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Can Cities Really Opt Out of Secure Communities?

As Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to aggressively expand its newest local immigration enforcement program, some localities are looking to put on the brakes. Secure Communities is touted as a voluntary partnership between federal, state and local agencies that “supports public safety by strengthening efforts to remove the most dangerous criminal aliens from the United States.” When an individual is booked by a police officer in a participating agency, her fingerprints are automatically sent to federal immigration databases to check for violations; if there is a match, ICE agents then decide whether she will be targeted for deportation. Advocates have rightly raised a number of red flags about the program, chiefly that it has not effectively targeted criminal immigrants, but instead focuses on deporting immigrants who have committed minor offenses, or none at all.

City leaders in San Francisco and Washington have also spoken out against Secure Communities, arguing that city resources shouldn’t be used to implement federal immigration laws. What’s more, both cities have decades-old policies that limit police involvement in immigration enforcement, policies that Secure Communities will certainly override. D.C. Councilman Jim Graham says : "In D.C. we have had a long-standing tradition of separation between what our police force does and what immigration agents do. We can't have police behave like immigration officers. Our police have their hands full with local crime." Back in May, the Council unanimously sponsored a bill that opposing participation in Secure Communities, and by July D.C. was the first in the country to formally withdraw from it.

But D.C. is a special case. ICE doesn’t typically negotiate agreements regulating Secure Communities with cities, but with each State Identification Bureau. So the District of Columbia had its own agreement to scrap—not so for San Francisco. Despite numerous efforts to opt out of this “voluntary” program, San Francisco officials found their hands tied. Once California signed a statewide Secure Communities document, all fingerprints sent from the city were also automatically sent by the state to ICE. Against the wishes of the Sheriff and several Supervisors, San Francisco was drafted into the program.

In July, Representative Zoe Lofgren sent a letter to the agency requested clarification about Secure Communities, noting that “significant confusion” surrounded the opt out process. Official statements from ICE on the issue were inconsistent at best. From a Salon article:

ICE spokesperson Mark Medvesky asserted that cities could not opt out of Secure Communities. But Medvesky was quoted in an Aug. 21, 2009, Philadelphia Inquirer article saying that Philadelphia could opt out, ‘but I can't imagine why they would want to. It's not a mandate.’

In an August document titled “Setting the Record Straight,” ICE seemed to deny that any ambiguity existed. Interestingly, for the first time, the agency vaguely outlined how a city or county could avoid joining. The agency held that if a jurisdiction wanted to opt out, various stakeholders would meet to “discuss any issues and come to a resolution, which may include…removing the jurisdiction from the deployment plan.” To date, no city has successfully been able to do this. San Francisco may be the first; this week, Sheriff Hennessey sent a letter to DHS officials reminding them of the city’s request to exit the program. We should all keep an eye on how this proceeds. What ICE decides to do with San Francisco will set an important precedent for other cities and counties that want to stay out of federal immigration enforcement.

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Posted at 6:15 PM, Sep 01, 2010 in Immigration
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