Janesville77.7°

A program that’s here to stay

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Esther Cepeda
August 11, 2011
— Draconian. Rogue. Dangerous. Flawed.

These are just some of the words used to describe the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Communities program, which, if it hasn’t already, will soon be coming to a community near you.


In a stunning defeat for immigration rights advocates who were celebrating in June after several states, including Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois, declared they’d no longer be participating, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced last week that it was terminating all existing memorandums of agreement with individual jurisdictions—to send the clear message that the program is not voluntary and cannot be declined.


Many law enforcement agencies are not happy. They have been caught in the crosswinds of political whimsy—from being urged to turn a blind eye to the community impacts of illegal immigration, to fielding demands that police say drive a wedge into their community relations and cost unreimbursed money as well. In 2007, agencies were initially told by ICE to sign up voluntarily and opt out if need be. Then ICE changed its mind while pursuing the goal of signing up all law enforcement agencies in every state by 2013.


But the program, which identifies illegal immigrants based on fingerprints that local law enforcement officials check against Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Homeland Security records, is hated by some immigrants and activists because of its stunning record in helping deport illegal immigrants without serious criminal convictions. Advocates for illegal immigrants say that even though the program was initially designed to deport only the most violent or threatening criminal offenders, victims of crime and immigrants who had committed “minor crimes” are also being sent home.


But aside from these immigrant activists, few others raise a stink about Secure Communities and here’s why: Residents of any given community, no matter how liberal or open to inflows of immigration they are, want those who commit any kind of crime gone.


People in this country love and celebrate the mythology of immigrants forging the America we love today—until they’re on their way home from work and an illegal immigrant driver with no license and no insurance plows into their car and then drives off. Not that legal status is the linchpin. The protective instinct to shun the delinquent goes for any crime, major or minor—ask anyone and they’ll tell you they don’t want U.S.-born lawbreakers anywhere near them, either.


Statistics showing that “only” about 40 percent of those swept up by Secure Communities had previously committed major violent offenses have little traction with an American public that wants anyone who perpetrates any kind of crime to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.


You want resonance? Start talking about how much this mandated program costs struggling law enforcement agencies and their communities. Several law enforcement leaders have told me they believe crime in their communities will go up if they’re forced to take their focus off the most violent and pervasive threats in their community to deal with non-priority immigration business.


But even this might be a stretch for the average person. According to a September 2010 Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters nationwide, almost 70 percent said immigration reform should primarily move in the direction of stricter enforcement of the laws already on the books to combat illegal immigration.


Add this to the mix: The big complaint about various anti-illegal immigrant bills that have recently passed or are winding their way through state legislatures is that they represent a piecemeal approach to a problem that should rightfully be addressed at the federal level. Secure Communities does just that.


There’s no question the program has serious flaws. It was, at the start, administered heavy-handedly to both state and local law enforcement’s existing responsibilities to their own unique communities—not a great way to start a partnership.


And with a goal of catching the worst of the worst with limited budgets and manpower, there is no excuse for putting victims of crime with no prior criminal record and no “papers” through the ringer.


Secure Communities appears here to stay. People who care about keeping crime down would be smart to pay attention to its progress in their own communities and insist that their elected representatives do all they can to ensure the program’s stated objectives are rolled out in stark contrast to how they have been thus far: in a practical, transparent and uniform fashion.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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