White House Announces Changes to S-Comm Program In Response to Pressure from Activists and State Legislators


Last week, the Department of Homeland Securityannounced major changes to its signature (and maligned) immigration enforcement program, Secure Communities - promising toreview pending immigration  deportation cases based on newly-reinforced guidelines that prioritize deporting immigrants who commit violent crimes. The proposed changes  provide Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents with  guidance to consider factors such as whether an undocumented young person would be eligible for the federal DREAM Act; the severity of the misdemeanor or offense the undocumented individual allegedly committed; and whether or not the immigrant in question has close family members who are legal permanent residents or US citizens.  The Department of Homeland Security also announced plans for case-by-case reviews of the roughly 300,000 undocumented residents already in deportation proceedings, many of whom have not been convicted of any crime at all yet remain in danger of being deported. State legislators and immigrant rights activists, who have long been calling for an end to the program, applauded the announcement while continuing to ask the program be dismantled and reiterating their support for comprehensive immigration reform from Washington.    

The recent announcement  came after intense pressure and displeasure among activists and immigrant rights organizations aimed at the Department of Homeland Security for its August 5th decision to unilaterally impose the maligned 'Secure Communities' program on states and localities despite years of assertions from the Department of Homeland Security that the program was voluntary and states and localities needed to enter into a Memoranda of Agreement with the federal agency in order to participate in the program. In response to widespread support for suspending the program, Governors of three states (New York, Massachusetts and Illinois) sent letters to the Department of Homeland Security requesting to withdraw their entire states' from participation in the 'Secure Communities' program. Numerous  other lawmakers  (including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus) and law enforcement officials such as San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey have weighed in with their strong opposition to the program, citing its chilling effect on immigrants who witness or are victims of crimes yet are reluctant to contact police for fear of themselves or their family members being deported.  The Department of Homeland Security's response in early August was to announce that all states' and localities'  participation in the program is mandatory and unilaterally rescind all  39 existing  Memoranda of Agreement (which according to DHS were unnecessary in the first place based on a 2002 federal law that established a database between law enforcement agencies and ICE, yet does not dictate how that database should be used).  

The federal Secure Communities program, created in 2008, is the centerpiece of the Department of Homeland Security's immigration enforcement strategy and aims to focus on deporting undocumented immigrants who also commit violent crimes. The program essentially runs all individuals picked up by state and local law enforcement through federal immigration databases as they are booked, not if and when they are convicted.  In practice, the program raises numerous racial profiling and due process questions: the vast majority of individuals picked up by police and sheriff's deputies through the program haven't committed any crime, and are often flagged on suspicion of committing low-level misdemeanors such as driving with a broken tail light or not stopping at a stop sign.  In fact, data released earlier this spring found one in four deported nationally through the program between 2008 and early 2011 have not been convicted of any crime; only 15% of those deported or flagged for deportation through the program committed violent crimes.  

Non-Criminal Deportations

Source:Wall Street Journal

According to Bridget Kessler of Cardozo School of Law, one of several organizations who obtained the data via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request: “The ratio [of undocumented individuals who have committed no crime at all]  jumps to over 50 percent in Boston, certain areas of California, and in multiple examples across the country.”

These numbers raise questions about how S-Comm may allow local police to cover up profiling and circumvent due process as they apprehend undocumented residents: the overwhelming majority of which have committed small misdemeanors rather than violent crimes.    

Last week's piecemeal announcement has not, however, slowed down two weeks of public actions and hearings decrying 'Secure Communities' and calling for its end. Immigrant rights advocates, meanwhile, are still  unclear on the implications of the recent announcements on California's TRUST Act, which has gained considerable momentum in the California State Legislature  this year and has cleared initial hurdles in the state's upper chamber.  The proposal would allow local governments to decide whether to opt in to participate in the federal “Secure Communities” enforcement initiative, or to tailor their participation to meet local needs. It would also prevent racial profiling, protect children and victims of domestic violence from being deported, and ensure access to due process and representation for individuals who are accused but never convicted of a crime.

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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