National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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Cosmetic Changes are not Enough: Secure Communities Program Needs Sweeping Reform

July 19, 2011 - Posted by Brittney Nystrom

Last month, the National Immigration Forum was invited by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to participate in a new advisory committee created in response to growing criticism and concern about the so-called “Secure Communities” program.  The committee is tasked with advising Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton on “ways to improve Secure Communities.”  Specifically, the committee is asked to deliver recommendations regarding the treatment of individuals identified through Secure Communities as a result of being charged with minor traffic offenses.

The Forum has been a vocal and vehement critic of the Secure Communities program since its inception.  DHS launched the program clumsily and hastily without thinking through the consequences.  We are deeply troubled by the Secure Communities program for a number of reasons.  The program lacks accountability in how it is being operated and in terms of the consequences for misuse of the program.  Despite the program’s stated goals and seductive-sounding name, it unfairly ensnares immigrants who are not threats to public safety and forces them into the bog of our broken immigration system.  It also erodes the trust that communities place in their local law enforcement agencies and disrupts community policing efforts, making our communities less safe.  Scant safeguards for civil rights and weak oversight have created the potential for unlawful detentions under the auspices of immigration “holds” or detainers, abuse and profiling.   

Elected leaders across the country agree. In Massachusetts and New York, Governors Deval Patrick and Andrew Cuomo decided that their states would no longer participate in the program. Governor Pat Quinn from Illinois terminated his state’s participation in the program shortly before the Illinois House of Representatives passed legislation sharply critical of the Secure Communities program.  In addition, several municipalities and counties voted to opt out, only to be told later by DHS that they didn’t have a choice in the matter.   

Despite concern and confusion about how the Secure Communities program is operating, turmoil in a growing number states and localities, and resistance from law enforcement, DHS had announced the program will be national in scope by 2013. Fortunately, after months of missteps, DHS has made some effort to address problems with Secure Communities. That’s where the advisory committee comes in.  

While we have repeatedly criticized the Secure Communities program, we welcome the opportunity to discuss and inform the Department on problems in this deeply flawed program whose design and implementation are cause for deep concern. It is crucial that the advisory committee consider and address the program’s myriad failures beyond the question of responding to individuals who are ensnared by Secure Communities due to low level offenses or infractions.  We are not interested in surface “fixes” that leave structural flaws intact.  We are also wary of continuing to send broken enforcement programs for repairs while those programs continue to operate.  We’ve been down this unpleasant and unproductive road with the widely panned 287(g) program. 

The Forum believes that the Secure Communities program must be halted until several key issues are addressed. DHS must meaningfully address the erosion of public trust in law enforcement created by Secure Communities.  Immigrants as well as U.S. citizens are much more hesitant to contact the police either for protection or to report a crime when doing so may put them or their family at risk of immigration consequences.  Secure Communities has led to the initiation of deportation proceedings for numerous victims of crime, particularly of domestic violence, who have called for police protection.  ICE must ensure that victims or witnesses who seek police protection do not find themselves the target of deportation as a result.   

Because Secure Communities lacks the internal safeguards to prevent profiling, DHS must address bias and discriminatory policy practices that are feeding people into the program.  ICE operates its Secure Communities program at the point of arrest, rather than after a conviction, meaning that individuals arrested on fabricated or pretextual arrests are nonetheless swept into the immigration enforcement machinery.  Anecdotes about racial profiling in active Secure Communities jurisdictions, combined with high numbers of arrests for minor traffic offenses, present a real concern that Secure Communities is serving as a conduit for discriminatory arrests.  ICE must acknowledge and eliminate the incentive created by Secure Communities for police to arrest individuals for the inappropriate purpose of checking their immigration status.  Further, ICE must monitor for, and deliver consequences to, jurisdictions that misuse Secure Communities.  

Meanwhile, the rapid and widespread expansion of the Secure Communities program into local law enforcement jurisdictions has caused pervasive confusion and misunderstanding as to the roles and responsibilities of local, state, and federal agents.

DHS should amend the rules so that states and localities, and not the federal government, can decide if Secure Communities is appropriate for them.  The Federal Government can’t have it both ways.  They can’t tell states that only federal officials are responsible for immigration matters on the one hand, and then try to make federal immigration agents out of state and local law enforcement on the other.  

As a participant on the advisory committee, the Forum will urge resolution of our concerns.  And in terms of process, a final point, we strongly believe it is imperative that the advisory committee hears from the public- including immigrant communities, domestic violence advocates, and local leaders- who are being impacted by Secure Communities now and who may feel its impact in the future.   


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