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An overdue fix to Secure Communities

Secure Communities, a U.S. deportation program, has always caught more than just dangerous criminals in its net. Pending reforms should restore some credibility and fairness to the program.

January 03, 2013
  • Immigrant rights groups are seen discussing the impact of the Secure Communities program at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in 2011.
Immigrant rights groups are seen discussing the impact of the Secure Communities… (Los Angeles Times )

The Obama administration has spent nearly four years trying to convince states and local law enforcement that the federal immigration program known as Secure Communities is narrowly targeted to deporting dangerous criminals.

It's not. And late last month, the administration finally conceded as much when it announced long-overdue reforms that should restore some credibility and fairness to the controversial program.

Secure Communities was created to identify "dangerous criminal aliens" for deportation. Local law enforcement agencies were supposed to send the fingerprints of arrestees to federal immigration officials, who would run them through national crime databases. If an arrestee turned out to be an illegal immigrant with a serious criminal background, a "detainer" could be issued requesting that he be held for up to 48 hours so that federal officials could take him into custody.

But in practice, Secure Communities failed to distinguish between serious criminals and nonviolent arrestees facing civil immigration violations. In California, more than half of the 75,000 people deported under the program since it began in 2009 had no criminal history or had only misdemeanor convictions for minor offenses such as street vending or violating traffic laws.

Under the new policy, local law enforcement will still continue to send the fingerprints of those arrested to U.S. immigration officials. But now, detainers will be issued only on immigrants arrested for or previously convicted of serious offenses.

No doubt the administration's decision reflects mounting opposition from law enforcement and local officials from Massachusetts to California. Just last month, state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris issued a legal directive that granted local police the discretion to rebuff federal requests in cases involving immigrants arrested for minor offenses.

The administration's new policy will also help assuage the growing concerns raised by law enforcement agencies, including Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who says that programs such as Secure Communities increasingly require police to behave as if they were immigration agents. That may do more harm than good, because it ultimately has a chilling effect on immigrants' willingness to report crime or assist authorities.

The Obama administration has repeatedly said it must use limited federal resources wisely, to make neighborhoods safer by deporting those who truly pose a danger. Its new policy goes a long way toward that goal.

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