Colorado joins ICE’s Secure Communities program, prompting Polis to label it ‘draconian’

Gov. Bill Ritter Monday signed an executive order for Colorado to participate in the controversial federal Secure Communities program.

The program, which operates through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), is now in place in 35 states. Started by President George W. Bush in 2008, the program may be mandatory in all states by 2013. Governor-elect John Hickenlooper says he supports the measure.

Secure Communities enables law enforcement agencies to more easily share information about suspected illegal immigrants who have been arrested. When someone is arrested and booked, and their fingerprints are entered into a federal database, the arresting agency should then receive information related to that person’s residency status and also any information with regards to a person’s prior criminal record.

“Secure Communities is an effective law enforcement tool that will fill a gap in state, local and federal enforcement and help us overcome well-recognized challenges in our public safety network,” Ritter said in a prepared statement. “My office has worked closely with stakeholders and the federal government over the past few months to address Colorado-specific concerns and modify the standard Secure Communities agreement. This means increased reporting, additional data reviews and greater transparency and accountability to ensure Secure Communities is implemented in Colorado in a balanced, fair and effective manner.”

Ritter’s office said ICE will provide Colorado with quarterly reports and statistics so the state can assess how the program is working. The agreement also acknowledges the unique status of domestic violence victims and witnesses under Colorado law. “These Colorado-specific modifications have allowed us to contribute to the national dialogue to improve Secure Communities so it’s better for Colorado today and for the rest of the country when it becomes mandatory in two years,” Gov. Ritter said.

ICE also agreed that those arrested for domestic violence will not be entered into the system until they are convicted. Ritter’s concern was that people might be less likely to report domestic violence if they thought the perpetrator would be subject to deportation.

“This measure is intended to remove dangerous people from our communities. As long as there is no profiling, and as long as the program is implemented properly, our communities will be safer and the rights of our citizens will be protected,” Hickenlooper said via email. “We will help make this happen by working with ICE, the state Department of Public Safety, local law enforcement and counties that participate in the program.”

Second District Congressman Jared Polis, though, referred to Secure Communities as “draconian” and blasted Ritter’s decision.

“I am incredibly disappointed with Gov. Ritter’s decision to sign a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and to bring the so-called Secure Communities program to Colorado. Immigrant, law enforcement and domestic violence advocacy groups throughout our state have repeatedly expressed their deep reservations about the potential impact of the Program and its ability to meet its stated goals,” he said in a press release.

“Compared to the standard agreement used by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) nationwide, Colorado’s version will give the incompetent ICE agency even greater latitude than other states, while at the same time requiring a lesser degree of accountability. Under Ritter’s agreement, Secure Communities will no longer have the explicit goal of removing serious criminals; instead, ICE will be given the authority to remove anyone with impunity in Colorado, regardless of their level of criminality or finality of conviction. This MOA will result in an increase in crime and tear apart the fabric of our communities. In order to truly fix our broken immigration system we must stop pursuing flawed enforcement-only approaches such as Secure Communities and pass comprehensive reform to meet the security and economic needs of our nation.”

Reached by telephone Tuesday, Polis said “I consistently tried to discourage Governor Ritter from participating in this terrible program. This does nothing to fix the immigration situation and it will lead to an increase in crime.”

He said the increase in crime will be caused by a decrease in trust between police and immigrants. “Trust is broken with programs like this,” he said.

Polis said there are more than 15 million illegal immigrants in the country now and that Secure Communities does nothing to address that situation. “We need comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. We don’t need flawed programs like this.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, 59,000 arrests were made in the first nine months of 2010 as a result of Secure Communities. Of those, 21,000 were for major violent crimes.

Michele Waslin, senior policy analyst at the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said by phone “Many of the people ICE deports as a result of this program have no criminal record at all and in other cases they are not the violent criminals ICE makes them out to be.”

The Washington Post reported last month that 45 percent of those deported as a result of the program had not been convicted of any crime. ICE argues that in some cases that is because people were deported instead of being held for trial.

Seventh District Congressman Ed Perlmutter issued a statement this morning in support of Ritter’s decision.

“Secure Communities will help protect our neighborhoods and is a step in the right direction towards fixing our current immigration policy. This program will provide Colorado law enforcement officials with the tools they need to identify and remove illegal immigrants who committed serious crimes. The Memorandum of Understanding Gov. Ritter negotiated with ICE addresses civil rights and confidentiality concerns brought forth by various groups while ensuring those with a criminal history are caught and deported if warranted.

Secure Communities does not replace the need to enact comprehensive immigration reform. I continue to call on Congress and the President to move forward to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

Contacted by phone, SOMOS Republicans political director Alex Gonzales, said his group supports Secure Communities.

“We are for Secure Communities because it focuses on the criminal element of the undocumented… such as gang members, murderers, drug dealers.”

DeeDee Garcia Blase, president of SOMOS Republicans, which has been very outspoken in its opposition to Arizona’s SB 1070 and in opposing efforts to pass similar legislation in Colorado and elsewhere, said her group is comprised of “hard working” Latinos and has no problem with efforts to crack down on law breakers.

From Ritter’s press release:

Under Secure Communities, when a person is arrested and booked into county jail, their fingerprints will be sent through the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to the FBI Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Fingerprints submitted by CBI to the FBI will be simultaneously checked against both the FBI criminal history records and ICE’s immigration records.

If there is a “hit,” meaning that the arrested person is matched to a record indicating an immigration contact, an automated message will be returned to the local agency, CBI, and ICE. ICE, in partnership with the local agency, will evaluate each case to determine if enforcement action is needed and whether it has the resources to process the case.

If ICE wishes to proceed, it will issue a detainer on the individual. ICE and local law enforcement will give top priority to individuals who pose the greatest threat to Colorado public safety, such as those with prior convictions for major drug offenses, murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping.

While the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and County Sheriffs of Colorado support the measure, not all police chiefs are sold. Here, Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor talks with the Pueblo Chieftain in November:

Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor said he is ambivalent about participating in the program.

When local law enforcement learns in the course of an investigation that someone is in the country illegally, that information is reported to the state and is available to ICE, he said. “I don’t see how Secure Communities is so different from what we’re doing now.”

An argument against participation, Kirk said, is that the program places additional costs on counties and municipalities for housing inmates beyond their normal stays in jail.

“Unfunded mandates are what the federal government is infamous for,” he said. “I’m opposed to any unfunded mandate that lands on the taxpayers of Pueblo County. Anything that deals with the population of our jail that is outside of our control, I’m philosophically opposed to.”

A study of the program conducted by the Immigration Policy Center found that relatively few of the people fingerprinted under the program end up being arrested on charges (other than the charge the person is currently being held for). The study also noted that while there are safeguards to prevent racial profiling “…experience has demonstrated that once such immigration programs are put into place, the liklihood of pretextual arrests increases, as police seek to expand the universe of individuals to be screened.”

In New York, a judge has ordered ICE to make public a host of documents related to the program, but ICE has so far refused. The judge in December set January 17 as a new deadline for document release.

From the website of the plaintiff in that case:

The National Day Laborer Organization (NDLON), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (FOIA), for information pertaining to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) new Secure Communities program.

The program, launched in March 2008, further involves state and local entities in the enforcement of federal immigration law. Secure Communities institutes a mechanism to run fingerprints through various databases when individuals are arrested – even for minor charges or if charges are dismissed. These checks are performed on presumptively innocent arrestees prior to conviction, raising serious doubts as to the program’s true objectives. Although ICE presents Secure Communities as an innocuous information sharing program, it seems designed to function as a dragnet to funnel even more people into the already mismanaged ICE detention and removal system. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Securities Communities has been implemented in at least 574 jurisdictions and 30 states as of August 31, 2010. However, no regulations have been promulgated and little information is available about the program in the public domain. The limited information that has been released is vague and seems to indicate that ICE is not executing its stated enforcement priorities.

The fact that Ritter has agreed that the state will participate in the program does not mean, at this time, that any particular county has to participate.

A spokesperson for Ritter said that counties that want to participate need to contact ICE.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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