How Secure is Secure Communities?

Immigration has always been a hot topic for government officials, and the debate surrounding the latest United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program, Secure Communities, is no exception. The program is advertised as improving public safety by increasing the identification and removal of criminal illegal immigrants, but the realities and consequences of such a program may be more dangerous than beneficial.

According to Secure Communities, upon arrest, detainees have their fingerprints checked in all the regular F.B.I and local law-enforcement databases. However, they are checked with ICE’s databases as well. If there is a hit, ICE will then issue a hold requesting that the person be detained until ICE officials decide if they want to transfer them to federal custody or not. Before this program, information was passed along to ICE and only when the individual had arrived in a jail after arraignment. So far 1,049 jurisdictions in 39 states have agreed to enforce Secure Communities.

The title of the strategy of the program is curious in that it leads one to believe that the program safeguards you, the public, while covertly pointing out the threat to your safety posed by illegal immigrants. The program boasts of ridding us of the greatest threats; but according to ICE’s own statistics 79% of people deported due to Secure Communities were arrested for non-criminal or lower level offenses, like traffic offenses.

The program and its title intentionally tap into the dangerous immigrant discourse which is frequently used to gain public support of national policies when global tensions and xenophobia are heightened like they were after 9/11.

But besides the name, the program has serious flaws. One problem is that this bottom-up approach of giving local authorities the additional power and task of identifying illegal and “criminal” immigrants leaves much more space for personal discrimination and stereotyping. The dramatic example would be the overzealous policeman who arrests people who look illegal for any made-up and eventually dismissed reason to check their fingerprints against the ICE database.

Since violent offenders are already deported, this scheme merely increases the penalties for minor immigration infractions. Thus, communities will likely want even less contact and involvement with the police under Secure Communities. Witnesses and victims may be reluctant to come forward if they or people they know have pending statuses. In what language does less cooperation with the police translate to more security?

It can be said that Secure Communities makes sense given the immigration laws we already have on the books — if you are illegally residing in the United States, bottom line, you are deportable. The real problem is that our immigration system, along with ICE, is unregulated and can enforce any policy as long as it's in accordance with the letter of our laws. Unfortunately, the spirit of our laws are often at odds with the practicalities of daily enforcement.

Immigration enforcement has benefited from the general ignorance of the public to their policies and practices. It will be interesting to see how the discussion changes when immigration enforcement becomes a more visible, everyday reality across the nation.

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