Blog Archive

Sunday, May 15, 2011

States Rebel Over Deportations

The Wall Street Journal
May 14, 2011

Lawmakers and law-enforcement officials in several states are turning against a mandatory federal program that is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's immigration policy.

The Secure Communities initiative is designed to spot and deport illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes. Under the program, fingerprints of people booked into a jail are transmitted to a database reviewed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. If found to be in the U.S. illegally, they can face deportation.

Recently, such states as Massachusetts, New York, Illinois and California have raised objections to the program's real-world effects: Although designed to remove criminals from the country, it has led to the deportation of thousands of people without criminal records.

Critics of this approach in Democratic-leaning states say it inhibits immigrants from reporting crimes, undermining public safety, and needlessly breaks up families.

Republicans and groups that favor a crackdown on the 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. support the program. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, for example, believes the program deters some illegal immigrants from committing crimes. "People are more cautious because the program is in existence," he said.

ICE said it was committed to extending the program—which has spread to more than 1,200 jurisdictions in 42 states—to the entire U.S. by 2013. The agency said it has begun to review and adjust Secure Communities in response to the swell of criticism.

Started under President George W. Bush in 2008, the program has led to the deportation of 101,741 illegal immigrants as of March, including 26,473 convicted of serious crimes, such as homicide, rape and drug trafficking. About 45,970 had been convicted of a single felony, such as a property crime, or up to two misdemeanors, such as minor drug offenses. Another 29, 296 of the deportees hadn't been convicted of any crime, however.

Last November, a year after joining the program, Illinois suspended participation in Secure Communities and began a review. Then last week, Gov. Pat Quinn informed ICE, which oversees the program, that his state had decided to quit altogether.

Secure Communities was "supposed to facilitate the removal of individuals convicted of the most serious of crimes who are residing in this country illegally," the governor's office said.

In a letter to immigration authorities reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the governor said that "more than a third" of those deported from the state through the program had never been convicted of a crime. "Due to the conflict between the stated purpose of Secure Communities and the implementation of the program, Illinois state police will no longer participate," he wrote.

Citing Illinois's decision, 38 New York state lawmakers early this week urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to quit the program. "Given New York's immigrant heritage and our leadership role in the nation, we firmly believe that our state, too, must immediately end this destructive program," they said in a letter reviewed by the Journal.

The program has been rolled out in 24 of New York's 62 counties. "ICE statistics for New York show that the vast majority (approximately 80%) of those detained by ICE because of Secure Communities were never convicted of a crime," the letter said.

Resistance is growing in California, where a bill before the state Assembly would seek to limit the initiative and allow localities to opt out.

Last week, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessy said that as of June 1, he would no longer cooperate with ICE to facilitate the deportation of low-level offenders and those who have no criminal record. He said Secure Communities had a chilling effect on immigrants who witness or are victims of crime. "Crimes go unreported—and this affects everyone, citizens and noncitizens alike," he said.

Washington and Minnesota are among the states that have declined to join Secure Communities so far. In Massachusetts, where the program is active on a pilot basis in the Boston area, Gov. Deval Patrick's administration has hosted heated community discussions about it.

Asked about criticism of the program, ICE said, "Secure Communities has been deployed quickly to support the administration's efforts to prioritize criminal aliens for removal." ICE "is committed to working with all partners to address questions about the program," it said.

Resistance to Secure Communities is intensifying just as President Barack Obama tries to build support for an overhaul of immigration laws by showing he is bolstering border security and getting tough on enforcement against illegal immigration.

In a May 5 letter, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus urged Mr. Obama to "freeze the Secure Communities program, effective immediately." Pablo Alvarado, head of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the program "has come to symbolize the president's broken promises on immigration reform." Mr. Obama won a large share of Hispanic votes in 2008.

Isaura Garcia of Los Angeles said she dialed 911 to report domestic abuse by her partner in February. When police entered her fingerprints in the database linked to ICE, the system determined she was in the U.S. illegally. Though she had no criminal record, she landed in deportation proceedings.

After the American Civil Liberties Union brought her case to light Thursday, ICE said it would ask the immigration court to end removal proceedings against her.

ICE said it was in the "process of finalizing" a new policy that lets it exercise discretion in cases involving victims and witnesses of crime, including domestic violence. It said it didn't keep data on how many of those identified by Secure Communities fell into that category.

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a restrictionist group, cautioned against bowing to pressure. "If Obama caves on this program, he loses his last remaining fig leaf to disguise the complete collapse of the system of interior enforcement."

Los Angeles County Sheriff Baca credits Secure Communities with decreasing the proportion of illegal immigrants in his jails to 15% from 24% in the last year. "People are more cautious because the program is in existence," he said, adding that they were more likely to avoid drinking and driving, or committing felonies, because that could lead to their deportation.

"Those who oppose this common-sense program are putting partisan politics ahead of saving Americans lives and reducing illegal immigration," said Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas.