Secure Communities Program Draws Criticism in Two States

Elected officials and civil rights advocates in Connecticut and Maryland are voicing objections to the federal Secure Communities program, which became active statewide in both states last Wednesday (February 22). The program, now activated in part or all of 44 states, allows fingerprint and biometric data shared among local and state law enforcement agencies to be forwarded to federal immigration enforcement agencies to identify criminal aliens for deportation after they're arrested for a state or local offense.

The program was promoted by the Obama administration as a voluntary partnership between the states and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), but in January the agency released internal memos revealing that the program is mandatory and will be activated nationwide by the end of 2013. Almost 120,000 convicted criminal aliens have been removed from the U.S. through the Secure Communities program. However, critics point to recent analyses which found that a majority of people deported through the program were minor offenders, including traffic-law violators.

In a report issued last September, a Department of Homeland Security task force made up of representatives from state and local government and law enforcement raised "serious concerns" about the program's design, activation, implementation and unintended negative impact on local communities. Their concerns centered around fears that people would be reluctant to work with law enforcement for fear that they might be deported, thus inhibiting community policing.

The Obama administration has assured states and localities that under the program, "state and local law enforcement officers are not deputized, do not enforce immigration law, and are not tasked with any additional responsibilities."

With the activation of Secure Communities in Baltimore City and Montgomery County, the entire state of Maryland is now participating in the Secure Communities program, to the dismay of local leaders. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was "deeply disappointed" about the program's activation, but acknowledged that the city "plays no role in the implementation of the program and that [she has] no control over ICE's actions."

The Baltimore city council last year passed a resolution condemning the Secure Communities program and asked the Maryland congressional delegation to call for a suspension of the program because it would tend to "promote a culture of fear and discourage trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities throughout the city."

"We're hopeful that Baltimore won't become Alabama," said Elizabeth Alex of the immigrants-rights group Casa de Maryland, at a news conference last week protesting the roll-out of the program in Baltimore. "We don't want to be one of these places where local policies drive away immigrants who make up such an important part of the economic and cultural fabric of our city."

In Connecticut, only Fairfield County had been participating in the program before last week's activation of the other seven counties in the state. Secure Communities was to be activated throughout Connecticut last September, but Governor Dannel Malloy negotiated a delay over concerns that the policy could threaten effective community policing. 

When the program went live on Wednesday, a group of immigrant advocates protested outside the Capitol in Hartford. Malloy has asked that the state Department of Corrections keep a close watch on the program's effects to see if any corrective action is needed. But as Malloy's criminal justice advisor Mike Lawlor told the Boston Globe , "it's not within our power to stop it."

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