Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday that he will immediately suspend New York State’s participation in the embattled Secure Communities deportation program. The move is an important victory for immigrant rights groups who say the program undermines due process — and a discomfiting blow to the federal government’s aggressive commitment of mass deportation.
"It’s a proud moment for this governor, who bucked federal authorities to stand up for basic values against fear mongering and pandering that are at the core of this program," says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which was part of a broad statewide coalition of groups fighting the program. "This happened because the program was not what it was cracked up to be and because of the diligent efforts of a whole range of advocates."
New York joins Illinois to become the second state to formally remove itself from the Obama administration’s keystone immigration enforcement program, which sends finger print data on every person booked into a local jail on to federal immigration authorities. Anyone deemed to be in the country without documentation or any non-citizen with a past or present criminal conviction may then be flagged for deportation.
As of mid-May, Secure Communities was operational in 1,300 counties in 42 states, including 27 of New York’s 62 counties. The Obama Administration plans to implement the checks nation-wide by 2013.
"The program acts like a deportation dragnet," says Mizue Aizeki of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights. "There is just no way to fix it because it puts people into deportation proceedings without due process and puts communities at risk of racial profiling. The governor’s office took seriously these issues."
While the Department of Homeland Security has claimed the program targets non-citizens with serious criminal convictions, the government’s own data tells a different story. The majority of those deported as a result of the program have been convicted or nothing at all or of some low level violation like a traffic stop.
In a statement yesterday, the governor said, "There are concerns about the implementation of the program as well as its impact on families, immigrant communities and law enforcement in New York. As a result, New York is suspending its participation in the program."
The Secure Communities program implicates local police in federal immigration enforcement like never before by engineering an automatic pipeline directly from local and county jails to deportation. Advocates and law enforcement around the country have voiced concerns that the program undermines public safety.
"This program would undercut this kind of trust we’ve been trying to build between immigrant communities and local government," says Javier Valdez of Make the Road New York. "We want to allow immigrant communities to communicate with police about real concerns, about things like domestic violence and other important issues, but if people think they’ll be deported then they wont talk to police."
Governor Cuomo’s announcement comes after mounting local and national resistance against Secure Communities, which has led to the deportation of tens of thousands of immigrants since it was first implemented in 2008.
In New York, advocates have been pressing Cuomo to terminate the program for months.
"As soon as governor won the primaries, we wanted to make sure it was an issue he took on," says Valdez. "We met with his staff and explained the issues. And we looked at allies in government like Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez who really pushed the governor to take a position on this. He’s done the right thing."
Velázquez and other New York political leaders including Rep. Jose E. Serrano have lobbied Cuomo to end the program. Velázquez said in a statement, "The Secure Communities initiative does not make our nation safer, but inhibits cooperation with law enforcement and violates immigrants’ due process rights."
The controversy over the Secure Communities program was fueled in large part by the federal governments own shady dealings.
When the program was initiated in 2008, the Department of Homeland Security maintained that Secure Communities was optional and that localities could opt out if they chose to. But as counties across the country began to vote themselves out, the agency reversed course and declared it mandatory.
Facing growing evidence that the Department of Homeland Security intentionally misled localities about the programs mandatory nature and a powerful demand for scrutiny from Congressional leaders including California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security announced an internal investigation of the Secure Communities program in May.
Yet despite this self reflective turn, just days after Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn removed his state from the program, the Department of Homeland Security continued to affirm that the state would be forced to participate.
The federal government’s unyielding commitment to Secure Communities despite waning support and active resistance from states leaves questions about whether Governor Cuomo’s anouncement will in fact end the program in his state. Advocates say the federal government has no legal authority to force state’s participation and legal scuffles are likely to ensue.
Advocates are now left with little choice but to keep resisting it’s implementation.
"This was a tremendous step to move toward suspension," says Aizeki. "But the opponents are formidable. Now this is a nation-wide fight to end the program altogether."
Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition echoed this call. "We see what happened in New York as a spring board toward building national pressure against Secure Communities. We’re immediately pivoting to press the Department of Homeland Security to end this program nationally."