Arlington Officials End Fight Over Federal Deportation Program

Meanwhile, federal officials continue to send mixed signals.

By Seth Freed Wessler Nov 09, 2010

Last week, officials from Arlington, Virginia met with ICE to determine once and for all whether the federal government will respect the county’s decision to opt out of the the Secure Communities program. The answer from ICE? An unsteady "no." But advocates are still confused as the government continues to issue mixed messages about the program. And as of Monday, county officials in Arlington have dropped their effort to opt out altogether, according to the Washington Independent. The move has left advocates working to create another strategy to combat the controversial program.

"ICE stated clearly — and with finality — that local activated communities do not have the option of withholding information from the program, although communities can opt not to learn the results of immigration queries," County manager Barbara Donnellan wrote in a memo after a meeting with ICE on Friday.

Secure Communities, the Obama administration’s signature deportation program which checks the immigration status of anyone booked into local jails, has been mired in confusion for months now. In September Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano confirmed that localities can decide to opt out. But in October, her office did a 180, announcing that only states can determine whether to opt out of the program and that once a state has signed on, municipalities will be forced to participate.

Unclear about what to believe, officials from Arlington county, along with those from San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties in California, demanded meetings with ICE. The immigration agency told Arlington last week that Secure Communities will continue to function there, and officials there quickly decided to end their fight. Santa Clara and San Francisco counties are scheduled to meet with ICE on Tuesday.

The moves to opt out have been fueled by belief that the program downright ineffective at its best, and plainly discriminatory at its worst.

Federal officials purport that Secure Communities targets immigrants with serious criminal convictions. But data released by the federal government shows that the program is doing precisely the opposite. The vast majority of those rounded up, detained, and deported by the program were convicted of no crimes, or of some minor violations like a traffic stops. Local police are also concerned that the program will diminish trust between cops and communities, and endanger community policing efforts by discouraging immigrants from reporting crimes.

Advocates say the will continue fighting to stop Secure Communities in Arlington and elsewhere.

"The community and coalition that led the fight to opt out is not stopping here," says Sarah Uribe, an organizer with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, which is part of a coalition that sued the government for information on Secure Communities.

The government continues to offer checkered statements and policies. Just two weeks before telling Arlington that an opt out was not possible, New York Governor David Patterson said that ICE had told him the opposite about localities in his state.

In October, Gov. Patterson told local Telemundo47 that "this program that the federal government asked us to be a part of and which municipalities have a choice of whether or not they can opt in or not–which is what New York State was able to receive as opposed to other states–guarantees that this will only be high level security threats whose information will be transferred."

If indeed New York State localities can choose not to participate in Secure Communities, as the Patterson says, then ICE appears to be operating under unclear rules and guidelines.

"How can New York have a statewide [Memorandum of Agreement] signed with ICE that allows cities to opt out," says Uribe, "while Secure Communities in Arlington is compulsory."

As Arlington County Board Member J. Walter Tejada told Colorlines last month speaking about the last round of ICE announcements on Secure Communities, "What we have here is another set of conflicting statements from ICE as well as from DHS on Secure Communities."

It appears nothing has changed.

"It’s unfortunate," says Uribe, "that two years into the program and a lawsuit later, we still don’t have all the information we need on opt out."