Secure Communities, Irate Activists

A heavy-handed ICE decree will only do harm, pro-immigrant forces argue.

The program with the reassuring name Secure Communities took effect last Tuesday in all 39 Washington counties, despite objections from activist groups claiming that the effort to fingerprint and deport undocumented immigrants erodes community trust in law enforcement, costs taxpayers money, and disproportionally targets individuals guilty only of traffic violations or other minor offenses.

Secure Communities was originally introduced in 2008 by ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) and promoted as a way to rid the country of felonious illegal immigrants. It’s supposed to work like this: When people are booked into local jails, their fingerprints are submitted to an FBI database, which ICE then cross-references with their own records to check for previous immigration violations. If an offender pings in the system, ICE will ask local authorities to detain the inmate until their agents arrive to transport the offender to a federal detention center, where he or she likely will face deportation.

Initially, local law-enforcement agencies were allowed to “opt in” to the Secure Communities program. A handful of Washington counties volunteered to take part, including Yakima, Franklin, and Benton—all counties with large Latino populations. The Washington State Patrol, however, resisted statewide implementation of the program, following the lead of New York, Massachusetts, California, and other states. ICE had planned to roll out the program nationally next year, but two weeks ago the agency abruptly announced that participation in Secure Communities would be mandatory statewide.

The move has drawn sharp criticism from legal advocacy and immigrant-rights groups, both of which point to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security as proof that nearly 80 percent of the people deported through Secure Communities have either never been convicted of a crime or are guilty only of minor offenses.

“I call it the insecure communities program,” says Ann Benson, directing attorney of the Washington Defender Association. “It’s costing us money, it’s not making us safer, it’s contributing to racial profiling, and it’s undermining the criminal-justice system. Those are things I see daily working with criminal prosecutors and courts.”

In Washington, data from the six counties that opted in to Secure Communities over the past three years shows that 84 percent of those deported through the program either had no criminal conviction (25 percent) or were charged or convicted with Level 2 or 3 offenses (59 percent), non-felonies that include speeding tickets and other traffic infractions. That, says Toby Guevin, the senior policy and legislative manager at Seattle-based immigrant rights group OneAmerica, has made Latino community members less likely to call the police when something bad happens.

“Secure Communities is a broad dragnet that catches everybody,” Guevin says. “Regardless of what your crime is or why you’ve been brought in, you’re fingerprinted. As a result, witnesses of crimes or victims of crime are really hesitant to call the police.”

In addition to breeding mistrust, Benson says Washington taxpayers are usually forced to foot the bill for detaining undocumented immigrants while ICE processes their fingerprints and sends agents to transfer offenders to federal facilities. ICE can order inmates to be held for an additional 48 hours beyond the normal period during which an individual must be charged or released, and that time frame does not include weekends—meaning that in some cases a person can be detained for up to five days before facing charges.

“It’s really gumming up the criminal-justice process,” Benson says.

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