Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Secure Communities" targeting innocent, compromising trust

An alarming number of deportations under DHS program involve immigrants with no criminal record.
WASHINGTON DCIncreasingly, the federal Secure Communities immigration enforcement program is coming under fire by elected officials and law enforcement leaders.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has promoted the program as a tool to catch and deport undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes, however, the government’s own statistics show that more than 60 percent of immigrants deported under the program were involved in low-level offenses, like traffic violations, or never convicted of any crime at all. 

On Wednesday, May 25th, leaders from around the country joined a conference call with reporters to share their concerns about the DHS Secure Communities Program. They explained how the program has damaged the relationship between the police and the community, which is crucial in fighting crime.

In their states, an alarmingly high number of deportations under Secure Communities involve immigrants with no criminal record at all, or who were charged for minor violations, such as traffic offenses.  In Virginia, 27% of Secure Communities deportations involved non-criminals, and 55% involved non-criminals or people charged with Level 1 offenses.  In California, 27% of deportations involved non-criminals and 55% were either non-criminals or those charged with Level 1 offenses.  And in Illinois, the numbers were highest of all, with 36% of those deported being non-criminals, and an alarming 69% either non-criminals or immigrants charged with low-level offenses.

Sheriff Patrick Perez, of Kane County, Illinois, speaking on the call, said, “The Secure Communities program has hindered law enforcement’s ability to deal with the Hispanic community. There has to be trust between the people in our community and the police. A lot of crimes have gone unsolved because people in the community are not coming forward for fear of being deported. The fact that people have been deported for minor violations is a very severe disappointment.  Hopefully the failure of this program sparks a meaningful effort to reach a compromise on immigration reform that we need to move forward.” Earlier this month, Governor Patrick Quinn of Illinois terminated his state’s participation in the Secure Communities Program because it was damaging the relationship between law enforcement officials and the community in general.

In addition, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) has called for a moratorium on Secure Communities pending a review of discrepancies between the program’s stated goals and its current implementation.  Walter Tejada, Arlington County Board Member, Arlington, Virginia, discussed the CHC call for a moratorium as well as Arlington County’s decision to opt out of the program.  “I want to make sure that we understand very clearly, all of us buy in to the concept of going against murderers, rapists etc., whatever ethnicity or legal status.  But when it comes to the community’s trust in the police, it is very important that trust be maintained.  Community policing is a big deal.  If people see a crime, we want them to report it.  We want people not to feel like they are going to be victimized twice.”

Arturo Venegas, Director of the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative and former Sacramento police chief, highlighted the confusion the program has created amongst law enforcement and the community.  “Many people don’t realize that immigration violations are a civil offense.  The Secure Communities program is blurring the lines by deporting large percentages of non-criminal immigrants through a program purporting to target serious criminals.”

Leslye E. Orloff, Vice President and Director of the Immigrant Women Program at Legal Momentum, discussed the potential for abuse of Secure Communities in mistakenly deporting victims of crime.  “In communities across the country, the Secure Communities program has led to a dramatic increase in detention and initiation of removal actions against immigrant victims of crime.  The program in some communities is becoming a potent tool for batterers and abusers, who are quickly learning that they can avoid prosecution for their crimes by getting their victim arrested and then deported.”

California is considering legislation that would allow counties to opt-out of the controversial program. Sheriff Ed Prieto of Yolo County, California said, “There is no doubt that violent criminals should be arrested, go through the process here and be deported.  However, for low level offenses and civil immigration violations, local law enforcement should not be doing ICE’s job.  It creates mistrust amongst immigrants and is not beneficial to the community.”

DHS’s Office of the Inspector General announced it will launch an investigation into the program and the government’s claims.  Bridget Kessler, attorney from Benjamin H. Cardozo Law School and lead counsel on S-Comm FOIA litigation, discussed these discrepancies.  She highlighted the high numbers of deportations of non-criminals and level one offenses, and concluded that the program is in desperate need of reform.  "The best course now is to put the brakes on S-Comm to allow for a thorough investigation of ICE’s administration of the program and its impact on local communities," she said.  Data on DHS’s deportation numbers from Secure Communities, received due to a lawsuit filed by the National Day Laborer Organization (NDLON), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, can be found here.

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