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Ali Noorani Headshot

Dear Secretary Napolitano: Suspend Secure Communities

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News reports surfaced last week that a fourteen-year-old girl from Dallas, an American citizen who did not speak a word of Spanish, was deported to Colombia.

The reports say Jakadrien Turner gave an assumed name -- we don't know why -- that matched a name in a Secure Communities database, and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement took her fingerprints but did not confirm her identity.

How many cases like this will it take before the Department of Homeland Security calls a time out and fixes the serious flaws in its Secure Communities program? Turner is not the first American citizen to have been mistakenly detained as part of the program -- and it has other egregious problems.

Combine it with racial profiling on the local level, for example, and you have a toxic mix: An undocumented immigrant could be wrongfully arrested, but once his name is run through an immigration database, he's caught in this broken system.

Such excessive zeal is not theoretical. Last month the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report on major civil rights abuses by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) in Arizona.

In short, the Justice Department said that the MCSO is a top destination for racial profiling (of Latinos); unlawful stops, detentions and arrests (of Latinos); and unlawful retaliation against people "who complain about or criticize MCSO's policies or practices" (no mention of Latinos, but we suspect that at least a few complained).

The Justice Department had Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office under its microscope for more than three years, starting under the Bush Administration. This was not a casual review.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano responded to the DOJ's findings by restricting the office's access to the Secure Communities program. "Discrimination undermines law enforcement and erodes the public trust," Napolitano said in a statement. "DHS will not be a party to such practices."

Hear, hear! The problem is that Secure Communities opens the door to similar civil rights violations in a lot of places. Given that the DOJ thinks Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina and Utah all have passed unconstitutional immigration enforcement laws, why does DHS allow law enforcement in these states to operate Secure Communities?

And why should it be planned for implementation in East Haven, Conn., where a two-year Justice Department investigation also uncovered racial profiling? (The report is dated December 19, a mere four days after the department slammed Maricopa County. Busy month.)

Secretary Napolitano has her work cut out for her if she truly wants her department to sidestep discriminatory practices and restore an ounce of credibility to Secure Communities.

She must halt the program in the aforementioned states, as well as in localities where the Justice Department has found discriminatory policing. And she has to suspend the program nationwide until reforms and safeguards are put in place. Finally, her department must honor local decisions regarding whether and how to participate.

We have told her as much in a letter the National Immigration Forum and the AFL-CIO sent her earlier this month. Our two organizations resigned from DHS's Task Force on Secure Communities in September, precisely because its recommendations, though constructive, did not adequately address the problems that make Secure Communities counterproductive to effective local policing and public safety.

As former members of the Task Force, we urge Secretary Napolitano to take these necessary steps. Without them, Secure Communities will never meet its goal of promoting public safety by identifying and removing people who pose a real threat. Worse, it will remain open to abuses and will continue to erode trust in local law enforcement.

Not to mention the occasional detention and even deportation of American citizens.

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