THE BLOG
10/12/2010 01:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Local Immigration Enforcement, Coming Soon to A City Near You

It's official: Cities have no way to get out of Secure Communities, the Obama administration's fastest growing local immigration enforcement program. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano confirmed this at a recent press conference, where she also announced that the program contributed to the deportations of a record 392,000 immigrants in FY2010.

Napolitano's latest announcement is a disappointing end to months of confusion over whether localities could opt out of enforcing our broken federal immigration laws. From San Francisco and Santa Clara in California, to Washington, D.C, and Arlington, Virginia, advocates and city officials have struggled to put the brakes on Secure Communities, lacking clear answers from an agency that seems more concerned with rapidly expanding the program than respecting the policing strategies of local law enforcement. A spokesperson from the San Francisco Sheriff's Department said: "The ground rules in the jails have changed, but not due to any decision on our part."

How does Secure Communities work? When an individual is booked by a police officer in a participating agency, his fingerprints are automatically sent by the state to federal immigration databases to check for violations; if there is a match, ICE agents then decide whether he'll be targeted for deportation. The agency reserves the right to deport any individual who can legally be removed, whether they are legal permanent residents or undocumented immigrants. Though ICE's stated priority is to identify the most dangerous "criminal aliens," it is hardly a requirement. Analysis of ICE's own data shows that 79 percent of people deported under the program this year had committed low-level offenses, or none at all. Secure Communities sends an individual's fingerprints to federal immigration databases when they are arrested, before they have been found guilty or innocent of any crime. ICE is slowly improving its record when it comes to targeting foreign-born criminals, but the fact remains that large numbers of immigrants are removed for traffic or other minor offenses who aren't really threats to the public.

San Francisco and many other cities intentionally keep local police out of federal immigration enforcement as part of a strategy that leverages police-community relationships to bolster criminal investigations. When encounters with police can lead to deportation, immigrants are less likely to come forward when they are victims or witnesses of crimes -- this undermines police work and makes everyone less safe. We should all be concerned about the unchecked growth of a federal program that could have serious effects on local public safety.

A senior ICE official quoted in the Washington Post maintains that "Secure Communities is not based on state or local cooperation in federal law enforcement. The program's foundation is information sharing between FBI and ICE." But Secure Communities couldn't work without the local law agencies that are responsible for fingerprinting and detaining detained immigrants until ICE can pick them up. Local law enforcement agencies also have to pay for the time immigrants spend in jail waiting for the feds. So obviously Secure Communities requires cooperation from "partner" agencies, but it apparently doesn't require their consent.

Secure Communities is expanding at a breakneck pace: In just one month, the number of jurisdictions enrolled spiked from 574 to 658; by 2013, ICE plans to cover every city and county in the United States. This is just one of Obama's tough-on-immigration policies ignored by certain members of Congress who continue to dismiss any discussion of immigration reform without more enforcement. How much more are we going to spend on costly, ineffective enforcement-only policy? In reality, more effective enforcement will happen when there are better immigration laws to be enforced.