MANHATTAN (CN) – Law enforcement officials are displeased with the error-prone and counterproductive Secure Communities program that created fingerprint databases for deportation purposes, according to a new report that draws on thousands of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Currently under federal investigation, Secure Communities, or S-Comm, now faces criticism from high-ranking current and former law enforcement officials, including former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, Police Chief Chris Burbank of Salt Lake City, and San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey.
“In this report, local law enforcement officials explain how S-Comm threatens public safety,” according to a report published by two of the organizations suing the government over the program. “It distracts police from their primary functions, it diverts their resources, and it destroys trust with immigrant communities by making police frontline enforcers of broken and outdated immigration laws. Without trust, crimes go unreported, investigations go unsolved, decades of community policing efforts are destroyed, and we are all less safe.”
The government presented Secure Communities to the public as a way to let state and local law enforcement share criminal fingerprint databases with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, which would make it easier to deport undocumented immigrants believed to have committed serious crimes.
In practice, immigration advocates say people get entered in the system for minor offenses. They also claim authorities furtively rushed the program into mandatory, nationwide implementation without significant public engagement.
In April 2010, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Center for Constitutional Rights and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law filed in a freedom of information lawsuit against five federal agencies implementing the program.
Last month, a federal judge ruled that she would order the release of “embarrassing” documents, and Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General announced the same day that it would launch an investigation into the program to determine whether the participating agencies misled the public.
Nineteen nonprofit organizations, including two of the plaintiffs in that case, turned up the heat on the program Tuesday with the release of a 60-page report.
A timeline included in the six-part report details legislation that led to the program.
Although it starts at 1986, it places special emphasis on deportation efforts after Sept. 11, 2001.
“The United States is in an era of mass deportation – the federal government has formally removed more people in the past 10 years than in the preceding 107 years,” the report states.
Another section interviews people affected by an “ICE Hold,” the 48-hour period in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials can pick up an undocumented immigrant detained through Secure Communities for deportation.
One woman named “Isaura” says she was put into custody after she called 911 to report her boyfriend’s abuse. But non-Spanish-speaking police instead arrested Isaura for domestic violence, and they pursued deportation until she went public with her story.
Shortly after her case came to light, ICE Director John Morton sent a memo to all field officers, special agents and chief counsel urging “prosecutorial discretion,” particularly with victims of domestic violence and military veterans.
Critics of Secure Communities have said that immigrants have been fingerprinted and deported for traffic violations.
The report highlights a couple of such cases, like “Mercedes,” who says she faced deportation after being arrested for driving less than 10 mph over the speed limit days before her high school graduation.
Salt Lake City’s police chief says her story is not uncommon in his city.
“Since the inception of Secure Communities and state mandated immigration checks, I am aware of agencies that have adopted a practice of booking any person of color on traffic violations if they are unable to demonstrate citizenship,” Police Chief Burbank said, according to the report.
Nevertheless, an ICE spokeswoman insists that Secure Communities fulfills its mission to target criminals.
“The Secure Communities program utilizes ICE’s limited resources to prioritize the removal of persons arrested and booked on criminal charges in violation of state law,” Nicole Navas said in a statement. “ICE is not currently aware of any victim or witness that has been removed from the U.S. as a result of the Secure Communities program, and continues to work with its law enforcement partners across the country to responsibly and effectively implement this federal information sharing capability and plans to reach complete nationwide activation by 2013.”
Statistics from the ICE Office of Public Affairs state that deportations of immigrants without criminal records have decreased 21 percent since the implementation of Secure Communities, while deportations of convicted criminals have risen by 71 percent between October 2008 and the end of 2010.
In the face of public criticism, Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties touted a kinder, gentler deportation program in June, distributing YouTube videos and training briefs about community outreach and efforts to fight racial profiling and protect crime victims.
Critics, however, say Secure Communities needs to be shelved, not reformed.
“This report confirms what immigrant communities have long known,” the National Community Advisory Commission wrote in a statement. “The program called Secure Communities results in the opposite. The experts confirm that entangling local police in immigration enforcement is not just bad policy. Conscripting local police into immigration enforcement has provoked a massive civil rights crisis our country now faces. The only suitable approach is to end Secure Communities.”