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Immigration Enforcement: The Growing Federal-Local Battle

It is no secret that the Obama Administration has continued to rapidly expand the enforcement of federal immigration laws at the local level. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s federal-local partnership programs continue to proliferate in cities and counties across the country. But what’s becoming more apparent is that this federal project risks undermining local approaches to immigration enforcement.

By 2013, Secure Communities will enlist every city and county in the business of immigration enforcement. Many big-city police departments—in Los Angeles and Detroit, for example—have opted out of enforcing federal immigration laws, and in some cases have enacted resolutions or ordinances to formalize this practice. Yet the rapid growth of ICE’s Secure Communities program will take this option off the table.

Under Secure Communities, when an individual is booked by a police officer, her fingerprints are automatically sent to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) databases to check for immigration violations; if there is a match, ICE agents then decide whether she will be targeted for deportation.

Prominent urban law enforcement officials have opposed this involvement in immigration affairs, in part because it harms relationships between police and immigrant communities. As former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton put it, “Criminals are the biggest benefactors when immigrants fear the police. We can't solve crimes that aren't reported because the victims are afraid to come forward to the police.” Programs like Secure Communities turn local cops into immigration agents, leaving foreign-born victims or witnesses of crimes less likely to interact with law enforcement for fear of deportation. The majority of big-city police departments have instead sought to include immigrants and their families using community policing practices that keep all residents safe.

But the unchecked growth of Secure Communities and other ICE partnership programs will effectively undermine these cultivated relationships between immigrant communities and local police.

Last week, the DC City Council became the first locality to resist the Secure Communities mandate. Despite the city’s longstanding policy limiting involvement with ICE, Metro Police Chief Cathy Lanier indicated that DC was to join the program in November. All 13 members of the council supported a bill to "prohibit the District of Columbia to transmit arrest data to the United States Department of Homeland Security." In San Francisco, the program is slated to begin next month; but since 1989, the city has had a sanctuary city policy that in most circumstances keeps local officials from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement. Of the policy shift, a spokesperson for the SF Sheriff’s Department said: “The ground rules in the jails have changed, but not due to any decision on our part.”

Secure Communities is one of many federal-local partnership programs designed to further ICE’s mission to focus on the most dangerous criminal aliens. But this is just not happening. Between October 2008 and February 2009, local law enforcement agencies identified over 111,000 individuals with some kind of criminal record through the Secure Communities program. According to ICE’s own data, only ten percent of these individuals were charged with or convicted of violent crimes. This is because the program checks the immigration status of every person fingerprinted for an offense—this includes minor traffic violations and other misdemeanors that don't even require jail time. More troubling is the fact that individuals who have not actually been convicted or found guilty of a crime can be deported.

ICE’s stated priority is to identify the most dangerous “criminal aliens,” but it is hardly a requirement; the agency reserves the right to deport any individual who can legally be removed. In reality, many city policies more explicitly target these dangerous criminal aliens. In San Francisco, for example, law enforcement refers individuals to ICE who “are booked on felony charges, or have a history of felony charges, and are foreign born and have previous deportation orders.”

A successful expansion of Secure Communities over the next few years will replace these more moderate local enforcement policies with one heavy federal hand. Both immigrant advocates and law enforcement officials have been outspoken in their criticisms of this agenda, and rightly so. It doesn’t seem that ICE is listening, and will continue to enlist cities in finding and deporting so-called criminal immigrants on a large scale.

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Posted at 3:15 PM, May 11, 2010 in Immigration
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