When federal officials first announced the Secure Communities program in 2008, they billed it as a powerful tool in the battle to identify and deport illegal immigrants who had been convicted of violent crimes. Dozens of states, including California, signed on, agreeing that police would submit the fingerprints of all arrestees to be checked against federal databases for criminal convictions and deportation orders.
But the program, once billed as a voluntary partnership between the Department of Homeland Security and localities, is now mired in controversy. The government is investigating whether it has failed to nab dangerous criminals and has instead been used to target low-level nonviolent offenders. Since its launch, more than half of those deported under Secure Communities had minor or no criminal convictions, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. In Los Angeles County, for example, nearly half of the 11,774 deported under the program from August 2009 to January 2011 had no convictions or had committed misdemeanors. They were targeted for deportation because the program doesn't distinguish between criminals and those who illegally entered the U.S. or overstayed a visa — a civil violation.
What's more, in some cities with large immigrant communities, police are concerned that their participation in the program will have a chilling effect on immigrants' willingness to report crimes or provide useful information. They point to cases like that of Isaura Garcia, an immigrant living in Los Angeles, who called 911 in February to report an alleged beating by her partner. Because police often arrest both parties in domestic disputes, her fingerprints were submitted to immigration officials; despite having no criminal record, she was flagged for deportation proceedings because she was in the country illegally. Another case involved a street vendor with no prior criminal record who was was arrested in downtown Los Angeles last month after she ran when police approached her. The woman remains detained, though no charges were filed, and is awaiting deportation for being in the U.S. illegally.
The result is that a growing number of states that were initially drawn to the program are telling the Department of Homeland Security that they want to withdraw or modify their participation. A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) would require that only the fingerprints of convicted felons be submitted to immigration officials. It would also allow any county to opt out of the program. The bill is now before the full Assembly.
If federal immigration officials are unwilling to target the people they said they would target, then Ammiano's proposal will set modest and sensible limits. It would help focus enforcement efforts on felons who commit rape, murder or other violent crimes instead of street vendors and domestic violence victims.