Task Force Critical of Secure Communities Program
Saturday, September 17, 2011
A task force created to recommend improvements to a federal immigration program presented a critical report this week, saying the program, Secure Communities, has had an "adverse impact" on community policing and caused confusion at the state and local level.
"To the extent that Secure Communities may damage community policing, the result can be greater levels of crime," the report said. "If residents do not trust their local police, they are less willing to step forward as witnesses to or victims of crime."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, rolled out the Secure Communities program in October 2008. It aimed at removing serious criminal offenders from the country. But data showed that low level offenders, as well as those without criminal convictions, were getting caught up in the program.
Most significantly, the Task Force on Secure Communities recommended ICE not pursue individuals, identified through Secure Communities, for arrests based on minor traffic offenses, and ensure that victims of domestic violence, as well as victims of crime or witnesses, who come to the agency’s attention through the program, are protected.
The released report stated that “several Task Force members noted that whether the program is mandatory is subject to different interpretations” of the law.
In June, Governor Andrew Cuomo withdrew New York from Secure Communities after "mounting evidence" showed that it failed its stated goal of deporting serious felons. Illinois and Massachusetts also pulled out of the program.
The task force also suggested that ICE use prosecutorial discretion more widely so it can focus on the original aim of the program — removing those who have been convicted of crimes or pose a security risk.
Since the program was put in place, there has been much confusion over whether state and local jurisdictions have the right to decline or suspend participation in Secure Communities. Originally, ICE said they had the right to do so, but afterward backtracked on that statement.
Final clarification came in August, when DHS unilaterally terminated all of the previously signed Memorandum of Agreements with the states participating in the program. The agreements were initially entered into to encourage voluntary participation in the program.
DHS said that state and local jurisdictions could not terminate their participation in Secure Communities because it is essentially an information-sharing program between two federal agencies: the FBI and DHS.
That means the fingerprints local law enforcement agencies submit to the FBI for routine criminal history checks will also be shared with DHS and checked against immigration databases. If ICE decides an arrested individual is of interest, the agency determines what enforcement action to take.
DHS plans nationwide activation of Secure Communities by 2013.
Lack of Unity Among Task Force Members
There were clear divisions within the Task Force, which became obvious as five members resigned before the report was made public.
"Throughout the process, it became clear our perspectives and recommendations were not going to be acknowledged," three members who represented labor unions wrote in a letter to the task force’s chairman, Chuck Wexler. "The final report demonstrates a clear absence of our voice. It is not an accurate reflection of the matters of concern that we raised on behalf of the workers we represent or their communities."
Another member who resigned, former police chief of Sacramento Arturo Venegas Jr., said the report did not go "far enough."
"If we had made a recommendation that this program needs to go back to its original intent, I would have been happy with that," he said. "The conclusion that I came to is that even with the present recommendation deportations of misdemeanors and low-level offenders will still continue."
Wexler said that while he could not address the specific reasons that led to resignations, members who resigned did so because, "if they couldn’t get exactly what they wanted, then they weren’t gonna be part of it."
He added the task force had been exposed to great pressure, with 150 immigration groups sending them requests to resign from their positions. Because opinions of members varied so significantly, Wexler said, "it had to be give-and-take to produce a report that would be useful"
In its final conclusion, the report said half of the members were in favor of the Secure Communities program suspension, while the other half thought the program should be continued after changes are implemented.
Matt Chandler, DHS spokesman, said ICE Director John Morton has invited members of the task force who resigned to also "meet with him and discuss their concerns."
The Task Force on Secure Communities was created in June, with 20 local and state law enforcement and homeland security officials, immigration attorneys, labor union officials, academics and others as its members.