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D.C. Passes Bill To Restrict Secure Communities Immigration Enforcement Program

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A senior deputy fingerprints a suspect during the booking process at Arapahoe County Justice Center in Centennial, Colo., in July 2010.
A senior deputy fingerprints a suspect during the booking process at Arapahoe County Justice Center in Centennial, Colo., in July 2010.

WASHINGTON -- As groups around the country rally this week against the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program, the District of Columbia approved its own measure on Tuesday to fight back.

In a unanimous vote, the D.C. Council approved a bill that will limit the ability of the federal government to enforce immigration laws by restricting the circumstances in which individuals can be held in the custody of local law enforcement at the request of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The nation's capital joined a handful of cities across the country that are taking a stand against the spate of immigration enforcement measures seen in states like Arizona, where local police are now required to ask people who they suspect of being in the country illegally for their documents, during actions as routine as traffic stops.

"We want to be the anti-Arizona," Sarahi Uribe, a D.C.-based organizer for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told The Huffington Post. "Our entire campaign to get cities to break ties with federal immigration enforcement is an effort to be the opposite of Arizona."

Opponents of Secure Communities, which is under ICE, say the program has the same effects as SB 1070's most damaging provisions, by potentially scaring undocumented immigrants away from working with police. Under SCOMM, as many call it, fingerprints taken by local police during arrests are given to ICE for screening to determine whether the person detained has entered the country illegally. While the process has been amended slightly so minor traffic offenders won't be caught in its net, the program still brings many to ICE attention who haven't first been convicted. Critics say this practice goes directly against SCOMM's stated purpose -- to deport dangerous criminals.

The D.C. measure specifically targets one of ICE's tactics called immigration detainers -- a practice in which ICE asks local law enforcement to hold an individual for up to 48 hours, so that the agency can investigate their immigration status and assume custody if necessary. The newly-approved law restricts the period in which immigrants will be held from 48 to 24 hours, requires that ICE pay the local costs of incarceration and specifies that those held on detainers must have been convicted of serious crimes.

While ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett declined to comment on the D.C. measure or how it would affect her agency's ability to operate in the area, she wrote in an email that, “ICE remains committed to working with our law enforcement partners to help make our communities safer by focusing our resources on public safety and national security threats, border security, and the integrity of the immigration system.”

Opposition to Secure Communities has been growing since 2010, when a number of states and localities tried to leave the program only to find out that, despite previously being told they could opt out, there was no avenue to do so.

Since leaving the program is impossible, D.C. and other areas are attempting to go against it in a different way, with the fight against detainers one of the most recently adopted strategies for fighting the program. Santa Clara, Calif., and Cook County, Ill., also limited their response to detainer requests earlier this year. Last week, the California state Senate passed a bill called the TRUST Act that resembles the D.C. measure. The bill will prohibit police from keeping any individual in custody longer than they would in normal circumstances, even if there was a detainer request, unless they have been convicted of a "serious or violent felony."

Localities have every right to ignore detainers, said Aarti Kohli, a senior fellow at the University of California Berkeley Law School's Warren Institute who has done extensive research on Secure Communities. When immigration rights groups learned that ICE had no final say in detainer enforcement, they began a campaign to lobby city governments for local restrictions on the federal government's reach.

"Today's vote is really a culmination of a three year struggle," Uribe of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said of the city council action on Tuesday.

Still, ICE agency heads have hinted that cities and states are putting their communities in danger by ignoring their requests to hold undocumented immigrants, an approach critics take issue with.

"States and localities are well within their rights to decide whether they want to honor the detainers," Kohli said.

"When it comes down to it, they are incurring the cost of holding these people," she added. "ICE's response is, 'You're going to let go of the next axe murderer and you're going to have to pay the political cost for that.'"

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