US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The Secure Communities program takes its knocks

Father Tom Joyce CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

From the beginning the Obama administration scaled back on factory raids and knocks on doors to round up the undocumented for deportation. The Bush administration had taken heat for such raids because often they were accompanied with of the breakup of families, often caught on TV. Obama favored a method of rounding up deportees--the Secure Communities program which was ostensibly to take dangerous aliens off the streets. Agents of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) would sign up local jails to pass along the finger prints of all arrested. These were checked with its data base in Washington. The fingerprint check was welcomed by local police as especially valuable in law enforcement, but to ICE it was an easy, and out of sight of the cameras, way to fatten its deportation numbers. It worked and the Obama administration averaged 400,000 deportations in the last two years. The political pay off was that the president was seen to be doing something about “illegals” without having to pour millions of dollars into new fencing.

Only most deportees are not dangerous criminals. All may have made unauthorized entry into the country, but most were caught in ICE’s net because of minor infractions. A good number’s only crime was unauthorized re-entry after deportation. As a consequence many immigrants, who were well established in this country with jobs and children born here, often married to U.S. citizens, and with clean criminal records, have been deported. Even the scofflaws usually had nothing more serious than their unlawful re-entry. The truly dangerous criminals are already caught up in the criminal system. After convictions and serving their time in American jails, ICE quickly has them deported. Immigrant and civil rights advocates argued that the program was instead being exploited to break up immigrant families and deny a fair hearing and justice to deportees.


Obama's quandary has been how to appease the public’s desire for action on unauthorized entry yet who are queasy about breaking up families--allwhile not alienating the Latino electorate that he needs in 2012. Latinos, especially Mexicans, are increasingly resentful about the lack of progress on immigration reform and the quickening pace of deportation. Hispanic leaders have urged the president to use his executive powers to stem the deportations and to focus the Secure Communities program on those who are a real danger to the country. To respond to the growing complaints, ICE created a task force of experts on immigration, law enforcement, and work to hold hearings across the country and make recommendations. I was at the Chicago hearing. It was quite clear that most who attended had low expectations of the task force. Midway through, they walked out and proceed to block traffic in the West Loop streets.

The very next day, John Morton, ICE's director, released a memo to his agency to directing those enforcing immigration laws to use “prosecutorial discretion” in prioritizing cases for deportation. While the new policy will not grant permanent residency, it will focus ICE agents on criminal offenders. It's not clear yet what the procedures will be for reviewing one's status. Lawyers are telling immigrants to wait till the air clears, and collect documentation and keep their noses clean.

The task force recently released its findings. The major conclusion was to agree with the critics, that the Secure Communities program is rounding up too many immigrants that are no threat to society and confusing states and localities about the nature of the program. For some labor members the report was not specific or forceful enough, and so they refused to sign. Some law enforcement members like the program, especially the access to federal criminal data bases. Now immigrants and their advocates are waiting on how the new process will work. Since there is still resistance within the ICE bureaucracy, they are still skeptical.