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Secure Communities Program: The Concerns

Despite its best intentions, ICE’s Secure Communities program remains controversial. Part two of a three-part series.

The aim of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Secure Communities program is simple: to activate local law enforcement officers as force multipliers for federal immigration enforcement, helping to remove illegal immigrants who are also dangerous criminals from the United States. This would appear to be an aim that any American could support – but support for the program has been eroding. Several congressional groups – the Hispanic Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, and the Los Angeles Congressional Delegation – have called for a moratorium, and U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has asked the Department of Homeland Security inspector general to investigate “false and misleading statements to local governments, the public, and Members of Congress in connection with the deployment of the Secure Communities program.”

Critics of ICE’s deployment of the program focus on a few common issues:

  • ICE’s prioritization of cases. While a stated goal of ICE is to focus on the most dangerous criminals among those detained under the Secure Communities program, raw statistics throw some doubt on whether results reflect that priority: of the illegal immigrants deported in the first half of 2011, about 25 percent had been convicted of Level 1 crimes; 18 percent Level 2 crimes; 26 percent Level 3 crimes, and 32 percent were classified as “non-criminal” – they had been charged, but not convicted, of crimes.

These statistics have led critics to denounce the programs as a dragnet designed simply to funnel illegal immigrants into ICE’s detention and removal system, but to Jessica Vaughan, it doesn’t make much sense to expect ICE to only deport murderers – or not to deport illegal immigrants who have been arrested for crimes. “I think it’s fair to say that the general public supports immigration law enforcement in general for everyone who is here illegally,” she said, “not just people who commit other crimes.”

  • Effects on Community Policing. Still, the deportation of large numbers of illegal immigrants who fall into the “non-criminal” category reinforces the “dragnet” theory enough to raise concerns about people’s willingness to communicate with law enforcement officers if they are seen, essentially, as immigration officers. “In immigrant communities there’s a whole range of legal status,” said Graber. “But [the program] makes many in immigrant communities, including the citizens among them, feel much more tentative about contacting the police.”

In fact, a few dramatic examples have been reported – for example, here (, here (, and here ( – in which victims of domestic violence have sought protection from local authorities, only to end up in federal custody – and in some cases, subjected to the deportation process.

Vaughan points out that such cases are not only rare, but usually more complicated than they are reported in the media – for example, Maria Bolanos, a domestic violence victim who was deported from Prince George County, Md., was also a fugitive from a previous removal order, and was arrested for illegally selling phone cards (the charges were later dropped). Vaughan also points out that being detained by ICE and having one’s status verified does not necessarily lead to deportation – and in fact, having one’s status discovered can be a benefit for a victim of domestic violence, who can then apply for the U visa ( that gives certain crime victims temporary legal resident status.

  • Clarity, oversight, and accountability. Some of the more serious charges against the program – for example, that in its first year, Secure Communities misidentified about 5,800 U.S. citizens as illegal immigrants – often sound more dramatic than they are. As Vaughan points out, the citizens screened likely had their fingerprints entered into the system before they were naturalized. No U.S. citizen has been mistakenly deported so far under the program.

“A lot of people have this idea that if you are a match then there is some kind of trap door to deportation,” Vaughan said. “In fact, the matches are reviewed first by an ICE technician at the Law Enforcement Support Center, which reviews all the requests, then by the local ICE field office agents. These people decide if the case is appropriate for further action. They do not act on every match, or even on every person determined to be here illegally.”

Still, it’s fair to say that a U.S. citizen should not have to be held for up to 48 hours because of a clerical error. Complaints about a lack of oversight over the implementation of Secure Communities, about unnecessary detentions, and about a lack of complaint mechanisms for those who believe they have been mistakenly detained can be traced at least in part on unclear or incomplete communications from DHS. Vaughan sees Secure Communities as a “public relations problem for ICE – but I don’t think it’s a public safety problem at all … and It’s kind of a self-inflicted problem, because ICE does not really explain itself well.”

By mid-June, 2011, ICE’s public relations problem had become bad enough that it released set of clearer guidelines for the implementation of the Secure Communities program.

Part One – Secure Communities Program: Mandatory or Voluntary?

Part Three – Secure Communities Program: Course Corrections


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...