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Immigration reform: Scrap Secure Communities

Editorial

Secure Communities was meant to deport immigrants with serious criminal convictions. But it has targeted non-criminals and even U.S. citizens. If it can't be fixed, it should be ended.

December 19, 2011
  • John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the Department of Homeland Security, holds a news conference in Williston, Vt.
John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the… (Toby Talbot / AP Photo )

When the Secure Communities program was launched by the federal government in 2008, it was billed as a way to find and deport immigrants with serious criminal convictions. In the three years since then, it has become clear that the program has instead targeted many non-criminals. And recently it was revealed that the program has also managed to ensnare more than 3,000 U.S. citizens as well.

Indeed, in a news conference last week, civil rights activists identified four U.S. citizens from Los Angeles who were mistakenly detained under the program. It's past time for the Obama administration to scrap this problem-plagued enforcement plan.

Under Secure Communities, state and local police share the fingerprints of anyone arrested and jailed with federal immigration officials, who then check them against FBI and immigration databases. That seems simple enough. Yet somehow it isn't working out the way it's supposed to.

The program is seriously flawed. More than half of the 148,841 immigrants removed as of October have either no criminal convictions or minor ones, despite the government's stated goal of targeting serious criminals. A second problem is that the program doesn't allow states and localities to opt out, even though they were told they would be able to when they were first enlisted to sign up.

And Secure Communities isn't actually helping protect communities. At least not according to a federal task force charged with reviewing the program. In September, the group found that the program has had a negative impact on community policing because it made immigrants more reluctant to report crimes as either witnesses or victims.

Homeland Security Assistant Secretary John Morton says the database used to flag those who are deportable will be scrubbed to ensure accuracy. New forms and rules requiring police to inform individuals that they are being held on immigration charges will be issued soon, and a hotline will be established so detainees can call the agency directly to report problems.

But that's not enough, not when you are talking about deporting citizens from their own country. A hotline or a new form wouldn't have prevented Antonio Montejano's illegal detention. He was born in California and arrested last month in Santa Monica for allegedly shoplifting. Montejano was sent to an overcrowded Los Angeles County jail on an immigration hold even though he says he repeatedly told every officer he came into contact with that he was born in the United States and is a citizen. In all, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley estimated that some 3,600 U.S. citizens were probably apprehended under Secure Communities.

It defies reason for the government to claim that Secure Communities is successfully deporting the worst or most dangerous immigrants. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is an unfair and arbitrary system plagued by mistakes and failures. If it can't be fixed — and it increasingly appears that hotlines and revamped forms will not do the trick— it should be scrapped.

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