Category Archives: Press (New York)

'Secure Communities' and the U.S. Immigrant Rights Movement: Lessons from New York State (NACLA)

Michelle Fei

In May, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) imposed the deportation program known as “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) throughout New York State. The news came as a shock to most advocates who had secured an important victory less than a year ago by convincing Governor Andrew Cuomo to suspend the program indefinitely. What happened also serves as a lesson about the challenges of fighting a federal immigration policing regime that few have questioned systematically.

As ICE and its supporters like to tell it, S-Comm is simply a data-sharing program: shortly after arrest, the police send the fingerprints of all arrestees not only to the FBI (which has long been standard practice) but to federal immigration databases as well. Those who ICE suspects of being deportable are then tagged through a “hold,” also known as a detainer. These holds request that local law enforcement delay the release of arrestees in order to give ICE an opportunity to transfer them directly into the deportation system instead of allowing them to return home to their families and communities.

But for immigrant communities and their advocates in New York and across the United States the story is very different. “Secure Communities” represents the antithesis of its Orwellian name. When police officers become de facto immigration agents, communities are fearful of reporting, or cooperating in the investigation of, crimes—thus compromising community safety. At the same time, S-Comm acts as a wide dragnet, sweeping all types of immigrants into the fold (yes, even green card holders, or lawful permanent residents), including those who have minor convictions or those who eventually are found not guilty.

It was in response to revelations that New York State had signed a memorandum of understanding with ICE in 2010 to facilitate the implementation of S-Comm that a coalition of immigrant rights, labor, faith-based, domestic violence, LGBT, family services, criminal justice, anti-trafficking, and civil rights groups came together to fight the program. The members of the New York State Working Group Against Deportation agreed with other advocates across the country that it seemed profoundly unjust for those who had “done nothing wrong” to be deported. Our main point, however, was that all deportations under S-Comm needed to be stopped, as the program’s core function was, and still is, to funnel people into a deportation system that is fundamentally unfair.

The reality is that the U.S. deportation system barely makes a pretense of providing a fair trial. Most people are forced to defend themselves without the help of information, loved ones, or lawyers while locked up in detention centers often thousands of miles away from their homes and with few options available to allow them to stay. Under these conditions, we cannot justify sending anyone into detention and deportation, a system that only compounds and exacerbates the unfairness that many immigrant and low-income communities of color have historically faced through the criminal (in) justice system.

That is why we launched our statewide campaign to protect the rights of all immigrants, regardless of status or criminal record. We recognized that, in this dismal political climate, the mainstream immigrant rights movement had become accustomed to pursuing small changes at best.

The movement has accepted—and has often been at the forefront of promoting—the argument that some immigrants (“the deserving”) are worthy of staying in the United States while others—namely, those with criminal convictions (“the “undeserving”)—deserve deportation. This is why a tagline like “We are not criminals,” which have been popularized in campaigns that argue for the legalization of undocumented immigrants, has become so firmly entrenched. For the mainstream immigrant rights movement, even raising the issue of the rights of immigrants with criminal histories is, at best, a non-starter.

In this regard,  in convincing Governor Cuomo to suspend S-Comm in New York State in June 2011 seemed particularly stunning. However, very quickly the precarious nature of our victory became apparent.

Shortly after New York and a few other states refused to participate in S-Comm, ICE decided to unilaterally withdraw the memoranda of understanding governing the program’s operation that it had campaigned so hard for states to sign, claiming that the agency could and would move forward with activating jurisdictions despite widespread objections. We heard nothing until ICE suddenly and without notice activated S-Comm in the entire state two months ago. We later learned that ICE and the FBI had decided to proceed with making their agencies’ databases interoperable—meaning they could share fingerprints on their own and sidestep New York’s involvement entirely.

Still, we cannot claim surprise at ICE’s persistence in getting New York activated. ICE’s own documents reveal the extent to which activating S-Comm in New York City had been a priority of the highest magnitude for the agency. According to ICE, given that nearly 9% of all those that it labels “criminal aliens” live within the City’s limits, the agency cannot achieve its deportation objectives without having S-Comm “go live” in New York State.

Similarly, the blithe manner with which Obama has demonstrated a commitment to increasing, or at least sustaining, current deportation levels across the United States is hardly surprising. Neither the Administration’s recent lawsuit against Arizona’s harsh immigration law nor the various incarnations of reprieve from deportation for certain populations, such as undocumented youth, has done anything to slow down its deportation apparatus—one so powerful that it brazenly operates with virtually no regard for transparency or accountability. To the contrary, the Administration has made clear that while it will reconsider on a limited basis the deportation of certain populations deemed worthy, such policies only further enable the government to amplify its efforts to deport immense portions of the rest of our immigrant communities.

We would be foolish, then, to expect much from the needed overhaul of laws when Obama seems to maintain such a feverish adherence to the broken immigration system he claims to want to reform. He himself seems to be relying on selling the U.S. public small tweaks while ignoring the big picture.

We need to hold Obama accountable and demand meaningful action. But we should also admit that the path Obama has taken is one that the U.S. immigrant rights movement has been complicit in paving. We in the immigrant rights movement have implicitly and explicitly made it clear that we privilege certain groups over others, and that those immigrants whose lives might present complications can be rather easily disposed of. In other words, we have settled for troubling compromises, instigated divisiveness among immigrant populations, and refused to demand systematic change—all in the name of pragmatism. While we may disagree about the rightfulness or wrongfulness of these efforts, most of us can agree that they have not paid off.

Fighting a huge federal regime from a grassroots level will never be easy. We all know where the balance of power and resources lies. But if we want to fundamentally transform U.S. immigration laws and policies, we need to build an honest consensus about the need to fight for the rights of all immigrants, not just the “easier” cases. Only then can we claim to be serious about engaging in a real fight for and with our country’s immigrants

Do not implement Secure Communities in Queens (Times Ledger)

An open letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano:

We, as members of the New York City Council, who represent immigrant communities throughout the city, are disappointed in your decision to deploy Secure Communities in New York City. Implementation of this policy will have devastating effects on the city’s immigrant communities. You should not activate this program in New York.

Since its inception in 2008, the reach of Secure Communities has been overbroad. The goal of the program is to “prioritize the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety, and repeat immigration violators.”

Yet your data shows that, in fiscal year 2011, 26 percent of all Secure Communities deportations were immigrants with Level 1 convictions, 19 percent of those deported had Level 2 convictions and 29 percent were individuals convicted of Level 3 crimes, which are minor crimes carrying sentences of less than one year. Twenty-six percent of those deported had only immigration violations.

This dragnet approach may lead to the deportation of New Yorkers charged with minor offenses who have lived in this country for more than 10 or 20 years and who have deeply rooted family and community ties. This is wrong.

As you know, in an effort to address the concerns raised by those affected, the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Task Force on Secure Communities issued a report containing findings and recommendations designed to improve the program in September 2011. Advocates criticized your recent response to that report, which proposed to change little more than the way an individual accused of a traffic violation is treated, as falling far short of what is needed.

We join in that criticism. For example, although the task force recommended that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement improve the transparency of Secure Communities and strengthen accountability mechanisms, there continues to be limited oversight of the program and it remains far too difficult to make a complaint. In light of these facts, we cannot support the program or its activation in the city unless and until the issues raised in the task force report are addressed.

Perhaps most importantly, it is clear to us that the decision to deploy this program in the city will create fear in immigrant communities and corrode the bond between immigrants and the city Police Department. In the city, we have worked to ensure that immigrants feel comfortable accessing local government — in particular, local law enforcement — to report crimes, seek assistance and support their communities.
The deployment of Secure Communities will cause grave damage on all of these fronts. You should reverse your decision to implement Secure Communities in the city.

Christine C. Quinn
Council Speaker
Daniel Dromm
Council Immigration Committee
(D-Jackson Heights)
Melissa Mark-Viverito

Expanded federal fingerprint program opposed in NY (BusinessWeek)

Expanded federal fingerprint program opposed in NY

(photo by Mirela Iverac)

A government program that has state or local police share fingerprints of the people they arrest with federal immigration officials drew protests in New York on Monday, a day ahead of its expansion statewide.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seeing the “Secure Communities Program” as a key tool for finding and deporting the criminal illegal aliens that are it’s priority, the agency said.

To opponents, the information-sharing program, introduced in 2008, invites racial profiling, deports people for minor crimes and actually makes communities less secure by cooling relations between immigrants and police.

Those concerns led Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to suspend New York’s participation in the program last June after about half the state’s counties had adopted it. But a law enforcement official familiar with the program said it will launch in the rest of New York, along with Massachusetts, Arkansas and Wyoming, on Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the program.

In New York City, about 100 immigrants and activists rallied Monday in protest in front of the Jacob Javits Federal Building. Demonstrators held signs that said “No to Secure Communities. Mobilize to stop the deportations!” and “Immigrants built this country.”

Emma Vidals, a 50-year-old Mexican immigrant who has lived illegally in the United States for 20 years, said she is afraid to call the police.

“I felt safer before. Now with Secure Communities it will be more unsafe for me,” said Vidals, who lives in Staten Island and works cleaning homes. “Less immigrants will call the police. There will be more domestic violence.”

The Associated Press reported in February 2011 that President Barack Obama’s administration pitched Secure Communities participation to local officials as voluntary, until some refused to participate. Then the federal government made it mandatory. Last August, ICE Director John Morton sent a letter to governors terminating agreements with states to clarify that such agreements weren’t necessary as the agency moved to implement the program nationwide by the end of next year.

Cuomo’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer predicted the program would lead to deportations of thousands of productive and legal immigrants while costing the state millions of dollars.

“A state’s participation in a program that targets its own residents should be left up to local officials and not dictated from on high by Washington,” Stringer said.

Communities routinely send fingerprints taken from people booked into jails or prison to state agencies for criminal records checks and states forward the prints to the FBI to check criminal histories. Under Secure Communities, the FBI shares the prints with the Homeland Security Department to check them against immigration files. Immigration officials then decide whether to pursue removal or other action.

ICE credits the program for the deportation of more than 135,000 convicted criminal aliens. Officials said they’ve made changes to the program in response to states’ concerns, including developing civil rights training for police and creating a public advocate position.

As of May 11, Secure Communities was active in 2,792 jurisdictions in 48 states, with complete coverage in 40 states, ICE said.


Associated Press writer Claudia Torrens contributed to this report from New York.

Coast to Coast, Unrest over Secure Communities (Fox News Latino)

Coast to Coast, Unrest over Secure Communities
By Elizabeth Llorente

Published May 14, 2012

Opponents of a mandatory federal immigration program called “Secure Communities” began rallying in cities that were the last holdouts in implementing the controversial program.

The protesters included immigrants, civil rights activists and elected officials.

Secure Communities is a controversial program that requires local police to share fingerprints with immigration officials. The federal government has been implementing it in phases, planning eventually to have it in place nationwide.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, sees the program as a tool for finding and deporting undocumented criminals.

Opponents say it can easily lead to profiling and that it actually makes communities less secure by damaging relations between immigrants and police.

“It has been clear from its inception that this program undermines our safety and infringes on our civil rights,” said Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition in a statement. “And yet the criticism goes unheeded by the administration.”

Concerns led New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to suspend the program in June after about half the state’s counties had adopted it. But a law enforcement official familiar with the program said Monday it will launch statewide Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the program.

Over the weekend, William C. Thompson, Jr., a former New York City comptroller who plans to run for mayor in 2013, fired off a letter to President Obama assailing the implementation of Secure Communities in New York.

Thompson, who was the Democratic nominee for mayor in 2009, almost defeating Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said in his letter: “New Yorkers like me believe in strong and safe communities, and anyone who has committed a violent crime and is a threat to the public does not deserve the privilege of living in our great nation.”

But, Thompson added: “Studies show that this program does little to protect our neighborhoods. Instead, it drives many hard-working immigrants into the shadows of our society, thus actually compromising public safety.”

Last week in Boston, immigrant rights activists and representatives from faith, labor and human rights organizations condemned the implementation of the federal immigration program in Massachusetts.

“We’re not going to let the [federal government] impose a program that’s been a complete failure,” said Cristina Aguilera, a campaign organizer with the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition or MIRA. “We’re going to hold the Obama administration accountable…our voice is going to be heard.”

Meanwhile, in the state of Washington, immigrant rights groups are lobbying King County officials to stop holding suspected undocumented immigrants in county jails to challenge Secure Communities.

The program was fully activated in Washington state last month. The program has been almost fully activated nationwide, despite protests from some state governors.

This story contains material by the Associated Press.

Despite Opposition, NY Joins Fed’s Secure Communities Program (WNYC)

Despite Opposition, NY Joins Fed’s Secure Communities Program
Monday, May 14, 2012
By Mirela Iverac

Facing Legal Limbo, Some Immigrants in NY Have Nowhere Else to Go
Task Force Critical of Secure Communities Program

Politicians and immigration advocates gathered on the steps of City Hall Monday to demand that the Department of Homeland Security halt the activation of a contentious immigration program known as Secure Communities, which goes into effect in New York City on Tuesday.

“Secure Communities takes a dragnet approach,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. “Its implementation leads to the deportation of too many immigrants who pose no public safety threat to the City or State of New York or to our country at all.”

The program has already been in effect in 31 counties, including Nassau, Dutchess and Westchester. On Tuesday, the rest of the state, including New York City, will become a part of the program.

Under Secure Communities, when local law enforcement agencies submit fingerprints to the FBI for routine criminal history checks, the prints will be shared with DHS, so that the Immigration and Customs Agency, ICE, can determine if an arrested individual is subject to deportation.

Governor Andrew Cuomo attempted to withdraw the state from the Secure Communities program last June, noting that it failed to meet its stated goal to “deport serious felons.”

But FBI and ICE, officials immediately said that New York counties, which had become a part of the Secure Communities program, could not terminate their participation, because it is essentially an information-sharing program between two federal agencies: the FBI and DHS.

“Secure Communities has proven to be the single most valuable tool in allowing the agency to eliminate the ad hoc approach of the past and focus on criminal aliens and repeat immigration law violators,” an ICE spokesman said in a statement issued last week.

Responding to criticism of the program, ICE has introduced changes to Secure Communities, including taking into custody individuals arrested solely for minor traffic violations if they are convicted and a new policy designed to protect witnesses or victims of domestic violence or other violent crimes.

According to ICE, Secure Communities has helped remove over 135,000 convicted criminal aliens, including more than 49,000 convicted of major violent offenses like murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children.

From January 2011 through March 2012, ICE said it deported 816 people from New York’s 31 counties, including 475 criminal aliens. About 17 percent of those removed were what the agency classifies as Level 1 offenders ― that means they were convicted of aggravated felonies such as murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children.

Speaker Quinn said on Monday that the numbers for the most serious convictions were too low, and that individuals with no criminal record and low-level offenders were getting caught up in the program. Advocates also argue the program can lead to ethnic and racial profiling and erode the relationship between the police and immigrant communities.

According to Quinn, the City Council would be “drafting legislation to establish parameters on the NYPD’s interaction with ICE.”

A spokesman for the Governor’s office said they were monitoring the developments around the program.

Secure Communities has been activated in 2,792 jurisdictions in 49 states and territories so far.