(CN) - A controversial federal program that sparked the “sanctuary cities” debate nationwide has minimal impact in the United States' efforts to deport undocumented criminals, according to the program’s own numbers and a New York-based data group.
TRAC, a Syracuse University program that works to make federal data available to the public, released a study last week showing Immigration and Custom Enforcement's Secure Cities program accounts for less than 3 percent of deportations, despite leading to several losing lawsuits and igniting a national debate which weighed heavy in last year’s presidential election.
The Secure Communities program was started under the Bush administration. It allows ICE agents to send detainer requests to local police departments if an individual is arrested and identity confirmation from fingerprints shows they are undocumented.
It starts in when an individual is arrested and fingerprinted. Those fingerprints are sent to the FBI database to check if the suspect's identity matches federal records. ICE has a window into this checking system, through the Department of Homeland Security, and if an arrestee's prints turn up as an “undocumented person,” the agency can issue a "detainer," asking local police to hold the suspect until federal agents can pick them up.
Sanctuary cities are a reaction to this program. By declaring itself a sanctuary city, a municipality declares it will not work with ICE to hold suspects, no matter their immigration status.
President Trump has condemned the practice and threatened to pull federal funds from those cities.
But the reality is, the Secure Communities program has run into many legal challenges, often with courts finding the detainment requests are a violation of the Fourth Amendment because they lack probable cause. It also puts federal responsibilities in the hands of state and local officers, an overreach of their legal power, the courts have said.
The most recent ruling, City of El Cenizo v. State of Texas, released in August and written by U.S District Judge Orlando Garcia, focused on a state law that required local police departments in Texas to comply with ICE detainers. While Garcia found constitutional issues with the law, he also saw the detriment such enforcement could have on communities.
In striking down the law, he wrote, “Undocumented immigrants, and U.S. citizens related to them, will be reluctant to send their children to school, attend church, report housing problems, and seek health care, including prenatal care, because it will put members of their family at risk of removal.
“Trust between local law enforcement and the people they serve, which police departments have worked so hard to promote, will be substantially eroded and result in increased crime rates,” Garcia said.
In its report, TRAC, which is a nonpartisan research group and does not make policy recommendations, found discrepancies in ICE’s reporting on detainer requests and their outcomes. It also pointed to the minuscule impact the controversial program has in the government's efforts to deport undocumented people.
“Only about 2.5 percent of Secure Communities removals were connected to the use of detainers sent to local law enforcement agencies,” the report says. “When compared with ICE removals from all sources, this component made up even a smaller proportion -- less than 1 percent of all ICE removals.”
Despite the report's conclusions, an ICE official defended the program in an email to Courthouse News.
“Secure Communities remains a valuable tool in identifying and arresting criminal aliens as they are encountered by our criminal justice system,” wrote Sarah Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the agency. “Since Jan. 25, 2017, through the end of fiscal year 2017, more than 43,300 convicted criminal aliens have been removed as a result of Secure Communities interoperability.”
It’s that “43,000” number that TRAC takes issue with. Based on information they received through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, the university's researchers said the number should actually be quite a bit lower -- cut, perhaps, by as much as 75 percent.
President Obama reclassified the “Secure Communities” as the “Priority Enforcement Program” in 2015. The fingerprinting system was still used, but detainers were aimed only at violent offenders instead of those caught committing any crime. According to TRAC data, this lead to a total reduction in deportees, but still showed the minimal impact from the fingerprinting program.
Trump’s return to Secure Communities sets the target back on any and all criminal offences committed by undocumented people.
And while TRAC doesn’t offer policy decisions, Susan Long, co-director of the program, said if the program's aim is to increase security in communities through detainers, the low impact of the program suggests otherwise.
“We’re trying to give the fullest picture of what’s happening [with the federal government] day to day and we compare that with the agency’s statement of goals,” she said. “And according to ICE’s goals on this program, they are not.”Follow @@BradKutner
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