Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Top five immigration stories of 2010, #3: Secure Communities and 287(g)

A Los Angeles County prisoner bus, June 2009. The county extended its participation in the federal 287(g) program in October.
A Los Angeles County prisoner bus, June 2009. The county extended its participation in the federal 287(g) program in October.
Photo by 888bailbonds/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The record number of deportations carried out in the past two years by immigration officials under the Obama administration has been fueled, in large part, by the use of two controversial federal programs that work in cooperation with local agencies, Secure Communities and 287(g).

Both predate the current administration, but their use has been expanded as the Obama administration has shifted its focus to catching and deporting immigrants with criminal records, which the programs are meant to target. Administration officials have lauded both as instrumental to enforcement, culminating with the deportation of almost 800,000 immigrants in two years.

But neither program has worked exactly as planned, drawing heavy scrutiny this year from both immigrant advocates and government officials, including some in jurisdictions that have tried to opt out of one  - the Secure Communities fingerprint-sharing program - and learned they can't.

Here's how they work:

287(g) derives its name from a 1996 amendment to the immigration law that authorized it. The voluntary program authorizes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement. Agencies that choose to participate receive training from ICE, which in turn authorizes them to identify and detain deportable immigrants encountered in “the course of daily duties,” per an ICE fact sheet. Each agency enters into a contract, known as a memorandum of agreement, that defines the scope of the partnership.

Participants in 287(g), presently 71 agencies in 25 states, according to ICE, can request training specific to any area of enforcement, such as checking immigration status during traffic stops. But as in Los Angeles County, the program is used mostly to identify undocumented immigrants and deportable legal residents who land in local jails and state prisons.

Secure Communities got its start in early 2008 under the Bush administration, but was expanded last year. As with 287(g), the program is also used to identify deportable immigrants in the jail system. When individuals are booked, their fingerprints are submitted not only to criminal record databases, but also to the Homeland Security department's database of immigration records. If their fingerprints match those on immigration records, immigration officials are alerted.

As of December 21, Secure Communities was operating in 868 jurisdictions in 35 states, according to an agency website. ICE plans to have the program operating nationwide by 2013.

In general, the greatest criticism of both programs is that they cast a wide net, leading people who have no criminal record to wind up in deportation proceedings. The Homeland Security department's Office of Inspector General released a report earlier this year that found a number of problems with the implementation of 287(g), among them a failure to focus on people who posed a threat to public safety. Similarly, government records have shown that one-fourth of those deported under Secure Communities did not have criminal convictions, even if they illegally entered or overstayed a visa.

The involuntary nature of Secure Communities has irked local officials in several jurisdictions, among them San Francisco, Santa Clara County and Arlington, Va., which have tried to opt out of the program, worried that undocumented immigrants might become less willing to cooperate with police. After much back-and-forth with the federal government, which at first gave the impression that participation was optional, they learned this year that they could not opt out.

In response to a legal challenge filed earlier this year, a U.S. District Court judge in New York recently ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release documents pertaining to Secure Communities by mid-January, which could shed more light on the policy.

Yesterday Multi-American reviewed another one of this year's top immigration stories, the record deportations under the Obama administration.