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Understanding the escalating controversy over Secure Communities

A detainee waits to be processed at an immigrant detention facility Arizona. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
A detainee waits to be processed at an immigrant detention facility Arizona. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

A heated controversy over the federal immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities has been brewing since last year, when several local jurisdictions around the country tried to opt out of the program, only to learn they couldn't. But in the past month, it has escalated to a boiling point.

Since then, a series of internal emails released revealed varying degrees of miscommunication between federal immigration officials and state officials over the mandatory nature of the fingerprint-sharing program, which allows for the fingerprints of people booked into local jail systems to be checked against the Homeland Security department’s immigration records. The emails irked some elected officials, including Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, who has called for an investigation.

Last week, governor of Illinois announced plans to withdraw the state from the program, a move that Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano has since countered. Also last week, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter to President Obama seeking the program's suspension. More recently, women who landed in deportation proceedings after calling police about domestic abuse have been coming forward as examples of one of the program's chief criticisms, which is that while it is intended to net immigrants with criminal records, many immigrants who are deportable but otherwise have no criminal background are routinely arrested.

In a radio segment this week, Rina Palta of Multi-American's sister blog The Informant at KALW in San Francisco explained the Secure Communities controversy and the legal and other issues surrounding the program. From the transcript:

The program is part of the Obama administration’s efforts to focus immigration enforcement on those undocumented immigrants who commit crimes – a strategy that pundits believe is aimed at gaining support for comprehensive immigration reform by beefing up the President’s reputation as tough on border security. Take this excerpt from President Barack Obama’s speech today in El Paso, Texas:

"Now, I know that the increase in deportations has been a source of controversy.  But I want to emphasize: we are not doing this haphazardly; we are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.  As a result, we increased the removal of criminals by 70 percent."

Those opposed to Secure Communities would point out that the program has also resulted in the deportation of a large number of non-criminals.

Audio of her interview can be downloaded here.

While several municipalities have attempted to get out of Secure Communities, expressing concern that their participation could alienate immigrant communities and impede policing efforts, one of epicenters of the battle has been San Francisco. Sheriff Michael Hennessey recently announced that starting June 1, he no longer plans to hold deportable low-level criminals for immigration authorities.