July 5, 2011 By David Raths
Can state and local governments opt out of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) controversial Secure Communities program?
The question seems straightforward enough. Yet more than two years after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials launched the fingerprint-sharing program, some local government officials are still confused about their rights to opt out.
Secure Communities is an automated fingerprint data-sharing program between local law enforcement offices and federal immigration enforcement agencies. Despite recent DHS claims that the program is mandatory, many elected officials refuse to participate and continue to ask for an out. Most recently, Providence, R.I., Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare asked the federal government to excuse his city from the program. One month later, Pare told the Providence Journal that he was still waiting for a response.
Christopher Zimmerman, board chairman of Arlington County, Va., said the DHS “has had difficulty giving us straight answers. One official would say this is a voluntary program for local communities, while another was saying they were working to make it mandatory.”
Whether or not the program is eventually deemed successful at removing the most dangerous criminal aliens from the United States, the DHS has had trouble with the intergovernmental and public information aspect of rolling it out. ICE public information officials failed to respond to requests for more information by Government Technology’s deadline.
Internal DHS e-mails released in February 2011 following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Center for Constitutional Rights and Cardozo Immigration Justice Clinic show disagreement within the agency about whether state and local governments could refuse to participate. And in a September 2010 letter to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano described how local agencies could choose “not to be activated in the Secure Communities deployment plan.” Yet ICE officials later explained that communities could only opt out of receiving detained immigrant information from ICE, but not from sharing it. Since the program was launched in 2008, several U.S. communities with large immigrant populations, including Washington, D.C.; Arlington County; and Santa Clara, Calif.; have sought to opt out fearing the program would be used to deport individuals with minor offenses, or none at all, and that it would involve local officials in immigration enforcement.
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