10/05/2011 03:18 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2011

Janet Napolitano: Secure Communities 'Got Off To A Bad Start'

WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano admitted on Wednesday that there had been major missteps in rolling out Secure Communities, a much-criticized immigration enforcement program that three states have attempted to quit.

"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, according to prepared remarks. "We did not explain clearly how it works and who is required to participate."

Secure Communities uses fingerprints taken by local police during arrests to detect undocumented immigrants, part of the Obama administration's effort to detect and deport more criminals who are in the country illegally.

The initiative faces major opposition from immigrant rights groups, who say it nets too many undocumented immigrants who have broken no other laws and threatens public safety by making immigrants fearful of police. In a few counties and three states, concern over public safety has led lawmakers to decide to end participation in the program entirely.

But when counties, and then states, attempted to opt out of the program, they were told that the Department of Homeland Security would continue to use fingerprints anyway. Massachusetts, Illinois and New York attempted to end their participation in Secure Communities earlier this year, but were thwarted by DHS officials.

For that reason, groups have called on the department to terminate Secure Communities entirely, despite reforms to the program that were announced this summer. Among the reforms were additional efforts to prevent victims of domestic violence from being caught up in the system.

Napolitano said the program would not be eliminated, calling it "the single best tool at focusing our immigration enforcement resources on criminals and egregious immigration law violators."

"Termination of this program would do nothing to decrease the amount of enforcement," she said. "It would only weaken public safety and move the immigration enforcement system back towards the ad hoc approach where noncriminal aliens are more likely to be removed than criminals."

The secretary's remarks did not convince the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, part of a coalition of groups that has repeatedly sued the government to obtain more information about the program. Pablo Alvarado, director of the organization, repeated his call for DHS to end the program after Napolitano's Wednesday speech.

"We are happy to hear Secretary Napolitano mention [Secure Communities] and 'termination' in the same sentence," Alvarado said in a statement. "Despite the political spin and marketing campaign to defend a failed program, [Secure Communities] has proven to be a disastrous policy for our nation and for our communities. It should be ended before it leads to the further Arizonification of the country."

Still, the push for a different approach to immigration enforcement has led to one change: The Obama administration announced in August that DHS would review some 300,000 deportation cases and close those deemed "low-priority." If noncriminals are caught up in the Secure Communities system, they could be helped by this policy change.

Republican lawmakers in particular have been critical of the new deportation policy. But Napolitano said it would make the country more, not less, safe.

According to Napolitano, the government is set to deport record numbers of undocumented immigrants this year.

"[E]xercising discretion with more speed and better prioritization than at any time in history, protecting victims of domestic violence, engaging in work site enforcement rather than workforce raids is not cosmetic tinkering," she said. "It is real change, with real results."

Earlier on the Huffington Post: