For nearly three years, the Obama administration has advertised the Secure Communities program as a targeted enforcement tool that identifies “dangerous criminal aliens” for deportation. Over and over, federal officials have insisted that the program’s focus would be chiefly limited to those immigrants whose criminal convictions show that they pose a danger to public safety.
But that’s not the case. In practice, Secure Communities is a dragnet that fails to distinguish between felons convicted of serious crimes and nonviolent arrestees facing civil immigration violations. In California alone, more than half of the 75,000 people deported under the program since it began in 2009 had no criminal history or had only misdemeanor convictions.
Under the program, local law enforcement agencies are required to send the fingerprints of everyone booked into local jails to the FBI, which checks them against criminal databases. Department of Homeland Security officials then check the prints against immigration records and issue requests, known as “detainers,” to local authorities asking them to hold particular individuals for 48 hours. As a result, immigrants arrested for illegal street vending or driving without a license who would ordinarily be released have to sit in jail for two days. After that, they are either transferred to federal custody or released, although some end up in jail for longer.
Local officials across the country are deeply concerned about having to spend their scarce resources filling already overcrowded jails with non-dangerous arrestees, and they are also concerned that the program will undermine law enforcement by deterring immigrants from cooperating with police. So California lawmakers have passed the Trust Act, which would require police to release those who have posted bail, face no serious charges and have no prior serious criminal convictions, despite federal detainers. The bill will go to Gov. Jerry Brown next month. Officials in New York, the District of Columbia and Cook County, Ill., already have similar rules in place.
Some people will no doubt compare the Trust Act to Arizona’s misguided attempt to create its own immigration law, a mean-spirited and unconstitutional move that was rejected by the Supreme Court late last month. The Trust Act is not Arizona’s SB 1070; the two laws are not comparable. But who needs that debate? The best, easiest and fastest solution would be for Obama administration officials to do what they promised from the start and fix the program to ensure that only serious criminals are detained. Or scrap it altogether. If they don’t, California and other states will be forced to fix it for them.