Last month, Secure Communities, a federal program that enlists local law enforcement in civil immigration enforcement for the federal government, was activated across New York and Massachusetts, as well as several other states around the country.
S-Comm, as the program is also known, has been rightly maligned for blurring the lines between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement, creating a deportation dragnet for hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year who are “flagged” by the system, held in local jails at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ultimately funneled into removal proceedings, though few pose any threat to public safety.
Secure Communities is also a program that the federal government has insisted on rolling out even when states have made clear they want nothing to do with it, as New York and Massachusetts did last year in attempting to “opt out” of the program. Indeed, while the nation’s attention has been turned to the battle over immigration taking place between the federal government and the state of Arizona, another conflict has been brewing with states that wish to resist the corrosive impact of transforming local police and local government, which need to build trust with immigrant communities, into de facto enforcers of an increasingly punitive federal immigration policy.
Secure Communities is at the root of this tension. ICE’s signature program is being implemented in a heavy-handed manner that not only causes real damage in immigrant communities; it undermines the federal government’s political credibility, and perhaps its legal authority, to regulate the field of immigration.
In many ways, the history of Secure Communities is a case of federalism run amok. The program was piloted in 2008, and early on, the federal government sought to negotiate voluntary memoranda of agreement (MOAs) between ICE and several states and localities. By 2011, ICE faced opposition to the MOAs from the governors of Illinois, Massachusetts and New York in quick succession. The governors cited concerns that the program failed to accomplish its intended goal of deporting those convicted of serious criminal offenses and, instead, made it more difficult for local law enforcement to do their jobs effectively, as witnesses and victims of crimes in immigrant communities were less likely to step forward if they feared being brought to ICE’s attention as a result.
ICE’s response was to say that the MOAs were actually not voluntary after all. States, it now maintained, had no choice but to participate in S-Comm.
This arm-wrestling match between the federal government and the states is ultimately counterproductive for ICE. In creating Secure Communities, Washington opened the door to state and local involvement in immigration enforcement. It is now in the awkward position of doing battle with states when they overstep that role (Arizona) or when they are perceived to pull back too far (New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut).
The only way out of this conundrum is to get rid of S-Comm itself. The program has failed on its own terms, making communities less secure rather than more, and it has set off a tug-of-war between the states and the federal government that risks undermining federal control over immigration itself.