Last week, the Arlington County (Virginia) Board sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notifying the federal agency that the County does not wish to participate in the "Secure Communities" Initiative (SCI). The letter is a result of a resolution adopted by the County Board on September 28th expressing the County's intent to withdraw from SCI. Arlington County adopted its resolution based on the repeated public statements by DHS that local jurisdictions could choose not to participate in the program. Very little is known - or understood - about the "Secure Communities" program, in large part due to contradictory information disseminated about the program by DHS. What Arlington County residents do know about "Secure Communities" is troubling for supporters of community policing, civil liberties and human rights.
Consistently, independent reports on ICE's cooperation with local law enforcement agencies (including one by DHS's own Inspector General) found that such collaborations have frequently led to allegations of racial profiling and other due process violations. Police in some jurisdictions have used minor infractions - such as fishing without a license or driving with a broken tail pipe - to arrest people and check their immigration status.
It is simply wrong to say that these programs only affect undocumented immigrants. The function of local police is to investigate crime that threatens the safety of the local community; forcing them to also serve as immigration agents dilutes and directly impedes that core mission. Since there are no obvious visual indicators of a person's immigration status, police default to race and ethnicity as a proxy. Targeting people - or even being perceived as targeting people - based on their perceived ethnicity or race destroys the trust between the police and the communities that they are sworn to protect. When a community loses trust in the local police, everyone's safety is put at risk. If a witness to a crime, or even a victim of a crime, is afraid to call the police for help, then the police cannot do their jobs and community security suffers.
The "Secure Communities" program was not established by any law, and Arlington's elected local and national representatives had no voice in whether or not to participate in this program. In Virginia, it was the Virginia State Police who signed an agreement with ICE imposing SCI on every county in the state. It is telling that Arlington's law enforcement agencies have refused to participate in other ICE programs because of their concerns about the impact on community policing programs and their ability to protect community safety.
Recently, ICE has released conflicting messages about whether or not a local jurisdiction can opt out of the program. On September 7th, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano sent a letter to Congress stating that jurisdictions that wished to withdraw from the program could do so; another letter from the Director of the Secure Communities program to California officials last month also stated that a jurisdiction could pull out.
But in an October 1st Washington Post article titled, "Local jurisdictions find they can't opt out of federal immigration enforcement program," an anonymous ICE spokesperson stated that "...opting out of the program is not a realistic possibility - and never was." And on October 5th, Secretary Napolitano held a press conference where she contradicted her written letter by stating that jurisdictions could not opt out of SCI.
Arlington County did the right thing in its resolution. The County Board stood up for democratic processes that engage elected officials and community members in a discussion about what's best for that community. The resolution commended the Chief of Police and the Sheriff who have lowered County crime rates through effective community policing programs and who want to focus on stopping and solving crimes, not doing the federal government's job on immigration. The County pointed out that no one at ICE asked Arlington whether they wanted to be part of this program. And the elected government officials placed the community's safety first by restoring trust in local law enforcement.
With the resolution adopted on the 28th, Arlington joined Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Santa Clara County (California) in formally requesting to withdraw from SCI. Arlington residents hope that ICE will respond to the County's letter by implementing its promised opt-out mechanism from the Secure Communities program.