Lawmakers in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York have sought for several months to withdraw from Secure Communities, a supposedly voluntary federal fingerprint-sharing program designed to identify and deport dangerous immigrants. The Obama administration is now trying to make the states' opposition moot — a tactic that may provide the legal basis for expanding Secure Communities but does nothing to improve the program's damaged credibility.
Launched in 2008 and due to be in effect nationwide in 2013, Secure Communities requires the FBI to share with the Department of Homeland Security the fingerprints of everyone booked into local jails. The department then checks the prints against its immigration database. But some state officials balked at the program, citing fears that it might hinder public safety more than it helps it.
This month, the Department of Homeland Security abruptly announced that it was canceling agreements with all local officials. It explained that it would no longer invite them to opt into the program because local police already send the FBI the fingerprint data of every detainee.
States signed up for Secure Communities because they thought it would make their neighborhoods safer by getting serious criminals off the streets. But the government's own data indicate that more than half of those deported under the program were undocumented immigrants with no criminal record or only minor ones — not violent felons.
Moreover, the program's staggering failure to prioritize deportation efforts may actually result in more harm than good. Law enforcement officials in San Francisco, Santa Clara County and elsewhere want out of the program because they say it has a chilling effect on immigrants' willingness to report crimes or assist authorities. Police must now persuade immigrants that officers are interested only in preventing crimes, not deporting them.
The Obama administration says it already has taken steps to fix that problem, creating a task force and issuing new guidelines instructing agents and prosecutors to focus on criminals. The states, however, are growing increasingly tired of the administration's mixed signals on immigration.
The president has publicly called for an overhaul of the nation's broken immigration system to give those who work hard but are illegally in the country a chance to remain here legally. Yet his administration has failed to curb a program that deports many of the very people he says deserve a chance to stay.
The president's leadership on immigration has been anemic. He can't solve the problem alone, but he has done little beyond delivering speeches blaming Congress. At the very least, Obama should shelve Secure Communities and stop making matters worse.