By Ashley Standfield, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA
(Washington, D.C.) August 11, 2010 – The Nation’s Capital may become the first jurisdiction to reject the “Secure Communities” program, a federal government program in which local law enforcement would share booking information with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). District of Columbia City Council members Phil Mendelson and Jim Graham introduced Bill 17-895 – with the unanimous support of the council – highlighting concerns that the Secure Communities program creates a rift between immigrant communities and local law enforcement officials. While the immigration status of those convicted of crimes will remain accessible to federal agencies, the bill would prohibit the sharing of arrest and booking information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of DHS.
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and numerous other organizations in D.C. share the council’s concern over the “Secure Communities” program. DHS has encouraged local jurisdictions to implement the program, which forwards the booking information of arrested individuals to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regardless of if they are found innocent of a crime or if their arrest is later deemed unlawful. If there is a hit in an immigration database, DHS is automatically notified. According to DHS, the top priorities of the program are those undocumented individuals who have been convicted of or are currently charged with the most serious crimes. However, in reality the program has a much broader impact on the immigrant community.
"Contrary to its name, the Secure Communities program makes the public less safe by creating fear and mistrust of the police and undermining community policing," said Mendelson.
The city council and immigrant advocacy groups are worried that the Secure Communities program makes communities more vulnerable to abusive police practices. Pretextual arrests are used by law enforcement as a method to initiate an arrest of certain individuals for minor offenses in order to allow officers to investigate separate and unrelated criminal behavior. There is a concern that police officers will make pretextual arrests of persons they suspect to be in violation of immigration laws, in order to have them run through immigration databases once they are jailed.
It could additionally jeopardize the security of immigrants or asylum seekers with legal status as the secure communities program encourages a culture of constant surveillance of immigrant communities by local law enforcement leading to over-policing and racial profiling. Immigrant rights experts have posited that police officers with a motive to deport undocumented immigrants may find a pretext to arrest a person, bring them into the jail, and check their fingerprints against the DHS databases in the hopes of turning them over to immigration authorities. The Secure Communities program does not provide a safeguard in the case of an arrest made in bad faith. The program is applied by participating jails even where the underlying arrest is later found to be based on racial or ethnic profiling or was merely a pretext for checking immigration status.
Even with the best of intentions, local law enforcement’s ability to get immigrant residents to trust them enough to utilize police services is threatened by the Secure Communities program. At a public hearing regarding the bill, several local community groups offered testimony, including the Union de Trabajadores, Latino Federation of Greater Washington, Ayuda, a local legal services provider for immigrants and asylum seekers and Mil Mujeres, an advocacy organization for victims of domestic violence.
Several witnesses testified about their experiences with domestic violence, asserting that the DHS program would have prevented them from reaching out to local law enforcement because they would fear that their legal status or that of their families would be called into question. Other witnesses testified that the DHS initiative further erodes trust between undocumented workers or possible trafficking victims and local law enforcement; fostering such trust is key in promoting cooperation in prosecutions of those responsible for this exploitation.
There already is a rampant fear in the immigrant community that immigration status will be an issue when asking any agency for help. When immigrant communities know or believe that police are involved with immigration enforcement, seeking aid from police becomes too risky. Crimes go unreported and victims go unprotected when entire communities fear the police. The delineation of separate responsibilities between federal immigration enforcement and the local police should not be blurred.
Individuals in the legal community placed concerns over the lack of transparency and accountability, citing an overall lack of oversight of the Secure Communities program. Currently, there is no clear mechanism for complaints or redress procedures for individuals who believe they have been erroneously identified by DHS databases or who believe a DHS detainer has been issued in error. Secure Communities casts too wide a net, with too few safeguards.
Secure Communities allegedly targets “criminal aliens” but, in fact affects everyone who is brought into a jail — whether or not they were arrested for a serious crime. ICE’s own statistics reveal that five percent of database "hits" under Secure Communities actually identified U.S. citizens.
While JRS recognizes the need to keep our communities safe, we support the D.C. Council’s decision to prevent participation in the Secure Communities program. The program creates to great a risk for abusive activities against the immigrant community with no tangible safeguards, severing the vital relationship between police the communities they serve.