Immigrants arrested for minor traffic violations won’t get flagged for possible deportation proceedings until after they’re convicted, immigration officials announced on Friday. The news came as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s response to a task force report released last September which recommended changes to the agency’s Secure Communities immigration enforcement program.
With the new updates to the program, including a series of training videos, website updates and outreach sessions, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has moved to adopt several of a federally appointed task force’s recommendations for the controversial and much-maligned deportation program. Secure Communities sends the fingerprints of anyone who’s booked in a local or county jail to federal immigration officialswho can then flag someone for immigration detention. Fingerprint data is shared even if that person is never charged or is ultimately cleared of their crime.
"ICE agrees that enforcement action based solely on a charge for a minor traffic offense is generally not an efficient use of government resources," ICE wrote in its response.
The policy would only apply to those who have an otherwise clean criminal record, and will not extend to those who’ve been arrested for a hit and run, reckless driving which results in a injury or on suspicion of driving under the influence.
The change was suggested by a federally appointed task force which said that these sorts of incidents damaged law enforcement officers’ community policing efforts. Immigrant advocates have long criticized Secure Communities for this reason. Immigrants in jurisdictions with active Secure Communities agreements begin to see police officers as immigration agents, and are less likely to report crime or serve as witnesses, they say. Immigrant and civil rights advocates have also raised concerns that Secure Communities allows police agencies to engage in discriminatory racial profiling.
Immigrant rights experts have called the step insufficient change for the program.
"All [ICE has] done is affirmed: We’re not taking a comprehensive approach to fixing S-Comm," said Kate Desormeau, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project. "It really strikes me as a non-announcement."
Indeed, ICE announced that localities will still be directed to continue to send all fingerprints to the federal government, which will then exercise prosecutorial discretion on a case by case basis. The Obama administration follows a set of enforcement guidelines laid out by ICE Director John Morton last June in order to focus its resources on people who are a high priority for removal–people with serious criminal histories and those who pose a security threat to the nation.
"Even before the Morton memo, they’ve always had prosecutorial discretion; that’s the nature of a prosecutorial agency," Desormeau said, adding that even the prosecutorial discretion policy is being inconsistently applied.
Others said the change, while insufficient, is nonetheless a step in the right direction.
"It’s important that they have established a line with respect to traffic violations, but it may be more appropriate to extend it to all violators," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the NYU School of Law. "If you have to place people in proceedings, it’s better to do that after the point of conviction than at the point of arrest."
Secure Communities has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s deportation agenda, allowing President Obama to reach over 1 million deportations while in office. Yet critics of the program say that among those 1 million deportees are many who ought never have been deported under the Obama administration’s own stated enforcement priorities, such as those with longstanding ties to the U.S., those with no criminal record, and those who would otherwise qualify for the DREAM Act, a legalization bill for undocumented youth.
These changes join a series of other small updates the federal government has announced in recent months, including a review of the nearly 300,000 open deportation cases. The Obama administration pledged to administratively close the cases of those who were not a top priority for removal.
Still, it’s quite likely that the overall number of deportations will not be slowed by these changes, Chishti said. The most realistic effort for people who care about immigrant rights is to pressure the federal government to stick to its enforcement priorities "in a more rigorous way," he said.
"The issue now is what constitutes that stream of people who are being removed," Chishti said. "But the trend is set; technology has taken us in the direction where a reversal now is almost impossible."