Secure Communities Program Makes Communities Less Secure

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Earlier today, the ACLU of Washington joined a number of allies in the immigrant rights community, including El Comite Pro-Reforma Migratoria and CASA Latina, at a press conference in opposition to the ever-expanding Secure Communities (S Comm) program.  The press conference was a response to the federal government's move last week, with very little fanfare or publicity, to activate the program for all counties in Washington.

Here's why that's bad news for every community in Washington.  While S Comm is supposedly about protecting community safety, what it really does is the opposite – increase local communities' distrust of law enforcement, encourage racial profiling, and undermine basic due process protections.  The program operates by running every single person arrested in Washington through an incomplete and error-ridden federal database – resulting in some people being flagged, detained, and turned over to the feds even if they committed no crime.  Even worse, the feds are now forcing the program on all Washington counties with no public process, and after a period of years during which local governments had been assured that they didn't have to opt into the program (only a handful in the statechose to do so).

Throughout the ACLU's work on police accountability, one issue that keeps coming up over and over is the fact that the police cannot do their jobs without the trust of the communities they serve.  But S Comm turns local cops into de facto immigration agents, and this will now be true even if the local police department themselves don't want to be seen as such.  Immigrant communities and communities of color, including many legal US citizens and permanent residents, will now hesitate to work with the police, leading to less secure communities, not more.

The program also invites racial profiling, as was documented in an excellent report from a UC Berkeley Law professor, Aarti Kohli, last year.  As she points out, S Comm operates at the pretrial level, meaning that an individual could be detained and turned over to the feds even if he or she did not commit the crime for which the arrest was supposedly made.  This gives law enforcement a perverse incentive to make more stops of those whom the police believe are undocumented (most likely Latinos), even if there is no basis for that belief, because the individual could be detained whether or not they commited any crime.  We have enough racial profiling already – let's not open that door even wider.

And last year's report and other data also show severe due process deficiencies with the S Comm program, including lower representation rates, lower rates of relief, and higher rates of detention for people coming through the program, as opposed to those in the broader immigration system.  The real kicker, though, is that a significant percentage of people snared by the program have a US citizen spouse or child, meaning this program is also tearing American families and communities apart.

It's time to stop blowing our tax dollars on a program that can't be fixed, despite the piecemeal reforms the feds have periodically announced (another round of changes will likely be announced shortly by the Department of Homeland Security).  The truth is that the whole premise of S Comm – that local police can enforce federal immigration laws – is fundamentally flawed.  It's time to stop the tinkering.  DHS and the feds need to end this program, not mend it.