Either scrap or revamp Secure Communities

Share via

Gov. Jerry Brown is under increasing pressure to suspend California’s participation in the controversial federal immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities. The program requires state and local police to share the fingerprints of anyone who is arrested with federal officials, who then check them against their own databases to determine the arrestee’s immigration status.

In theory, Secure Communities sounds like a sensible idea. It was sold to Congress as a way for the federal government to use its limited resources to nab dangerous immigrants who have a history of criminal convictions. But that’s not the way it has been used. Instead, nearly half of those deported under the program since 2008 have been undocumented immigrants with no criminal records at all, or who had been convicted of misdemeanors. In California, more than 8,000 people deported between October 2008 and January 2011 under the program had never been convicted of a crime.

Instead of making communities more secure, Secure Communities may actually make them less so. Police in San Jose, San Francisco and elsewhere insist that the program will make their jobs harder because immigrants will be reluctant to report crimes or cooperate with investigations for fear that any contact with the authorities could lead to their arrest and deportation.


In any case, it makes little sense to waste scarce law enforcement resources tracking and deporting law-abiding immigrants, even if they are in the U.S. illegally. What this country needs is comprehensive reform that deals simultaneously with border security, enforcement and the future of the 11 million illegal immigrants already here. Treating all illegal immigrants as dangerous criminals doesn’t address the underlying issues.

Last week, seven members of California’s congressional delegation joined a growing chorus of elected officials, including most of the members of the Los Angeles City Council, to demand that the state suspend participation in Secure Communities. And this week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the program a waste of taxpayer money. But even if the governor agrees to pull out, which would be fine with us, it would be a mostly symbolic gesture. The Obama administration has already nixed such efforts by Illinois, Massachusetts and New York, arguing that states don’t have the authority to stop sharing fingerprint information with the federal government.

Ultimately, immigration is a problem that states can’t fix. It’s a federal issue. President Obama should either scrap or revamp Secure Communities. Until then, he should instruct Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to limit the scope of the program to illegal immigrants convicted of serious felonies.