12/08/2011 02:40 pm ET | Updated Dec 09, 2011

Secure Communities Companion Pilot Program To Run In Denver; Immigration Enforcement Advocates Skeptical Of DHS Proposals

The Department of Homeland Security's contentious 'Secure Communities' program may soon have a friendlier cousin, pending a successful six-week pilot project in Denver.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the policy change in June. Where Secure Communities attempts to deport immigrants with criminal records, the new program aims to be a more humanitarian counterweight: immigrants facing deportation, who have no criminal record and meet certain criteria, may be identified as low priorities for immigration enforcement and have their cases closed.

While prioritizing deportations has been the goal for Secure Communities all along, critics maintain the program has so far deported many illegal immigrants guilty of little more than parking tickets while allowing many violent offenders off the hook.

An October report conducted by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy of the University of California-Berkley found only 8% of those detained under Secure Communities had an aggravated felony conviction, while 45% had no criminal history at all.

"I know there has been a lot of discussion about Secure Communities -- and to be perfectly candid, this program got off to a bad start," Napolitano said in a speech at American University in early October. "We did not explain clearly how it works and who is required to participate."

The Denver Post explains that, under the pilot program, attorneys reviewing immigration cases can put a hold in instances that might involve illegal immigrants who have served in the military, been in the United States for a long time, completed high school or college, are elderly or have been the victims of domestic violence.

"Our immigration system is overwhelmed because current enforcement programs cast too wide a net and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] can only deport so many people a year," said Laura Lichter, President-elect of Denver's American Immigration Lawyer's Association, of the new program. "If properly implemented, the current review will cut out those cases that common sense would agree are not high enforcement priorities, allowing ICE to focus on serious threats to our communities. Smart use of prosecutorial discretion will ensure smart enforcement."

Detractors of the Denver pilot believe the policy condones illegal immigration. Republicans have called it a "backdoor amnesty" program, and blasted the shift as halting enforcement of U.S. law, writes 7News.

Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York sought to end their involvement in Secure Communities earlier this year, but Department of Homeland Security officials derailed their plans. Colorado's own involvement with the program has seen much opposition including funding disputes and federal/state conflicts.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to emphasize Secure Communities and the pilot program are two separate programs.