Secure Communities Task Force Criticizes Program, Five Resign in Protest

The program is the cornerstone of the Obama administration's deportation agenda, and it's falling apart.

By Julianne Hing Sep 21, 2011

After being followed around the country during a protest-packed summer, a task force charged with evaluating the federal government’s immigration enforcement program Secure Communities released its report (pdf) last week that criticized the federal government’s implementation and design of the program. But some the task force’s fixes didn’t go far enough. The same day, five people on the 19-member team resigned in protest, saying the recommendations are insufficient to deal with the program’s flaws.

Among the task force’s top suggestions was that the federal government stop hauling in those who were identified after committing minor traffic offenses. The task force also recommended that the federal government essentially start over and "reintroduce" the controversial program to regain the lost trust of local communities and law enforcement officials.

The creation of the task force was announced earlier this summer as part of a package of reforms that were instituted in response to loud opposition to the program. Secure Communities allows the federal government to cross-check the fingerprints of anyone booked in a local or county jail with immigration records and subsequently detain anyone who’s identified as deportable, even if they are never found guilty or even charged with a crime. The program, in operation since 2008, is the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s deportation agenda, and has helped contribute to President Obama’s record-breaking deportation rate.

While the Department of Homeland Security initially said the program was intended to nab the "worst of the worst" and "the most dangerous and violent offenders," the vast majority of those deported under the program had been convicted of non-violent and minor offenses like traffic violations. A significant portion of those being deported had committed no crime whatsoever.

Critics further said that the program has eroded trust between law enforcement officials and local communities. As a result of law enforcement officers being turned into de facto immigration agents, immigrants fear coming forward to report crimes or serve as witnesses for fear that any interaction with law enforcement officials could land them in deportation proceedings.

The task force agreed that Secure Communities was having a deleterious effect on public trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they’re tasked with keeping safe. "[M]ixing individuals who have no criminal convictions or who have only low-level convictions with serious offenders is having the unintended consequence of undercutting the credibility of the entire Secure Communities program," the report’s authors wrote.

But others think it’s more than the fact that the program unfairly targets more than just those who get pulled over for traffic offenses.

"I think the program needs to be suspended. It needs to be halted," said Arturo Venegas, a retired police chief from Sacramento, California. Venegas, who heads Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, a group of law enforcement officers and associations that has been critical of Secure Communities, was a member of the 20-member task force before he resigned last week because he said he was unable to add his name to the final report. Christopher Crane and Monica Beamer of the national union, the American Federation of Government Employees, and Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto of the AFL-CIO also resigned. Brittney Nystrom of the National Immigration Forum was the fifth task force member to resign.

"Secure Communities is not doing what the federal government said it was going to do and it is in fact affecting people that were never intended to go into the system," Venegas said, adding that the laws the federal government has cited to justify the program are a weak legal justification, and that the laws were never intended to allow for the creation of Secure Communities.

Indeed, the criticisms of Secure Communities are vast, and stretch all the way from its design to nearly every aspect of its implementation and management. Others have said that the program stands on shaky legal ground, too, but that because it is not a statutory program, there are no regulations tied to its management. In August, after several states attempted to cancel their Secure Communities contracts with DHS, the department ripped up every standing contract it had with states and argued that no contract was necessary to go forward with the data-sharing program anyway. Critics lambasted the move, and the federal government’s lack of transparency.

Venegas said the recent reforms were but cosmetic changes to a program that was too deeply flawed to be continued.

"One of my colleagues put it this way: It’s like [the federal government] is trying to fix this plane while it’s flying."

Immigrant rights advocates have hailed Venegas and the other task members’ resignations, and called for the termination of the program.

"Rather than sweep [Secure Communities’] catastrophic flaws under a rug, the administration should end the program," said Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.