Can Counties Choose Their Own Immigration Policies?

When it comes to detention, the answer may be no.

By Seth Freed Wessler Oct 04, 2010

Immigrant rights groups logged small but significant victories last week when two city governments voted not to participate in a troubling government immigration enforcement program. County supervisors in Arlington, Virginia and Santa Clara, California joined San Francisco and Washington, DC in voting to opt out of Secure Communities, a federal program that checks the immigration status of anyone booked in local and county jails. But the victories are overshadowed by the rapid expansion of that program, which has resulted in the deportations of tens of thousands of immigrants, many of whom have no convictions whatsoever. Meanwhile, an anonymous government official told the [Washington Post]( that, contrary to the government’s previous statements, local governments will not be allowed opt out of the program at all. The two-year-old program has come under attack recently from advocates across the country who see it as a key part of an indiscriminate drag net that fuels mass deportation. The federal government says that Secure Communities is intended to target immigrants convicted of crimes with deportation. It shares fingerprints taken at the time of arrest with the FBI, which then shares the data with ICE. If a non-citizen is identified, ICE will then tell the local jail to hold that person. Tens of thousands have been deported as a result, and recently released government data shows that the growing program isn’t fulfilling its purported mission. The [vast majority]( of those deported as a result of Secure Communities were either picked up for low level violations like speeding tickets, or were not convicted of any crime at all. In the face of mounting pressure from advocates, the Department of Homeland Security announced last month that Secure Communities is optional and advocates are now organizing to stop it’s implementation in localities across the country. Speaking to [Deportation Nation](, Arlington County board member Walter Tejeda said, "ICE didn’t ask us for our opinion. It’s just something they imposed on us….Today we’re taking a step forward for fairness for immigrants." But at issue is whether any city can feasibly back out of the program to begin with. One senior immigration official, who spoke anonymously to the [Post](, doesn’t think so. "Secure Communities is not based on state or local cooperation in federal law enforcement," the official said. "The program’s foundation is information sharing between FBI and ICE. State and local law enforcement agencies are going to continue to fingerprint people and those fingerprints are forwarded to FBI for criminal checks. ICE will take immigration action appropriately." And, as the Shankar Vedantam [reports]( > The only way a local jurisdiction could opt out of the program is if a state refused to send fingerprints to the FBI. Since police and prosecutors need to know the criminal histories of people they arrest, it is not realistic for states to withhold fingerprints from the FBI – which means it is impossible to withhold them from ICE. Now, the cities that were on the verge of taking bold steps on immigration reform are trying to figure out what comes next. Jazmin Segura, of Services, Immigrants Rights and Education Network (SIREN) in Santa Clara, one of the groups behind the Secure Communities push back there, says, "the government had been clear that the program is voluntary. Our point is that they made a commitment and you can’t change the official statements that ICE and Jan Napolitano made." But, says Segura, "It’s been very confusing for the public because we’ve been getting misinformation from different sources. There’s a big question now." Meanwhile, as these counties try to determine whether ICE will be deporting people booked into local jails, the Obama administration remains committed to nationalizing the program by 2012. And the federal push for widespread implementation is still on track: Every county in the state of Texas had activated the program last week. In total, the program is already active in 632 jurisdictions in 32 states. Segura says that her group and a coalition of others "are going to continue to do advocacy to make sure that in Santa Clara county it remains voluntary."