The misnamed Secure Communities program appears to be a nothing but smoke and mirrors—a federal program operating without adequate supervision or safeguards. The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking information on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) signature immigration enforcement program. The government documents NILC obtained show that ICE’s public statements about the Secure Communities program do not reflect what goes on behind closed doors.

ICE has always represented to the public that participation in Secure Communities is predicated on a formal agreement between ICE and each state. But in a December 2008 Secure Communities weekly report, ICE admits to negotiating with Pennsylvania to proceed with implementation without requiring the state to sign an agreement and without having notice of a database “hit” go to local agencies. Effectively this means that the program was secretly imposed in Pennsylvania and operated for months before local communities even became aware of it. ICE further notes in the weekly report that it will be pursuing this same approach in other states. And the stealth character of the operation is no insignificant detail. Though the program is going on its third year, ICE has never issued regulations or guidelines for its operation. Indeed, written agreements with the state serve as the only formalization of a program that entangles local police in immigration enforcement and endangers community safety.

According to ICE, the Secure Communities program was designed to catch undocumented immigrants who had committed serious crimes by fingerprinting all those who enter into jails equipped to cross-check prints with ICE databases. Yet, advocates’ fears that Secure Communities is little more than an immigrant-hunting program with a slick name have been proven all-too-justified. Three organizations recently obtained government documents revealing that over a quarter of immigrants caught up in the Secure Communities web have not been convicted of any crime at all.

Despite the documented problems with this program, ICE has stonewalled communities that want to safeguard their own best interests by not participating in Secure Communities. San Francisco, for example, has been compelled to take part despite Sheriff Hennessey’s concern that such a program will damage community safety. ICE’s claim that the program is voluntary is an empty promise.

Indeed, ICE continues to deploy Secure Communities at record pace, all the while remaining secretive about how the program operates. News that Secure Communities had been implemented in every county along the U.S./Mexico border was news even to jail operators in some of those counties.

ICE’s refusal to be transparent about Secure Communities chills meaningful public debate and raises serious concerns about the trajectory of immigration enforcement.

Ultimately, the Obama Administration should scrap the secretive and fatally flawed Secure Communities. We do not need another flawed program designed to work within a broken immigration system, especially not one that operates behind closed doors and without limitations. The public deserves a real solution, not more smoke and mirrors.

Photo by moominmolly.