Last week the Obama administration announced a series of much-needed changes to the controversial Secure Communities program, under which state and local police are required to turn over the fingerprints of everyone they arrest to federal officials, who check for past criminal records and prior deportation orders.
When it was first unveiled, officials promised that Secure Communities would target dangerous immigrants convicted of violent felonies, but it has cast far too wide a net. Since 2008, more than half of those deported under the program had no criminal records or had been convicted of misdemeanors. Those statistics have persuaded governors in Illinois, Massachusetts and New York to suspend participation in the program. They say it isn't making communities safer but rather is undermining law enforcement's ability to work with immigrants, who have come to fear that any contact with police may land them in deportation proceedings.
John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, deserves credit for acknowledging that the program is in trouble and for providing a fix. His memo granting prosecutors and ICE agents explicit discretion to drop cases against victims of crimes and students brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and instead focus deportation efforts on violent criminals who pose a risk to communities, is a move in the right direction. And his pledge to create an advisory group to consider whether those stopped for minor violations, such as driving without a license and other misdemeanors, should not be flagged for deportation is also promising.
Now the battle will be to make sure that the new guidelines lead to changes on the ground. That could be a challenge; the memo is already unpopular with the agency's rank and file. The president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, the union that represents an estimated 7,000 immigration agents across the country, denounced the memo as a "law enforcement nightmare." Last year, the union accused the Obama administration of failing to enforce immigration laws.
Morton's memo shouldn't be ignored. It's an important step toward ensuring that Secure Communities targets those who pose a threat. And given that the U.S. can't and won't deport all 11 million people living in the country illegally, federal officials need to get smarter about enforcement.