Federal immigration authorities are refining their controversial Secure Communities deportation program to create better training, oversight and to protect against the deportation of victims and witnesses.
The safeguards come in response to heated criticism from immigrant advocates across the country who say that Secure Communities too often strays from its goal of deporting the most dangerous criminals. Some law enforcement officials worry about the damage that the program does to their relationship with immigrants.
Secure Communities taps local and state jails into federal databases, cross-checking arrestees’ fingerprints to better identify removable immigrants.
Since its inception in 2009, it has spread to more than 1,400 municipal and county jurisdictions across the country. Montgomery County and Baltimore City are the only Maryland jurisdictions in which it has not been implemented. It will take effect in Montgomery on Sept. 27. It is expected to go nationwide by 2013.
Primary among the reforms announced on Friday:
- Measures to “ensure” that victims and witnesses are not deported as a result of reporting a crime;
- Creation of a Secure Communities advisory committee that will craft a report within 45 days, advising U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on how best to focus Secure Communities on immigrants who pose a "true public safety or national security threat" while stopping deportations of people charged with minor traffic offenses who have no criminal history or "egregious immigration violations." The committee will consist of police chiefs, sheriffs, state and local prosecutors, court officials, ICE field agents and community and immigration advocates;
- New training to better familiarize local and state law enforcement with Secure Communities;
- Guidelines along which ICE attorneys and immigration officials can exercise discretion on whether or not to deport an illegal immigrant, including: their lack of a criminal record; being the sole caretaker of children, elderly or the infirm; their level of education in the U.S.; active military; and those who were brought into the country at a young age.
In Montgomery County, immigrant advocates and some County Councilmembers tried to resist its implementation. ICE’s latest reforms have eased some but not all of their doubts.
"It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m not 100 percent sure that this goes far enough,” said Councilwoman Nancy Navarro, who led the push against Secure Communities in Montgomery County. "I’m just concerned that these are issues that should have been considered when the program began."
Though the concerns remain, the council is not at the point of asking the county to decline participation—as a handful of other jurisdictions have—as long as it focuses on dangerous criminals, not people whose only transgression is that they don’t have legal presence.
"Our main concern is that if we’re prioritizing to make sure that people who are a menace to our society are the ones we are deporting," said Councilman Craig Rice of Germantown. "But not people who are raising a family and who work and do the right kinds of things. That doesn’t need to be our priority in terms of deportation. That person shouldn’t be prioritized above the criminals that are out on the street."