Napolitano Calls DHS’s Secure Communities Deceit a ‘Misunderstanding’

While state legislatures that have gotten the most attention for passing laws that mimic Arizona's SB 1070, the federal government is leading a massive deportation mission of its own.

By Julianne Hing Apr 28, 2011

While it’s state legislatures that have gotten the most attention this year for passing laws that mimic Arizona’s SB 1070, the federal government is leading a massive deportation mission of its own. Secure Communities, the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement program, is part of that. Faced with growing criticism over the controversial program, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has gone on the defensive.

The rapidly expanding program allows federal immigration officials to peer into the databases of anyone who’s booked in a local or county jail. People’s fingerprints are cross-checked against a database to figure out whether or not people are deportable, whether or not they’re charged or even convicted of any crime. According to DHS, Secure Communities led to the deportation of 72,000 "convicted criminals," but the majority of those people had never been convicted of any crime whatsoever, or were found guilty of low-level offenses like shoplifting and traffic violations. Still, DHS hopes to have Secure Communities operational in every jail by 2013.

It also led localities to believe that the program was optional, and several localities, including San Francisco and Santa Clara counties tried to opt out, but were then refused. Napolitano now disputes that the program was ever voluntary. Secure Communities has been activated in 41 states and 1,211 local jurisdictions. Every California county is participating with Secure Communities now.

"It is inescapable that the [Department of Homeland Security] was not honest with the local governments or with me" about whether Secure Communities was optional, Rep. Lofgren said, the Los Angeles Times reported. "You can’t have a government department essentially lying to local government and to members of Congress. This is not OK."

On Friday Lofgren called for an investigation of Napolitano and DHS Director John Morton over the deceitful roll out of the program.

"This whole opt-in, opt-out thing was a misunderstanding from the get-go … and we have tried to correct that," Napolitano told the San Francisco Chronicle this week in a sit-down chat with the paper’s editorial board. (The paper later came out in support of Secure Communities.)

Napolitano acknowledged that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement had sent messages that could be "subject to misinterpretation," and now says that the program is not optional.

What Napolitano calls a "misunderstanding," Lofgren is calling flat-out deception. In a letter dated September 7, 2010, Napolitano told Lofgren, then the chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, that the program was optional. "If a local law enforcement agency chooses not to be activated in the Secure Communities deployment plan, it will be the responsibility of that agency to notify its local ICE field office of suspected criminal activities," Napolitano wrote.

"Secure Communities is not voluntary and never has been," a DHS official told the Los Angeles Times last week.

This week Sen. Bob Menendez came out in support of Lofgren’s demands for an investigation.

"There is a fog of confusion surrounding this program and the recent release of internal DHS emails has shed light on the fact that DHS has tried to coerce states and localities into participating instead of addressing their concerns about the program’s impact on community policing and crime fighting," Menendez said today.

Immigrant advocates are not buying Napolitano’s line either.

"Calling systemic dishonest internal communication and externally inconsistent messaging a misunderstanding is kind of the understatement of the year," said B. Loewe of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

The resistance to Secure Communities is spreading. This week Assemblyman Tom Ammiano introduced the TRUST Act, which would seek to revise California’s memorandum of understanding with the federal government, and make Secure Communities optional for California counties. On Tuesday the California Assembly’s public safety committee advanced the bill.