Confusion Over Secure Communities (NY Times)

Confusion Over Secure Communities
Published: October 5, 2010

By 2013, according to an Obama administration plan, everyone in the United States who is arrested and fingerprinted will undergo an immigration check. Suspects’ names and fingerprints will be run not just through criminal databases but compared against immigration records, too, through a program that is being steadily and rapidly rolled out across the country.

The program, Secure Communities, a collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the Department of Justice, is a source of anxiety and anger for cities, counties and police departments that want to preserve a bright line between local policing and federal immigration enforcement. Their valid concern is that local officers should never be seen by immigrant communities as arms of immigration enforcement. Fighting and preventing crime are unrelated to detaining and deporting immigrants and should stay that way.

Places like San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and Arlington County, Va., have chosen to opt out of Secure Communities, but their ability to do so seems limited.

Because Secure Communities is a data-sharing program between two federal departments, the only way a local jurisdiction could avoid participating would be by refusing to send a suspect’s fingerprints to the federal criminal-justice system, a dereliction of crime-fighting duty. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has written a letter detailing how a local agency could register its objections as the program is deployed, but she did not really offer an opt-out clause. This seems hardly likely to preserve that bright line on enforcement.

The Obama administration insists that its primary focus is on catching and deporting the worst, most dangerous offenders. But its record shows otherwise. It has been using its powers to detain and deport tens of thousands of immigrants who have no criminal records and pose no conceivable danger to their communities.

Secure Communities should not allow overzealous local police officers to use arbitrary stops as way to ensnare illegal immigrants in the deportation web. Nor should the administration let its zeal for immigration enforcement complicate the jobs of local law enforcement, or impose new layers of fear and isolation on immigrants.

Washington needs to find a way to allow cities like San Francisco and Washington to enforce the law without turning into a branch of ICE.