Latino Leader Says ICE's Secure Communities Program Is Making Yakima Anything But Secure

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Patricia Flores is a lifelong resident of Yakima County and a leader of the area's Latino community. On the surface, she's exactly the type of person who should support Immigration and Customs Enforcement's new "Secure Communities" program, which seeks to deport undocumented immigrants who pose "serious threats to public safety." But the program, which cross-references fingerprints of people arrested by local law enforcement with an ICE database, has Flores--along with governors of three states--crying foul.

Rather than giving the boot to felons and repeat offenders, documents released by ICE indicate that close to 80 percent of the individuals deported as a result of Secure Communities had no criminal convictions at all, or were charged with minor infractions like traffic violations. And, according to Flores, in Yakima it's making women who are victims of domestic violence less likely to come forward for fear that their spouse will wind up in a cell at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac.

Flores works closely with Paola Zambrano, President of Amigas Unidas in Yakima, an organization that supports abused women in the Latino community. Flores tells Seattle Weekly that she and Zambrano are opposed to Secure Communities because the program has heightened mistrust of the police in Yakima's sizable Latino community, particularly when it comes to reporting domestic violence.

"Paola has seen it firsthand," Flores says. "There's a couple of women who have told her, '[The police] took him and now he's in Tacoma. He's not a serious criminal, he just doesn't have his papers.' We are seeing that. Of course, those same people are now leery of showing their faces and saying 'Yes, this is happening to me.' There's just no trust. It's a really horrible way to live."

Since May, a total of six Washington counties--Yakima, Lewis, Franklin, Grays Harbor, Pacific, and Island--have voluntarily signed up for Secure Communities, with Chelan and Okanogan scheduled to join in the coming weeks. Currently, counties not in the program share fingerprints with the FBI.

Proponents of Secure Communities maintain that it's a more effective way of deporting dangerous criminals. But documents released earlier this year as a result of a public records request by a coalition of human-rights groups suggest that ICE is casting far too wide a net with the initiative.

"There is ample evidence that ICE and DHS have gone out of their way to mislead the public about Secure Communities," U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote in an opinion issued Monday in New York that unsealed "embarrassing" portions of the documents redacted by ICE. "In particular, these agencies have failed to acknowledge a shift in policy when it is patently obvious--from public documents and statements--that there has been one."

The judge's opinion reinforced what the Governors of New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts already knew. Last month, the office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security that "The [Secure Communities] program, conceived as a method of targeting those who pose the greatest threat to our communities, is in fact having the opposite effect and compromising public safety by deterring witnesses to crime and others from working with law enforcement."

Illinois opted out of the program in May, citing the fact that ICE was not targeting "serious criminals" as promised. On June 3, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick also asked to withdraw from Secure Communities, citing safety concerns and the fact that "advocates for victims of violence, particularly domestic violence, have expressed grave concern that the program as implemented will further victimize their constituents."

ICE has since vowed to reform the program by expanding "the grounds and the circumstances to be considered when officers are making decisions on who to detain or remove."

Yakima was the first Washington county to adopt the program. Since then, Flores and a coalition of about 30 Yakima citizens have spoken out at the weekly meetings of the county's Board of Commissioners, which signed off on Secure Communities at the behest of the county sheriff Ken Irwin and Department of Corrections director Ed Campbell.

"At the time we affirmed [Campbell's] decision, I don't think we were fully aware of perhaps the community's concern over this program," Commissioner Mike Leita told the Yakima Herald-Republic after a particularly contentious meeting last month.

Flores says the County should have sought public input before joining Secure Communities. She says the Commissioners and Sheriff have repeatedly declined her requests to attend a public forum and hear feedback from the community about the program. This Saturday, Yakima's Latino Civic Alliance is holding a town hall at the Yakima Convention Center. Flores says Irwin and the commissioners have again been invited to attend, but she remains skeptical about their commitment to engaging their Latino constituents.

"I just can't believe this is happening," Flores says, "that this is what's it's coming to. It's not OK."

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