Gov. Deval Patrick Is Latest to Buck Obama Deportation Program

The state-level backlash builds as governors try to opt out of the administration's controversial Secure Communities initiative.

By Julianne Hing Jun 09, 2011

This week Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick joined a growing chorus of governors standing up against the federal government’s immigration enforcement agenda when he announced that he would not enter his state into Secure Communities. The program, which is supposed to target immigrants who commit serious crimes for deportation, has been controversial in that it has deported streams of people, both documented and undocumented, who were convicted of minor offenses or, in some cases, none at all.

The Department of Homeland Security responded to Gov. Patrick by immediately slamming the door on the state’s efforts to keep out of the program. An anonymous DHS official told the Boston Globe that the state’s participation is not optional. Immigrant rights advocates say DHS is setting itself up for a legal fight over what’s quickly becoming its most controversial immigration enforcement program.

"The tide is turning on S?Comm," said Pablo Alvarado, the executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which is coordinating a national effort to dismantle Secure Communities. "A chorus of opposition to the program is growing louder as the migrant rights movement demands a reversal of politics that criminalize immigrants."

Under Secure Communities, local authorities mush share the fingerprints of anyone booked in a local or county jail with federal immigration authorities. People without immigration documents and documented immigrants with prior criminal convictions get marked for deportation proceedings, even if they’re never charged with or convicted of a crime. The controversial and rapidly expanding program has become the marquee immigration enforcement program of the Obama administration’s deportation agenda. It’s currently operating in 42 states, and the administration hopes to expand it to the entire country by 2013.

But states are raising their voices in opposition, articulating concerns that the program is far more aggressive and damaging to local communities than its worth. Gov. Patrick initially announced last December that his state would be participating in Secure Communities, but after hosting a series of public forums across the state to gather information about the potential impacts of the program this year, Patrick decided not to enroll his state in the program.

"We are reluctant to participate if the program is mandatory and unwilling to participate if it is voluntary," Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety and Security Mary Heffernan wrote in a letter to ICE earlier this week.

Heffernan noted that although Secure Communities’ purported targets were those who’d been convicted of serious crimes, "only about 1 in 4 of those deported since the inception of Boston’s pilot participation in Secure Communities were convicted of a serious crime and more than half of those deported were identified as ‘non-criminal.’"

Indeed, between November 2008 and July 2010, according to ICE figures, 54 percent of the 230 people who were deported from Boston under Secure Communities had never been convicted of any crime whatsoever.

The program turns law enforcement officers into de facto immigration agents, immigrant advocates say.

"The program invites racial profiling by state and local law enforcement because they have another tool to request documentation from people," said Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a statewide Latino community organization that’s been organizing around Secure Communities since last October. "It turns police officers into the migra."

"With Secure Communities, the police are not just there to solve crime," said Frank Soults, a spokesperson from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition which testified at the hearings and cautioned against adopting the program. "If a police officer is engaged in an arrest, they’re also doing immigration work and suddenly the bond of trust that local police have developed with local communities is broken."

Soults said Patrick’s decision was likely informed by the broad coalition of people who spoke out against the program. "It wasn’t just immigrant advocates speaking out about the program, it was us, and human rights groups, and faith-based organizations and even some retired police officers and a lot of people who work with domestic violence survivors."

Massachusetts is the third state after Illinois and New York to step away from the program in the last month. States used to enter Secure Communities after signing an optional memorandum of understanding with the federal government. But DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano [firmly stated]( last month that participation is not optional. After California Rep. Zoe Lofgren demanded an investigation into the department’s rollout of the program, the inspector general of DHS acquiesced and agreed to open a probe.

Both Illinois and California’s state legislatures are considering laws that would make participation in Secure Communities optional for counties, and on Tueday the Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution that supports the California bill allowing counties to opt out of the program.

Just what will happen in Massachusetts, as well as Illinois and New York, is unclear. For now, Montes still considers Patrick’s announcement a key victory, even though she acknowledged the fight is far from over. She said Gov. Patrick’s refusal to join Secure Communities came as big relief to immigrant communities who felt betrayed by Patrick’s initial announcement that he would sign the state up for the program.

"He campaigned saying that he was a friend of the immigrant community, and we see his commitment is a reality now," Montes said.

The federal government meanwhile seems to have finally settled on the fact that Secure Communities is mandatory, and insists that it will continue to gather fingerprint data from states via the FBI whether states like it or not.

"What they call it is interoperability," said Michele Waslin, a senior policy analyst with the Immigration Policy Center. "There was a different memorandum of agreement between the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security that they would share access to the databases, and to the extent that that’s true, states are already sending their fingerprint data to the FBI."

Still, Waslin said that its unclear whether DHS has the authority to force state compliance with Secure Communities. "No law was passed regarding Secure Communities, it’s not written into any statute, and there are no regulations as to how Secure Communities operates," Waslin said. "DHS has been kind of making it up as they go along."

Immigrant rights groups are intent on gnawing away at the Obama administration’s professed strategy to focus its immigration enforcement effort on people who commit serious crimes, while in actuality deporting a record number of people overall. Last year ICE Director John Morton wrote a memo outlining the administration’s tiered priorities for deportation. It labeled those who "pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety" as the top priority for deportation. Yet, a few months earlier ICE inadvertently let slip that it maintains deportation quotas, despite official denial of such quotas. Last year, the Obama administration deported a record 393,000 people, a few thousand shy of the 400,000 quota that watchdogs allege the administration had set.

"If your goal is to look tough, and to deport as many people as possible to meet a quota, then of course you’re going to pick up as many people as possible, even those who fall outside your stated priorities" said Waslin, "and that’s what Secure Communities allows you to do."