At a conference last week, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano raised a few eyebrows when she implied those who are fingerprinted through ICE’s Secure Communities program are presumably guilty of a crime—a particular sticking point considering the program’s reputation for sweeping up non-criminals. Although ICE officials claim the program targets criminal aliens, nearly 28% of people deported through the Secure Communities program are actually non-criminals. But that’s just one of the many problems immigrant advocate and community groups are voicing over this rapidly expanding program.

First implemented in 2008, the Secure Communities program shares the fingerprints of anyone booked into jail with DHS immigration databases. ICE may then take action and begin deportation proceedings if there is a “hit” in the system, meaning that the arrested person is matched to a record indicating an immigration violation. Although Secure Communities is currently active in over 1,000 jurisdictions in 40 states, many groups oppose the program due to lack of clear guidance (there is no statute or regulations governing the program), the inability of jurisdictions to opt-out of the program, and the fact that Secure Communities is not targeting serious offenders, as it claims to do.

Advocates, lawmakers, and law enforcement officials in Illinois held a press conference last week denouncing the program and ICE’s efforts to make it mandatory for all jurisdictions, including Cook County, which had refused to participate.  Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that ICE had targeted Cook County and the City of Chicago as a test case to determine whether the program would be mandatory.  ICE would implement the program in the counties surrounding Cook, and put a “ring around” the “resistant site.”

According to the latest ICE statistics, between October 2008 and February 2011, Secure Communities resulted in 1,726 ICE arrests, of which 223 (13%) were immigrants with the most serious (Level 1) crimes. However, more than three-quarters of arrests were of individuals with low level crimes and misdemeanors or no criminal history.  Nearly half of those arrested by ICE (46%) had no criminal history at all.

Another group of lawyers, faith leaders, families, and activists in Ohio held a similar event to protest the Secure Communities program.  Among their messages was that ICE is focusing on the wrong people.  Of 25,909 people fingerprinted by the county in January 2010 through February 2011, federal authorities deported 240 people, and 123 of them had not been convicted of anything, according to ICE records. It included people who had been charged with misdemeanor or felony counts that were never proved or that were dropped.

According to Gary Daniels of the Ohio ACLU, “We’re not talking about people who are truly dangerous criminals. These are people who are getting caught in the dragnet of law enforcement.”

Similar coalitions in states across the U.S.—including North Carolina and Maryland—have come together to put pressure on the federal government, which continues to claim that despite all evidence to the contrary, it prioritizes serious criminals.

DHS needs to be more transparent about this program and be honest with local communities before it imposes Secure Communities on everyone.