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Secure Communities Turns Immigrants into Criminals

Sarahi Uribe

New America Media

This month the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) celebrated one year of Secure Communities. The program, which checks the immigration status of detainees in jails by comparing their booking information to DHS’ databases, is dangerously misnamed since it actually endangers rather than improves community security.

In its press release, DHS gloated that it “identified more than 111,000 criminal aliens in local custody during its first year.” The department hailed the program as an effective way of deporting “dangerous criminals that pose a threat to public security.” So who are these alleged criminals?

A closer look reveals the program’s first fallacy: DHS includes people simply “charged” with a crime in its definition of “criminal aliens.” People are labeled criminals before they are given a chance to defend themselves in court. A cornerstone of our criminal system is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Yet under Secure Communities, people are put into deportation proceedings even if they are innocent of criminal charges or if the arrest was simply a pretext to check a person’s immigration status.

The lack of due process sets the stage for racial profiling without any real consequences for abusive police agents. DHS maintains that since immigration checks happen electronically, the program is virtually immune to racial profiling. Consequently, DHS does not collect data that would reveal whether racial profiling is happening. The attempt to divorce police officers’ motivations for arresting individuals and DHS’ subsequent actions after the booking phase makes no sense. As the program is currently designed, a police officer can make a pre-textual arrest and later drop the charges, but an individual can still be placed into deportation proceedings.

The second misrepresentation of the program is found in DHS’s definition of “serious crimes.” The Department highlights that 100,000 of those identifies were convicted of level 2 and 3 crimes, “including burglary and serious property crimes.” What DHS omits is that while “arson” is a level 2 offense, so are “traffic offenses.” If the controversial 287(g) program which fervently targeted people with “broken tail-lights,” is any indicator, Secure Communities is a strategy for deporting anyone DHS can get its hands on—even law-abiding people who could be months away from adjusting their immigration status.

Essentially, DHS’ message is this: Being an immigrant makes you a criminal. This dangerous conflation not only promotes abusive policing practices, such as racial profiling, but also creates divisions and distrust in communities. It hurts public safety because immigrant communities are less likely to report crimes or cooperate with police for fear of deportation. It also disturbingly dehumanizes people who are an integral part of our communities and our national identity.

Last week Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano spoke about the need for immigration reform while trumpeting the successes of Secure Communities and other enforcement programs. But if the word “criminal” can replace “immigrant,” then her declaration that “We are a nation of immigrants” rings hollow.

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