Let police pursue criminals, not immigrants


California reached a milestone late last month when federal immigration officials quietly announced that all 58 counties in the state are now participating in Secure Communities, a controversial program created to track and deport dangerous criminals.

Unveiled in late 2008, Secure Communities is billed as a showpiece of immigration enforcement. Under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement program, state and local police must check the immigration status of people who have been arrested and booked into local jails by matching fingerprints against federal databases for criminal convictions and deportation orders.

But today, Secure Communities is mired in problems. About 60% of the 87,534 immigrants deported under the program had minor or no criminal convictions, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s statistics, even though the program was aimed at dangerous criminals.


Moreover, state and local law enforcement agencies are growing increasingly uneasy about participating in a program that they say thwarts their ability to work with communities with large immigrant populations. Police are concerned that taking on the role of enforcer makes it more difficult to build trust in immigrant communities that are already fearful of reporting crimes or providing crucial information. A report released last week by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based research group, found that police chiefs across the nation worry that checking suspects’ backgrounds against databases that include immigration warrants is blurring the lines between public safety and immigration enforcement.

Former Chief William J. Bratton raised those concerns in 2009 when he argued against the LAPD taking on a greater role in reporting immigrants to federal authorities. Criminals are the “biggest benefactors when immigrants fear police,” he wrote.

The Obama administration is right to enforce immigration laws, and smart to focus on those who pose the greatest danger to communities. With an estimated 11 million people illegally living and working in the United States, immigration officials can’t deport everyone, and would waste precious resources in the effort to do so.

But Secure Communities isn’t succeeding at targeting violent criminals. Instead, it is increasingly diverting police from public safety for other purposes. The White House should heed the recommendations of police chiefs who are calling on federal immigration officials to stop trying to turn police into immigration agents.

The program isn’t working. It should be shelved, or retooled to ensure that police can opt out and that dangerous criminals are the target.