Immigration 101: What is the Secure Communities Program?

Latinos have hit the streets in the past month to protest the Secure Communities program, which the government uses as a tool to deport undocumented immigrants with criminal records and repeat immigration violators. This week, some 200 protesters walked out of a Los Angeles public meeting led by a task force assigned to review the program and another 70 protested in front of President Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago, just two of several protests in held in six cities, according to the New York Times, with more to come. Opponents of S-Comm—which include governors of Illinois, Massachusetts, law enforcement officials and high-pprofile former officials including Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau—say it is at the least, inefficient, if not counter-productive and nets immigrants with no criminal past. We’ve put together a guide to the program so you can decide for yourself.

Its purpose

Begun in 2008, the program’s stated purpose is to prioritize deportations by focusing on those with criminal records. It uses a fingerprint sharing system in place for decades: When local and state authorities arrest someone, they run the person’s fingerprints through FBI databases to check for criminal history. Under Secure Communities, any hits are automatically shared with the Department of Homeland Security, so that Immigration and Customs Enforcement can decide whether to pursue deportation.

States could initially opt in to the program, but this month, the Department of Homeland Security sent out letters to states saying that states’ approval was not necessary for the program, effectively making the program mandatory.

The results so far

According to ICE stats through April 30 more than 77,000 immigrants convicted of crimes have been deported, including more than 28,000 convicted of aggravated felonies like murder, rape and the child sex abuse. The number of convicted criminals deported increased by 71 percent, while deportations of those with no criminal past dropped by 23 percent, according to ICE.

In an interview with the Times, ICE head John Morton said that about 90 percent of those deported under the program since 2008 have been convicted criminals or persons who did not obey court orders to leave the country or who had returned illegally after being deported. According to an Associated Press report citing ICE stats, about 28 percent had no criminal history.

Of those removed who had no criminal records, wrote White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Cecilia Muñoz wrote in a White House blog post, more than two thirds were busted near the border, recent arrivals or people who had been deported several times.

What the opposition says about it

In a sentence, seen on many protesters’ placards: Obama, you are ripping families apart. Immigrant advocates and those they serve, in addition to law enforcement officials throughout the country say the program is a failure that nets too many non-criminals and discourages cooperation with cops.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association has issued a report in which members, which number some 11,000, were polled on their S-Comm clients and brought forward 127 cases in which clients deported after minor infractions, including traffic violations. Those numbers are but a small slice that is nevertheless “consistent with DHS's own data showing deportation of tens of thousands of individuals who have been picked up for minor infractions and who pose no threat to our communities,” according to AILA.

Mark Curran, sheriff of Lake County, in Chicago’s metropolitan area, told the Chicago Tribune that a January report had discovered that 75 percent of 630 illegal immigrants in Illinois deported through S-Comm had no priors.

What the feds say about it

On its website, ICE says it has provided guidance designed to protect victims of and urges its agents and attorneys to use prosecutorial discretion to focus on

Obama administration officials have reiterated that S-Comm remains central to its immigration enforcement policies. “The statistics demonstrate that the strategy DHS put in place is working,” White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Cecilia Muñoz wrote in a White House blog post this week. “Nothing can make up for the lack of comprehensive reform, but the facts show this has been a good strategy we can be proud of.”

What’s next

The National Immigrant Justice Center, based in Chicago, has filed a class-action lawsuit against DHS.

A task force that has been traveling the country to get public feedback will make recommendations to ICE later this year.

ICE plans expand the program, currently in place in 1,300 jurisdictions, nationwide by 2013.