Advocates Furious at White House Over Deportation Program

Hundreds take to the streets in protest of the administration's signature deportation program.

By Julianne Hing Aug 17, 2011

The resistance to the immigration enforcement program Secure Communities has reached a deafening roar as immigrant rights groups ramp up their organizing to demand an end to the Obama administration’s aggressive deportation initiative.

Tuesday marked what immigrant rights groups labeled a national day of action as they continue to urge the Obama administration to halt the program. Protests in 16 cities were announced for the day, which coincided with the release of a scathing report by more than a dozen immigrant rights groups which condemned the program and also recommended its immediate termination. The White House responded late Tuesday by defending Secure Communities, and its record-breaking deportation rate.

"The Secure Communities Program is a powerful tool to keep the government’s immigration enforcement resources focused where they belong–on those who fit within DHS’s highest enforcement priorities, such as those who have committed crimes in the United States," Cecilia Munoz, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, wrote in a blog post late Tuesday.

The program’s critics, and ICE’s own statistics, dispute Munoz’s claims. While Munoz noted that Secure Communities is responsible for the deportation of an unprecedented number of people with criminal records, the majority of that growth is due to a major uptick in the arrest and deportation of people who’d been convicted of what ICE classifies as Level 1 offenses, which are minor crimes and misdemeanors. Taken together, the vast majority of people being kicked out of the country under Secure Communities either have no criminal record whatsoever, or are being deported for crimes like traffic offenses or shoplifting.

Munoz’s response indicates that the White House will likely not back down from its deportation efforts, even in the face of mounting criticism from elected officials, law enforcement and immigrant rights groups over the program’s impacts on immigrant communities.

Secure Communities allows immigration officials to peer into the databases of local and county jails to track every person who’s booked in a participating jail, even if the person is wrongly arrested or charges are never brought against them. ICE uses the data to cross-check people’s names against immigration databases and when it finds someone who is deportable, asks local law enforcement to detain the person so they can be picked up for immigration processing. 

The Obama administration maintains that S-Comm, which the program is called for short, is designed to track and deport immigrants who’ve been convicted of serious crimes. Today the program is a primary driver behind the Obama administration’s record-setting deportations, which, according to immigrant advocates, topped 1 million this summer since Obama came into office in 2009.

After several localities and three states, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York, attempted to end or limit their participation in the program, ICE responded two weeks ago by ripping up every standing agreement it had with states over the program. The agency argued that the contracts it had entered into with states that agreed to participate in the program were actually unnecessary for the federal government to continue to take and share arrest data between federal agencies.

"This most recent announcement was really in a lot of people’s eyes a slap in the face, the last straw, a real indication of their apparent and absolute dismissal of a broad set of organizations and communities that have been exposing and denouncing the impacts of this program," said Laura Rivas, a spokesperson from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said. It was that unilateral decree from ICE that spurred much of the protest that’s unfolding now, Rivas said.

The public challenges to the program are also coming from elected officials. Congressional immigrant allies like Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez and New York Rep. Jose Serrano have sent separate and strongly worded letters to ICE director John Morton urging him to terminate the program on the grounds that it’s criminalizing immigrant families, and the unilateral policy changes are, in Gutierrez’s words, "little more than reneging on previous commitments for the sake of political expediency."

On Monday evening, in a show of defiance, hundreds of protesters walked out of a Los Angeles public hearing organized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement-appointed task force that is soliciting public comment to make recommendations for the program–but not before they also spoke out against the devastation the program’s wrought on immigrant communities. People who’ve been placed into deportation proceedings as a result of the information-sharing program for such instances as daring to reach out to police to report domestic violence voiced their outrage.

"I’m here asking the government to end this Secure Communities program," said Blanca Perez, the Los Angeles Times reported. Perez was put into deportation proceedings after she was arrested for selling ice cream on the street. "I am not a criminal, nor am I a bad person. I am simply a person who wants to work."

Over the weekend Boston mayor Thomas Menino, seemingly undeterred by ICE’s policy changes, joined a growing chorus of mayors and governors who have sought to end their city and state’s participation in the program. He said his city’s police officers’ involvement in the program is eroding their relationships with people whose trust they depend on to solve crime. Not only is the program affecting a far broader class of people than it claims, Menino and other city and state leaders have said, immigrants are becoming less willing to report crimes or serve as witnesses because they fear interaction with the police will lead to their deportation.

"What’s happening is, we’re losing the trust of the immigrant community in Boston," Menino told the New York Times.

Boston was one of the first pilot cities to experiment with Secure Communities in 2006, said Patricia Montes, the executive director of the Massachusetts-based immigrant rights group Centro Presente, which she said makes Menino’s announcement all the more significant.

"I believe that is exactly what other elected officials around the country should be doing, to challenge the federal government and send the message to the federal government to say this program is not working and it is criminalizing undocumented people," Montes said.

The forceful organized community response that greeted the task force in Los Angeles will likely follow them to Chicago, where another task force hearing is planned for Wednesday. Immigrant rights activists are already planning to attend.