Recently, the Archive launched a new round of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on what has become one of the most controversial immigration enforcement initiatives in the United States: the Secure Communities deportation program. The data-sharing program requires participating state and municipal jurisdictions to run the fingerprints of arrestees through various federal law enforcement databases to check for immigration violations. More than 90% of those arrested through the Secure Communities are Latino, and approximately 3,600 U.S. citizens have been arrested by ICE through the program. More than one-third (39%) of individuals arrested through Secure Communities reported that they have a U.S. citizen spouse or child, meaning that approximately 88,000 families with U.S. citizen members have been impacted by the program.
Now, many of those states and municipalities are refusing to cooperate with the program. “We need the trust, and that is exactly the opposite of what [Secure Communities] is suggesting,” said Jack Cole, a former New Jersey state police detective and co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “It is the antithesis of what we need as police officers.” Secure Communities is a collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice. ICE states on its Web site that it “prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety, and repeat immigration violators.”
One of our primary objectives here at the Mexico/Migration Project of the National Security Archive is to increase transparency around the security and law enforcement institutions in Mexico and the United States. At issue are those institutions whose policies and operations directly affect the rights of migrants as well as those agencies that produce information that advance our understanding of those policies and operations. (In a recent post, we looked at ICE’s Interior Repatriation Program.)
Our latest FOIA requests on the Secure Communities program are part of this overall effort. Writing to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we asked for records on the design, goals and implementation of Secure Communities program; removal statistics; budget and operational statistics; activities reports and other operational summaries; and internal and external evaluations and other documents related to oversight of the program.
Much of the controversy over Secure Communities is its unplanned effect on people who have already settled and established themselves in the United States. Those deported under Secure Communities are more likely to have U.S. citizen family members and/or U.S. citizen children than those who are deported through other removal programs. And the discussion hasn’t been limited to immigration program officials and migrant rights organizations. The governors of Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey have all been extremely resistant to the expansion of the program in their states. Their concern is that local officers should not be seen as extensions of federal immigration enforcement by immigrant communities. When this distinction isn’t clear, undocumented immigrants who are victims of crimes or abuse might be more reluctant to cooperate with police for fear of deportation.
The debate around its effectiveness became so heated that DHS secretary Janet Napolitano created a special Task Force on Secure Communities, which in September 201, issued a critical report that recommended that the agencies “suspend the expansion of Secure Communities to any new jurisdictions until DHS can consider the reforms recommended in this report, and implement the recommendations it accepts” and that “it makes little sense to expand a program that many community leaders and elected officials consider deeply flawed, especially as to its impact on community policing and civil rights.” Nevertheless, in 2012, federal officials announcedthat the program would be extended across Massachusetts and New York, precisely where resistance to the program’s expansion is the strongest.
And expand it has. Under President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security has expanded Secure Communities Program from just 14 to more than 3,000 jurisdictions, including all jurisdictions along the southwest border. DHS says it is on “track to expand Secure Communities to all law enforcement jurisdictions nationwide during fiscal year 2013.” The program is one of the reasons President Obama has deported more people than President Bush. The Obama administration insists that its primary focus is on catching and deporting the worst, most dangerous offenders, and that so far the program has been successful in doing so, quoting statistics like this one that says “of the more than 166,000 immigrants convicted of crimes were removed from the United States after identification through Secure Communities, more than 61,000 immigrants were convicted of aggravated felony (level 1) offenses, including murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children.”
However, scholars and migrants rights advocates disagree. A report from Berkeley Law School found that Secure Communities “has led disproportionately to the removal of Latino immigrants and to arrests by immigration authorities of hundreds of United States citizens.” Another study concluded that those deported under Secure Communities are more likely to have minor children who are U.S. citizens (31% versus 20%), have spent more time in the U.S. (an average of 8.6 years versus 6.1), and are more likely to consider their current home in the U.S. (46% versus 24%).
The direct effect of the program has been to tear families apart, they say, separating family members that are legally allowed in the country from those that are not. Migrant advocacy groups point out that programs such as this one have very little impact on people’s plans to return to the U.S. but rather set in motion a vicious cycle of deportation, re-entry attempts, arrests and continued family separation.
We’ll report back soon (we hope!) on the results of our Secure Communities FOIA requests, and will continue to provide updates on the latest declassified revelations on migration and migrant rights.