Secure Communities investigation planned

Salvador Santoya Juarez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico answers questions from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer Scott Hamelin. After Santoya was stopped for a traffic violation by Escondido Police, an ICE agent was called to the scene. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

As Denver’s mayoral candidates address the contentious issue of how fully Denver should participate in Secure Communities, a federal agency announces a major study of the program–to determine its effectiveness, fairness and cost.

From The Los Angeles Times:

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General plans an investigation of an immigration enforcement program that purports to target “serious convicted felons” for deportation but has ensnared many illegal immigrants who were arrested but not subsequently convicted of crimes or who committed minor offenses, a letter obtained Wednesday shows.

The letter from acting Inspector General Charles K. Edwards to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who requested an investigation late last month, said the watchdog agency had already scheduled a review of the program, known as Secure Communities. Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency launched the program in 2008 with plans for mandatory nationwide participation by 2013.

The review, Edwards wrote, aims to “determine the extent to which ICE uses the program to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens from the United States.”

It will also examine cost, “the accuracy of ICE’s data collection,” whether the program is being applied equitably across communities, and the way ICE officials portrayed the program to states and counties, which were initially told they could opt out but were later informed that participation has always been mandatory.

Secure Communities has always been controversial in Colorado, and for all the same reasons it is controversial in California and elsewhere.

The program requires local law enforcement agencies to share the fingerprints of all arrested illegal immigrants with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is supposed to allow ICE to determine when someone currently being held on any charge has a criminal record so that such people can be deported. The controversy stems from the fact that often those deported are guilty of only minor offenses and the fact that knowing any contact with law enforcement can lead to deportation may cause undocumented immigrants not to report crimes or cooperate with police investigating crimes. Opponents say it can also lead to racial profiling.

The Legislature this year failed to pass a measure that would have made it very difficult for counties not to participate in the program.

In the Denver mayor’s race, Chris Romer recently signed a pledge saying he would not participate in Secure Communities without changes. He challenged Michael Hancock to sign the same pledge. Hancock refused.

The pledge reads:

“As a matter of health, safety and to avoid racial profiling and human rights abuses in Denver we, the 2011 mayoral candidates, commit that we will reject the implementation of the Secure Communities program in Denver as currently mandated with the singular exception of those undocumented residents that have a felony conviction.”

Hancock released this statement:

Secure Communities: Denver is one of several communities piloting the federal government’s Secure Communities initiative, which will be mandatory in all states in two years. Michael supports Secure Communities and as Mayor will ensure it is administered in a fair and just manner, that it targets violent criminals, and does not contribute to racial and ethnic profiling. He will work to establish clear protocols for domestic violence victims so that they can go to law enforcement for help without fear of retribution and he will call for mandatory training and education for our public safety officers to make certain that the program is applied impartially and transparently.

From The Los Angeles Times:

When federal officials first announced the Secure Communities program in 2008, they billed it as a powerful tool in the battle to identify and deport illegal immigrants who had been convicted of violent crimes. Dozens of states, including California, signed on, agreeing that police would submit the fingerprints of all arrestees to be checked against federal databases for criminal convictions and deportation orders.

But the program, once billed as a voluntary partnership between the Department of Homeland Security and localities, is now mired in controversy. The government is investigating whether it has failed to nab dangerous criminals and has instead been used to target low-level nonviolent offenders. Since its launch, more than half of those deported under Secure Communities had minor or no criminal convictions, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. In Los Angeles County, for example, nearly half of the 11,774 deported under the program from August 2009 to January 2011 had no convictions or had committed misdemeanors. They were targeted for deportation because the program doesn’t distinguish between criminals and those who illegally entered the U.S. or overstayed a visa — a civil violation.

What’s more, in some cities with large immigrant communities, police are concerned that their participation in the program will have a chilling effect on immigrants’ willingness to report crimes or provide useful information.

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.