The Department of Homeland Security has continued its effort to have the Secure Communities program up and running in all jails across the country. Secure Communities is a program designed to identify immigrants in U.S. jails who are deportable under immigration law. Under Secure Communities, participating jails submit arrestees’ fingerprints not only to criminal databases, but to immigration databases as well; allowing ICE access to information on individuals held in jails. Some jurisdictions, however, are seeking to opt out of the program—citing that Secure Communities conflicts with existing policies.

IPC and other organizations have documented the problems associated with the Secure Communities program: the failure to prioritize serious or violent criminals, the obstacles to community policing, the potential for racial profiling and pretextual arrests. According to ICE’s deployment plan, Secure Communities is already available in 169 jurisdictions in 20 states, and ICE continues to deploy it in additional locations.

Some jurisdictions, however, are beginning to question whether the program is right for them. Recently, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey sent a letter to the California Attorney General requesting that the state not share the city’s fingerprints with federal immigration authorities. San Francisco already has a policy of sharing information with ICE when the arrestee is charged with a felony. But Secure Communities would send the fingerprints of all arrestees (including US citizens) who are booked into jail regardless of the charges and regardless of the ultimate resolution of the case.

Earlier this month a bill was introduced in the Washington, D.C. City Council that would block Secure Communities from being implemented in the district. Bill sponsor Councilman Phil Mendelson stated, “The Metropolitan Police Department has its hands full dealing with violent crimes in the District, and the issue of immigration is not the MPD’s responsibility.”

It is likely that other cities and other law enforcement agencies will also oppose the Secure Communities program. However, the process for opting out remains somewhat murky. Unlike the 287(g) program, Secure Communities does not require a Memoranda of Agreement (MOAs) with local law-enforcement agencies. Rather, MOAs between DHS and state identification bureaus are necessary because it is the state that sends all fingerprints to federal agencies. California already has an MOA with DHS, so it is unclear how or if San Francisco could opt out. According to one report:

California ICE officials said the agency had an agreement with the state to check all fingerprints forwarded to the attorney general’s office. Jurisdictions could opt not to receive the results of the immigration status checks, but all fingerprint information would still be provided to ICE, said agency spokeswoman Lori Haley.

This also raises questions about whether local law-enforcement agencies may already be unknowingly submitting fingerprints to Secure Communities through the state agency.

Given ICE’s stated intention to eventually install the system in all state and local detention facilities nationwide, and given the fact that DHS signs MOAs with the states, it is unclear how those local jurisdictions that want to opt out will be able to do so. Thus Secure Communities raises serious questions about the relationship between federal and local law-enforcement agencies, and about a local community’s ability to weigh in on important decisions affecting the entire community.

Photo by Derek K. Miller.