Secure Communities

Secure Communities is a government program instituted by the Department of Homeland Security that encourages interaction between state and local authorities, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in order to increase the efficacy of immigration enforcement and dedicate the highest priority to criminal aliens who pose the largest threat to public safety. DHS hopes that the program will optimize ICE’s use of the limited funds appropriated each year for immigration purposes.

In theory, Secure Communities should not place any greater burden on local law enforcement, but rather should rely on existing information-sharing systems. State and local authorities regularly submit the fingerprints of those they arrest to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in order to check for a criminal background. Secure Communities utilizes this system by requiring the FBI to immediately forward the prints on to ICE. ICE then runs the prints through their databases to see the immigration status of the arrestee and to see if (s)he has ever come into contact with ICE before. If the system finds a match for the arrested individual and (s)he is unlawfully present or otherwise removable, ICE then should prioritize removal based on the determination of which individuals pose the greatest threat to public safety as determined by the severity of their crimes.

In making a determination of removability, ICE takes several factors into consideration including: the person’s criminal history, immigration history (e.g. previous orders of removal, etc.), family ties to the U.S., duration of stay, serious medical issues, etc. In cases involving minor crimes, ICE will often offer the person the option of voluntary departure. In such cases, the person must return to his or her country of origin at no cost to the United States government, but is not barred from returning to the U.S. legally in the future (if ordered removed, also known as deportation, the person is barred from reentering the United States for ten years).

It is important to note, however, that the immigration judicial process remains separate from the criminal judicial process. This means that while a person may be found innocent of the crime for which (s)he was arrested, (s)he could still be deported if ICE determines that (s)he violated immigration law. The Secure Communities program does not actually require that the arrested person be convicted of the crime for which (s)he was taken into custody, merely that (s)he is removable pursuant to the regulations set forth in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).[1]

This leads many critics of the program to be wary of ICE’s supposed dedication to prioritizing deportations. Fingerprint checks are run through the system at the time of arrest, not the time of conviction. To critics this process seems to undermine the purpose of Secure Communities because it does not provide for the detention and deportation of the most violent criminals, but rather anyone who happens to come into contact with the law. This tendency leads many to worry that the program will do more harm than good.

The Secure Communities program also raises concerns of racial profiling. Many worry that because there is no practical punishment in place for officers who abuse the system, people may begin to take advantage of it, making unwarranted or “discretionary” arrests based on race, simply to question an individual’s immigration background and put him or her into the immigration system.

[1] See Secure Communities for more information.