MINNEAPOLIS -- The Department of Homeland Security announced reforms to a key immigration enforcement program Friday, responding to criticism from state governments and advocacy groups.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) had called for reforms to the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program earlier Friday.
"Fix Secure Communities so you go after drug dealers and gang bangers, not the guy who is washing dishes or the Windex-wielding lady at Walmart at night," Gutierrez told a group of reporters at Netroots Nation, adding that many people detained through the fingerprint-sharing program are never convicted with a crime.
The program, which allows immigration authorities to access fingerprints taken by local police, has come under fire for netting a large number of undocumented immigrants who have never committed a serious crime, even though it is touted as a method for deporting violent criminals.
The reforms announced Friday will allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement to incorporate more discretion into Secure Communities to filter out men and women who have not been convicted of crimes.
"Secure Communities is a critical tool for law enforcement agencies working to protect the citizens and communities they serve," ICE Director John Morton said in a statement. "However, we need to do a better job of ensuring that the program is more focused on targeting those that pose the biggest risk to communities."
In particular, the agency plans to implement a new policy to protect people who are the victims of domestic violence and are netted by the program, because some law enforcement agencies routinely book both parties in domestic disputes.
The new policy, explained in a June 17 memorandum from Morton, tells Secure Communities actors to work to discourage fears that calling the police will lead to deportation.
"ICE officers, special agents, and attorneys should exercise all appropriate prosecutorial discretion to minimize any effect that immigration enforcement may have on the willingness and ability of victims, witnesses and plaintiffs to call police and pursue justice," he wrote in the memo.
The reforms also include new training materials to educate communities about the program and the creation of an advisory committee that will investigate how to deal with minor offenders, such as people booked for repeat traffic violations or driving without a license.
But that may not be enough for critics of the program, who have demanded major changes and have even asked the administration to abandon Secure Communities altogether.
Gutierrez called for Obama to fix Secure Communities as a larger suggested executive action on immigration. He said Obama should help stop deportation of young people who would benefit from the DREAM Act, a failed bill that would allow some undocumented young people and family members of U.S. citizens to earn legal status.
The reform announcement does not include a method for states and localities to block fingerprints taken in their jails from going to immigration authorities, despite push back from Illinois, New York and Massachusetts, whose governors said they would not participate in the program.
The reform announcement came two months before immigration authorities are set to investigate the program and whether officials misled state and local authorities about whether it would be mandatory. The investigation, requested by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), will begin in August.
"Reform before review not only puts the cart before the horse, it continues to take the country in the wrong direction," Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said in a statement. "Given the inherent problems to the program and the continued secrecy in its implementation, S-Comm should be suspended immediately until the Office of the Inspector General can complete its report."
Still, advocates of reform said DHS has taken a step in the right direction.
"Today’s announcement shows that concerns about the program’s failures have finally penetrated the DHS bureaucracy in Washington," Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice Education Fund, said in a statement. "When law enforcement leaders and advocates for crime victims are speaking out against a ‘law enforcement’ proposal, something is wrong."