California Lawmakers Push Back Against Secure Communities

Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano have serious questions about the program's merits.

By Julianne Hing Apr 25, 2011

Secure Communities, which allows federal authorities to peer into the databases of local and county jails to check the finger prints of every person who’s booked, is now operational in all 58 California counties. But that doesn’t mean that all Californian lawmakers like it, or that the program is doing more good than harm.

There’s plenty of reason to be wary of the program, which purports to round up undocumented immigrants who’ve been convicted of serious crimes. To the contrary, the majority of the 70,000 people who are deported last year under the program had never been convicted of anything or had been convicted of minor infractions. Critics argue that immigrants’ growing, and legitimate, fears that any interaction with law enforcement will result in deportation is a serious threat to public safety.

The Los Angeles Times reports an all too common story:

More than once, Norma recalls, she yearned to dial 911 when her partner hit her. But the undocumented mother of a U.S.-born toddler was too fearful of police and too broken of spirit to do so.

In October, she finally worked up the courage to call police — and paid a steep price.

Officers who responded found her sobbing, with a swollen lower lip. But a red mark on her alleged abuser’s cheek prompted police to book them both into the San Francisco County Jail while investigators sorted out the details.

With that, Norma was swept into the wide net of Secure Communities, a federal program launched in 2008 with the stated goal of identifying and deporting more illegal immigrants "convicted of serious crimes."

But Norma was never convicted of a crime. She was not charged in the abuse case, though the jail honored a request to turn her over to immigration authorities for possible deportation.

Norma is not the only one. Law enforcement officials have argued that asking police to also act as immigration agents makes witnesses and victims more scared about reporting crimes, which makes their work harder, and which makes communities less safe. The more folks find out about Secure Communities, the more it seems the program’s a misnomer.

Now, California Rep. Zoe Lofgren is demanding an investigation into the Department of Homeland Security’s implementation policies. Lofgren contends that DHS lied to localities about whether or not the program was an optional program. Santa Clara and San Francisco Counties were among a handful of counties that tried to opt out of the supposedly voluntary program. After months of confusion about program policies, they’ve been forced to comply and share fingerprints with federal immigration officials.

"Secure Communities is not voluntary and never has been," a DHS official told the Los Angeles Times. "Unfortunately, this was not communicated as clearly as it should have been to state and local jurisdictions."

California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has introduced a bill that would modify California counties’ ICE agreements so that only the fingerprints of people who’ve been convicted of felonies would be cross-checked with immigration databases. It would also protect domestic violence victims and youth from deportation, and most important, make Secure Communities optional for California counties. The bill is scheduled for a committee hearing this week.

"With punitive methods that sweep them all up, there’s no trust," Ammiano told the Los Angeles Times. "We have had children come home from school and their parents are not there. That is not an enlightened policy."