness for 0pt-out campaigns the local level.

“It is important that counties don’t sign-up based on what ICE has presented,” Barón said.