Immigrant advocates accuse ICE of "pattern of dishonesty"

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ICE's automatic fingerprinting referral system continues to come under attack

A coalition of national civil rights organizations held a August 10 press conference to discuss recently released internal government documents that they say reveal “a pattern of dishonesty” regarding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)  “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) program.

Representatives with the National Day Laborer Organization Network (NDLON), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law noted that though ICE officials have declared their intention to expand S-Comm into every jurisdiction in the country by 2013, information about the program has been scarce, and development of its operational details has been shrouded in secrecy.

The coalition also pointed to a July 27 letter that U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren recently wrote to Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder as evidence that ICE led Congress to believe that SecureComm is a voluntary, and not a mandatory, program.

In her letter, Lofgren, who is chair of the House of Representatives' subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law,  asks for “a clear opt-out procedure for municipalities that do not wish to participate in the S-Comm program."

"As we discussed, Secure Communities is a voluntary program that relies upon the resources of both of your agencies [referring to DHS and DOJ] in order to provide State, local, and federal law enforcement agencies with information related to the immigration status of persons booked into our nation's jails and prisons,” Lofgren wrote.

“I am aware that some local law enforcement agencies have expressed concern that participating in Secure Communities will present a barrier to their community policing efforts and will make it more difficult for them to implement a law enforcement strategy that meets their community’s public safety needs,” Lofgren observed.

“There appears to be significant confusion about how local law enforcement agencies may ‘opt out’ of participating in Secure Communities,” Lofgren continued.

Lofgren notes that staff from her House subcommittee were briefed on this program by ICE and were informed that localities could opt out simply by making such a request to ICE, while subsequent conversations with ICE and FBI CJIS added  to the confusion by suggesting that this might not be so.

“Please provide me with a clear explanation of how local law enforcement agencies may pot out of Secure Communities by having the fingerprints they collect and submit to the SIBs checked against criminal, not immigration, databases,” Lofgren concludes.

To date, Lofgren has not received a reply, a press spokesperson in her office confirmed.

Immigration rights advocates charge that S-Comm, which is operative in 544 jurisdictions in 27 states, functions like the controversial 287(g) program and Arizona’s SB1070, making state and local police central to the enforcement of federal immigration law.

They say the program, which automatically runs fingerprints through immigration databases for all people arrested, targets them for detention and deportation even if their criminal charges are minor, eventually dismissed, or the result of an unlawful arrest.

After reviewing the recently released ICE documents and other information, advocates for NDLON said they found evidence supporting their claim that ICE has been dishonest with the public and with local law enforcement regarding S-Comm’s true mission and impact.

“While ICE markets S-Comm as an efficient, narrowly tailored tool that targets ‘high threat’ immigrants, it actually functions as a dragnet for funneling people into the mismanaged ICE detention and removal system,” stated a NDLON press release. “ICE’s own records show that the vast majority (79 percent) of people deported due to S-Comm are not criminals or were picked up for lower level offenses.”

They also charge that the program serves as a smokescreen for racial profiling, allowing police officers to stop people based solely on their appearance and arrest non-citizens, knowing that they will be deported, even if they were wrongfully arrested and are never convicted.

“Preliminary data confirms that some jurisdictions, such as Maricopa County Arizona, have abnormally high rates of non-criminal S-Comm deportations,” NDLON continued.

 “Lastly, the impression ICE fosters that S-Comm is not mandatory and jurisdictions can opt out is riddled with questions,” they conclude.

 “These records reveal a dangerous trend,” said NDLON Executive Director Pablo Alvarado. “This program creates an explosion of Arizona-like enforcement at a time when the results have proven disastrous. Thanks to S-Comm, we face the potential proliferation of racial profiling, distrust of local police, fear, and xenophobia to every zip code in America.”

 “S-Comm co-opts local police departments to do ICE’s dirty work at significant cost to community relations and police objectives,” said CCR attorney Sunita Patel. “Without full and truthful information about the program’s actual mission and impact, police are operating in the dark. The bottom line is that thrusting police into the business of federal immigration enforcement isn’t good for anyone.”

 “ICE is racing forward imposing its S-Comm program on new states and localities every day, without any meaningful dialog or public debate,” warned Bridget Kessler, a teaching fellow at the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

The three organizations vow to litigate for the release of more data and records “to uncover the truth behind S-Comm and other ICE efforts to draft local police into immigration enforcement.”

Also speaking at the Aug. 10 press conference was San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey. Earlier this summer, Hennessey blew the whistle on S-COmm, after attending a meeting in May at which ICE revealed it was going to switch the program on in San Francisco in June.

But despite Hennessey’s efforts to opt San Francisco out of the program, S-Comm went live June 8 in San Francisco.

“We were told we could opt out through the State Attorney General’s Office,” Hennessey said, recalling how AG Jerry Brown’s office told him that San Francisco could only opt out through the feds.

“We were given the run around,” Hennessey said.“It’s a program forced upon individual local law enforcement agencies, no matter what the local community wants,” Hennessey said.

Henessey worries that the program is having a chilling effect on community policy efforts.

“Witnesses and victims of crime won’t come forward for fear they will be deported,” he said.

Henessey notes that ICE has detained folks who were arrested for minor traffic violations, and whose charges were subsequently dropped, as well as folks with no criminal records.

“My Board of Supervisors, my Police Commission and my mayor have said they would rather not participate in deportations at that level,” Hennessey noted.

He worries that the program could be expanded to include employment record checks.

“They say the program won’t be used for civil purposes, but it’s already being used for federal employment checks,” Hennessey said. “This further isolates minority communities from the mainstream."

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