The Obama administration announced last month plans to repair Secure Communities, the program that compels state and local police to join its wide and expanding hunt for illegal immigrants. From now on, when illegal immigrants are stopped for traffic violations by local police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will consider detaining and deporting them only after they have been convicted, not before.
In theory, this minor policy shift could reduce the number of people arrested on a pretext and held for deportation. But that’s unlikely. And it doesn’t fix the fundamental flaws in a discredited program.
The administration has faced fierce criticism from law-enforcement officials and immigrant advocates for ensnaring far too many minor offenders and noncriminals as it has rapidly expanded Secure Communities and ramped up deportations to a record pace of 400,000 a year. It contends that most are criminals, though that still includes many minor offenders.
Last June, the leader of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, issued memos directing officials to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” — to refrain from pursuing people who pose no threat to public safety or national security. To clear up clogged immigration courts, the administration announced in November that it would review the backlog of about 300,000 pending deportation cases to see if discretion could apply to low-priority cases there as well. But its promises have not led to any significant change. As of last month, ICE had reviewed nearly 228,000 cases and closed only about 3,000 of them.
That’s the problem with “discretion” and Secure Communities — as long as the government outsources the initial decision on whom to stop and pull over to local police officers, many of them poorly trained and supervised, the danger of harassment continues. Trust is eroded in immigrant communities when people are too fearful to report crimes and cooperate with the police. That flaw is not going to be fixed by tweaking the detention policy.
It’s telling that the policy change on traffic offenses came just two days after the oral argument in the Supreme Court on Arizona’s abusive immigration law. Paul Clement, the attorney arguing for Arizona, aptly pointed out a contradiction in the Obama administration’s challenge to the law: “The federal government doesn’t like this statute, but they are very proud of their Secure Communities program.” The administration is trying to have it both ways, attacking local crackdowns on defenseless immigrants while entangling state and local police in the same cruel mission.