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

Emails illustrate how non-criminals can get caught up in Secure Communities

Photo by kbrookes/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A series of newly released emails between California and federal officials from last year adds more fuel to the debate over the arrests of non-criminal immigrants under Secure Communities. The federal immigration enforcement program allows the fingerprints of people booked by local police to be shared with immigration officials.

Since not long after its inception in 2008, Secure Communities has been under fire from immigrant advocates, state and local officials in several states, and some law enforcement. Critics complain that the program casts too wide of a net. While its stated goal is to arrest immigrants with serious criminal records for deportation, the program has landed many people who had no convictions or only minor ones in removal proceedings.

Immigrants fingerprinted following traffic stops are at issue in the emails, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by immigrant rights advocates and the immigration clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at New York's Yeshiva University. The emails detail a back-and forth between federal and California Department of Justice officials, who ask if it's possible not to send data on non-criminals stopped at license checkpoints to Homeland Security.

The federal government's response communicates that changing the process so as to not send these individuals' fingerprints to Homeland Security is possible; however, it states that making this change might be problematic in other ways.

The practice of fingerprinting people who lack proper identification when stopped by local officers, say at a license checkpoint, is commonplace. An excerpt from one of the emails:

An "'N' in the RET field" refers to "non-retainable."

Last August, as some state governors threatened to pull out of Secure Communities, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton sent a memo to the states rescinding the contracts they had signed when the program was implemented, essentially forcing states' cooperation. Some states and jurisdictions have since sought alternatives; for example, California legislators are weighing a bill that would restrict who local cops can detain for immigration authorities, limiting it to those with felony or other serious criminal convictions.

The goal of focusing on criminals for deportation was written into the rescinded state Secure Communities contracts, referred to as a "memorandum of understanding" or MOA. The MOA between Homeland Security and the California Department of Justice from January 2009 reads that the program would "enhance immigration enforcement by using biometric technology to more accurately identify criminal aliens and apply risk-based methodologies to more efficiently remove high-risk convicted aliens."