June 30, 2010 View Discussion
by Ted Hesson
New York State has joined the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program, according to a May agreement between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The agreement, which you can read here, means that counties across the state, including Nassau and Suffolk, may soon be required to submit the fingerprints of anyone arrested or convicted of a crime to an immigration database. If the person is determined to be an undocumented immigrant, he or she may be placed in deportation proceedings.
The program is currently in the “outreach” phase, in which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement identifies and contacts counties where the program might be deployed. This phase is scheduled to continue through July and August, according to agency spokesperson Harold Ort.
Immigrant rights groups say that the automated nature of the program will boost deportations in the state, sow fear of police among the undocumented, and increase wrongful deportations. Secure Communities is already operating in 402 jurisdictions and 24 states across the country.
Although the program supposedly prioritizes the deportation of undocumented immigrants convicted of “serious criminal offenses,” it has been criticized for targeting low-level criminal offenders for deportation, as well as those who have been charged with a crime, but not convicted.
“Anytime anyone is arrested for anything and booked for anything, no matter how minor, their fingerprint gets sent to immigration,” said Bridget Kessler, a clinical teaching fellow at the Immigration Justice Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “It’s not a program where the police officer is actually deputized to enforce immigration law, but there’s a perception that police are running immigration checks because, in effect, they are.”
The agreement between New York State and the immigration agency states that those charged with a crime, but not convicted, could be deported under the program. According to the dictates of the agreement, whether a person is actually guilty or innocent of a charged crime is not relevant.
The top objective of Secure Communities, according to the agreement, is to “identify aliens in federal, state and local custody charged with or convicted of a serious criminal offense who are subject to removal and those aliens who have prior convictions for serious criminal offenses and are subject to removal who are currently at large.”
However, ICE spokesperson Ort contradicted that element of the agreement in a phone interview today, stating that “our definition of a criminal alien is an alien convicted of a crime. ICE does not regard aliens charged with but not convicted of a crime as criminal aliens.”
I requested that Ort clarify that claim in regards to what is stated in the agreement, but I’m still awaiting his response.
In addition, the program’s focus on so-called “serious” crime has been questioned by researchers.
According to the watchdog website Deportation Nation, which tracks the Secure Communities program, “the vast majority of immigrants deported through Secure Communities committed low-level offenses like trespassing, disorderly conduct and traffic offenses.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics from October 2008 to October 2009 back that assertion. In order to determine the seriousness of a crime, the agency classifies criminal acts as either Level 1, 2, or 3 offenses. Agency spokesperson Ort was unable to clearly explain what might constitute a serious crime, aside from saying that all crimes are serious.
In Texas, the state that ran the most immigration checks through Secure Communities from October 2008 to October 2009, the vast majority of those deported through the program were arrested for or convicted of Level 2 and Level 3 offenses. Of the 6,113 people deported, only 591 were Level 1 offenders.
In Arizona, the state with the second most immigration checks through the program during that period, 4,941 people were deported, but only 534 were arrested for or convicted of a Level 1 crime.
The data provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not distinguish between Level 2 and Level 3 offenses, which means that the exact percentage of deportations that resulted from Level 3 crimes—like littering, gambling, or property damage—is unknown.
Ort said that the higher numbers of deportations for lesser offenders did not mean that ICE was focusing on those who commit minor crimes:
“ICE is identifying more aliens charged with or convicted of Level 2 and Level 3 offenses because more individuals commit and are arrested for crimes falling under these levels,” he wrote in an email. “However, ICE prioritizes the removal of aliens charged with or convicted of Level 1 offenses, which is demonstrated by the overall higher removal percentages for aliens charged with or convicted of Level 1 offenses, versus the percentage of removals of aliens charged with or convicted of Level 2 and 3 offenses.”
The program is federally mandated, but considering the complaints of immigrant rights advocates, some jurisdictions have resisted its enactment.
Cities like San Francisco and Washington, DC, have tried to opt out of the program, but it’s unclear whether local jurisdictions are able to do that. At present, the program is still operating in San Francisco, despite protestations by the city’s sheriff.
In New York state, Secure Communities would replace the Criminal Alien Program, in which immigration agents seek out charged or convicted immigrants in county jails who are eligible for deportation. Secure Communities would have a substantially larger reach, and be more comprehensive.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement intends to implement Secure Communities nationwide by 2013, but immigrant rights groups will likely resist.
“The reality is that since the program operates pre-conviction, a police officer simply needs to charge someone and book them…and then they can be put into deportation proceedings,” said Sarahi Uribe, a regional organizer for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “Secure communities a very big dragnet that puts people into deportation proceedings before they’re even convicted of anything.”
*Bold words were added by the author, and are not part of the original document.
**Earlier today, I emailed public information requests to the Nassau County Police Department and the Suffolk County Police Department regarding the implementation of Secure Communities on Long Island, but I haven’t heard back from either county.