States Resisting Program Central to Obama’s Immigration Strategy
By JULIA PRESTON
Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images
A program that is central to President Obama’s strategy to toughen enforcement of immigration laws is facing growing resistance from state governments and police officials across the country.
Late Wednesday, Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois said he was pulling his state out of the program, known as Secure Communities, the first time a state has sought to withdraw entirely. In California, where the program is already under way throughout the state, the Legislature is considering a bill that would allow counties or police agencies to choose whether to participate.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick has held a series of heavily attended and sometimes raucous meetings on the program in an effort to vent criticism and build support for the administration’s approach. In Maryland, Montgomery County considered withdrawing, then concluded reluctantly that it had to take part.
Under the program, the fingerprints of every person booked by the police are checked against Department of Homeland Security databases for immigration violations. That is in addition to routine checks against the F.B.I.’s criminal databases.
State officials and federal lawmakers have questioned the program, saying that Homeland Security officials conveyed misleading information about whether participation was mandatory or whether states could opt out. Some state officials, led by Governor Quinn, said the program was not accomplishing its stated goal of deporting convicted criminals, but had swept up many immigrants who were here illegally but had not been convicted of any crime.
Mr. Obama has begun an effort, seen on both sides of the aisle in Congress as an uphill fight, to win support for some kind of immigration legislation this year.
But the resistance to Secure Communities has exposed tensions in the president’s immigration strategy, which has led to record numbers of deportations — almost 800,000 — in the past two years. The deportations have antagonized Latino immigrant communities that want Mr. Obama to press for legislation offering legal status to illegal immigrants, and that strongly supported Democrats in recent elections. Yet the deportations have not convinced many Republicans that the administration is strong enough on enforcement.
The states’ objections are setting up a confrontation with the Department of Homeland Security, whose secretary, Janet Napolitano, has said that Secure Communities is mandatory and will be extended to all jurisdictions in the country by 2013. The program, started in Texas in 2008, is currently operating in more than 1,200 local jurisdictions.
At a Congressional hearing this week, Ms. Napolitano said that the program was crucial to the department’s goal of finding criminal immigrants in state and local jails and deporting them.
Governor Quinn, in a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that runs the Secure Communities program, said the Illinois State Police were withdrawing because the program had not met the terms of a 2009 agreement with the state. Under that memorandum, the program’s purpose was to identify and deport immigrants “who have been convicted of serious criminal offenses.”
Statistics from the immigration agency showed that nearly one-third of immigrants deported from Illinois under the program had no criminal convictions. It is a civil violation for an immigrant to be in the United States illegally; it is not a crime.
“Illinois signed up to help I.C.E. remove criminals convicted of serious crimes, but based on the statistics from I.C.E., that’s not what was happening,” said Brie Callahan, the governor’s spokeswoman.
Governor Quinn, a Democrat, suspended the program in November and entered negotiations with homeland security officials. Illinois officials decided to withdraw after concluding that the immigration agency’s operation of the program was “flawed,” the governor’s office said.
So far, 26 out of 102 local jurisdictions in Illinois had begun participating. Governor Quinn asked the agency to “deactivate” those places.
Immigration agency officials said that John Morton, the head of the agency, would go to Springfield, Ill., on Friday to meet with officials there. In a statement, the agency said it was conducting a full review of the program “to identify any irregularities that could indicate misconduct in particular jurisdictions” and to tighten its focus on criminals.
Most criticism of the program has come from Democratic allies of Mr. Obama. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has asked him to suspend the program and re-organize it to focus more closely on deporting violent criminals, drug traffickers and other serious offenders. The American Immigration Lawyers Association also called on Mr. Obama this week to suspend the program.
Republicans in Congress, seeking even tougher enforcement of immigration laws, would like to see more of the program.
“All too often, illegal immigrants who have committed crimes go on to commit more,” said Lamar Smith of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “To make our streets safer, state and local governments should embrace Secure Communities,” he said. “Opposition to this program endangers Americans.”
California’s concerns were first raised by several local law enforcement officials, including Michael Hennessey, the longtime sheriff of San Francisco. They argued that engaging local police in immigration enforcement would erode hard-earned trust with Latino and other immigrant communities. Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, began questioning immigration agency officials on whether local police and governments could opt out.
This year, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an immigrant advocate organization, obtained a trove of e-mails and other internal documents concerning Secure Communities from the immigration agency through a Freedom of Information request.
After examining those documents, Ms. Lofgren and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, also a Democrat, demanded that the homeland security inspector general open an investigation. Ms. Lofgren said officials had deliberately misled local governments into thinking they could choose to opt out of the program.
“I believe that some false and misleading statements may have been made intentionally, while others were made recklessly,” Mr. Lofgren wrote the inspector general.
In an apologetic response, Mr. Morton, the head of the immigration agency, said the agency “takes full responsibility for the confusion and inconsistent statements” about participation. But he said expanding Secure Communities remained a top priority.
In Massachusetts, Governor Patrick said late last year that he would accept the program statewide, then paused after an outcry from immigrant organizations, who said it was bound to catch many illegal immigrant workers with no criminal history. The town meetings he organized have drawn both opponents and very vocal supporters of the program.