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

Top five immigration stories of 2011, #3: Secure Communities

Anti-Secure Communities protesters in Los Angeles, August 15, 2011
Anti-Secure Communities protesters in Los Angeles, August 15, 2011
Photo by Corey Moore/KPCC

The controversy over the federal immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communitieshas been brewing since not long after it was first implemented 2008, during the waning days of the Bush administration. But after a heated back-and-forth between state, local and federal officials over the program as some jurisdictions attempted to withdraw - only to be told they couldn't - the controversy came to a head this year.

First, in a nutshell, how Secure Communities works: When state or local authorities book someone into a local jail, the person's fingerprints are electronically submitted to the FBI. These fingerprints are then sent to the Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents check them against an immigration records database to determine if the person is deportable (legal residents are also subject to deportation if they have committed certain offenses). The person is then held for deportation by ICE.

Unlike with a similar federal-local partnership known as 287(g), the screening is done pre-conviction, meaning that some people who turn out to be otherwise innocent have landed in the deportation net; some cases have involved domestic violence victims. This has been a sticking point for critics of the program, who say it goes against the Obama administration's stated goal of focusing on criminals for deportation. Criticism has also come from some law enforcement agencies, state and city officials who complain that because of its nature, the program alienates immigrant communities by undermining trust in police, making policing them more difficult.

Which brings us to this year's explosive controversy: Several jurisdictions around the country, including the city of San Francisco, began attempting to opt out of the program last year. Many local and state officials had believed that as with 287(g), Secure Communities was optional, as evidenced by a series of internal emails released last spring. After all, federal officials had signed contracts known as Memorandums of Agreement, or MOAs, with state and local officials around the country allowing Secure Communities to be implemented.

Here's how part of the contract with the California Department of Justice, dated January 23, 2009, reads:

This MOA may be modified at any time by mutual written consent of both parties.

This MOA may remain in effect from the date of signing until it is terminated by either party. Either party, upon written or oral notice to the other party, may terminate the MOA at any time. A termination notice shall be delivered personally or by certified or registered mail and termination shall take effect 30 days after receipt of such notice.

Sounds optional, right? But it isn't, according to federal officials.

By last summer, the governors of Massachusetts, Illinois and New York had announced plans to withdraw from the program, and California's state Assembly had passed legislation that would allow the state to renegotiate its Secure Communities contract with Homeland Security, allowing local jurisdictions to opt out.

Then the hammer came down. In August, ICE director John Morton sent out a letter to governors terminating all existing MOAs with the agency regarding Secure Communities. The letter clarified "an issue that has been the subject of substantial confusion," i.e. that states must participate and have no choice in the matter, according to ICE.

The program has continued to draw harsh criticism, most recently from civil rights advocates angry over U.S. citizens being detained accidentally after being fingerprinted. A recent UC Berkeley Law School report cited as many as 3,600 cases of U.S. citizens having been arrested by ICE as a result of Secure Communities.

The Obama administration continues to support use of Secure Communities, crediting it along with 287(g) in part for continued record deportations, a growing number of which federal officials are counting as removals of people with criminal records. But that's another story for this week.

Come back tomorrow for top story #2.