Advocates Push for Clarity on Federal Deportation Law

Can counties opt out of Secure Communities or not? Next week, they'll know.

By Seth Freed Wessler Oct 29, 2010

Federal officials may soon be forced to come clean about whether local governments can opt out of a controversial deportation program. For months, localities have been led to believe one thing and then told another about their ability to choose not to participate in the Secure Communities program. Now, advocates and communities are hopeful that the Department of Homeland Security will finally confirm that municipalities can choose not to participate in the program, which has resulted in the deportation of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people.

Secure Communities sends finger prints on everyone booked into local jails to ICE, the federal immigration agency. Last Summer, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano confirmed that local governments may determine for themselves whether they’ll participate in the program. But after at least four counties–Santa Clara, Ca; Arlington, VA; San Francisco, CA; and Washington, D.C.–voted to opt out of the program, the department flip flopped, telling local governments that Secure Communities goes into effect automatically.

Now, three counties that already voted against participation say they’re confused,  and officials from those communities will meet with DHS next week to ask for clarity. In the meantime, a group of immigrant rights organizations have filed an injunction demanding that the government release all documents in the program immediately.

"We think we’ll get proof that the program is voluntary," says Sarahi Uribe, an organizer with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, which filed the injunction along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Immigration Law Clinic at Cardozo Law School. "That had been the case since Janet Napolitano and John Morton did a 180."

The injunction seeks to force the release of documents that were not revealed until last summer as part of a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by the same groups. That suit did force the government to release data on Secure Communities that painted a troubling picture of the program thus far. The government says Secure Communities focuses on deporting non-citizens with serious criminal records. But the data revealed that it’s mostly resulted in the deportation of people with no convictions at all or only very minor convictions like a traffic violation.

Secure Communities is rapidly expanding and is now operational in municipalities in at least 32 states. The entire states of Texas, West Virginia and Arizona participate in the program.

But as the program grows, the movement against it is also spreading. "There are number of other municipalities that are asking about opting out too and the documents we want documents released that will help them," says Uribe. Her group and others are circulating a petition to demand the government secure the right of localities to opt out of the program.

The government’s obfuscation about Secure Communities may have a silver lining. "Is a testament that ICE saw what was coming when the cities opted out," says Uribe. "It’s appalling that they’d crack down on local democratic processes but it is a sign that they’re taking notice."