Confusion Helped Spread of Secure Communities, Even As Resistance Remains Strong

Newly released records reveal how federal authorities kept altering their stance on whether local police are required to share arrest data with immigration agents, even if they ask not to.

“Keeping you in the loop as we progress with always changing policy as it relates to [Secure Communities],” reads a May 2010 email update from an unidentified sender about the controversial program.

The message is one of hundreds included in 15,000 pages released only after the National Day Laborers Organizing Network filed suit over a records request with help from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Cardozo School of Law.

Most of the documents are copies of email correspondence between staff members of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) and public relations advisers. Some of the files are heavily redacted, such as one in which 58 of 65 pages are completely blacked out.

The emails were sent between early 2009 and the present, a time frame that corresponds with when ICE began to deploy Secure Communities at a quicker pace under the Obama administration. Its goal is for every local law enforcement agencies in every state to participate by 2013.

In an email from August 2009 that refers to a “marathon meeting about Interoperability deployment,” agency officials and PR advisers discuss how to ensure the quick deployment of Secure Communities:

Problem Statement:
•    Requiring a Go response from each [Law Enforcement Agency] LEA within a county will grind activations to a crawl or halt. In some SWB counties, there was considerable difficulty getting responses from any LEA.
•    Accepting a Go response from any LEA to activate all LEAs within a county does not ensure that each LEA is aware of their activation.
•    SC, and the improved identification of Criminal Aliens (CAs), is Congressionally mandated
•    It is a DHS ICE initiative to improve the identification of CAs via federal data-sharing
•    LEAs relinquish their authority to control the federal government’s use of prints once they are collected by [Criminal Justice Information Services] CJIS

But less than a year later ICE gave several counties in California instructions on how to formally request to opt-out of Secure Communities, only to then activate them against their will.

One of the emails dated June 23, 2010, indicates some ICE staff were still unclear what to say when putting together answers for counties and journalists asking about opting-out:

“I’m totally confused now. I’ve got so many versions of the opt-out language I don’t know what’s current and what’s not. It seems like we have different language for different purposes and it’s confusing. Can we put this on today’s agenda to talk about?”

Whether the mixed messages on the program’s mandatory nature were due to confusion or other factors, the outcome has been the failure of any state or county to opt-out, other than Washington, D.C. . According to ICE, Secure Communities is now in 38 states, and at least 1,006 counties nationwide.

The rapid spread includes the recent addition of Colorado and New York, two states that had cited concerns with ICE’s failure to use the program to focus on detaining dangerous immigrants. Often people who are arrested for minor traffic infractions end up transferred to ICE custody.

Immigrant advocates in New Jersey, a hold-out state which has the nation’s sixth largest immigrant population, hope Governor Chris Christie will refuse to participate. They point to his comment last June in an interview with Politico, when he said immigration “is a federal problem, it’s gotta have a federal fix… I’m not really comfortable with state law enforcement having a big role.”

Hundreds of New Jersey immigrants and their supporters are expected to protest the program today by walking three miles from the ICE office in Newark to the Essex County Detention Facility. ICE wants the county to contract with a private prison company to expand the center to 2,700 beds in anticipation of demand generated by Secure Communities.

“When local police collaborate with immigration it sends a chilling effect in our communities, it tears families apart and unjustly incarcerates our friends and neighbors,” said Jessica Culley, an organizer with the Comité de Apoyo a Los Trabajadores Agrícolas, a farm workers group in southern Jersey.

The American Friends Service Committee of New Jersey helped organize the walk after members decided “there is enough information out there that shows there are huge problems with this program,” said staff attorney, Amy Gottlieb. “New Jersey has been willing to be different in the past and I have to believe we still have an opportunity to make a really positive statement for immigrants.”

Gottlieb says members have met with state officials to express their concerns and request that the governor refuse to join Secure Communities. They recently delivered more than 2,000 letters from residents who oppose the program.

Meanwhile, Sarahi Uribe of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a plaintiff in the FOIA lawsuit that led to the release of the newly released Secure Communities documents, says they show that, “[c]ontrary to the current ICE official position, local opt-outs appear to be possible.”