How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Secure Communities reform: Does anyone benefit?

Photo by Chad Miller/Flickr (Creative Commons)

It's been a few days since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced planned reforms to its embattled Secure Communities enforcement program, which allows the fingerprints of people booked into local jails to be shared with immigration authorities.

The idea behind the changes, announced Friday, is to better focus the program on deporting serious criminals, to better train local law enforcement to understand its priorities, and to address any potential civil rights concerns.

Several immigrant advocates have denounced the changes as window dressing, but will any of these tweaks make a difference as to how many people get deported, and who? A few analyses since Friday's announcement have tried to answer this question.

  • A Houston Chronicle piece yesterday zeroed in on a key component, a memo from ICE director John Morton urging the use of prosecutorial discretion when determining who should be detained or deported, potentially sparing many. Morton's guidelines "instruct ICE officials to consider everything from a suspected illegal immigrant's community contributions to criminal history before making a determination on a case." More from the story:

Special consideration should be given to witnesses and victims of crimes, relatives of U.S. citizens and green card holders, military veterans and college students brought to the U.S. as children, according to the guidelines.

  • The guidelines make clear that Dream Act-eligible youths, the "college students brought to the U.S. as children," qualify for special consideration. However, same-sex partners still don't qualify as spouses or family members of U.S. citizens, according to SF Weekly:

It seems gay couples are still out of luck. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice e-mailed to clarify what the new memo means when it talks about "spouses." That doesn't include gay ones: "Pursuant to the Attorney General's guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the Executive Branch, including [the Department of Homeland Security], will continue to enforce it unless and until Congress repeals it or there a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional," Kice wrote.

  • Several reports, including one in Denver's Westword, have pointed to another provision that urges agents and attorneys to use discretion in order ensure that crime victims and witnesses don't land in deportation proceedings for contacting police, as some have in the past.

A separate ICE memo issued last Friday "sets forth agency policy regarding the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in removal cases involving the victims and witnesses of crime, including domestic violence, and individuals involved in non-frivolous efforts related to the protection of their civil rights and liberties."

The memo continues:

In these cases, ICE officers, special agents, and attorneys should exercise all appropriate prosecutorial discretion to minimize any effect that immigration enforcement may have on the willingness and ability of victims, witnesses, and plaintiffs to call police and pursue justice.

Launched in 2008, the fingerprint-sharing program has faced heavy criticism from immigrant advocates and several state and local officials. Advocates complain that it casts too wide of a net, landing many non-criminals in deportation, among them crime victims and witnesses. Law enforcement officials in several jurisdictions, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have expressed worries that the program can impede policing by alienating immigrant communities.

The governors of Illinois, New York and Massachusetts recently announced plans to remove their states from Secure Communities, and California legislators are weighing a bill that would allow individual cities and counties to opt out of what is now a mandatory program.

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