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Hispanic Caucus calls on Obama to freeze controversial immigration enforcement program

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Thursday asked President Obama to freeze the controversial immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities -- one day after the state of Illinois attempted to terminate its participation agreement and pull out altogether.

The actions are the latest in mounting attempts to pressure Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, its parent, to examine the program. Launched in 2008, Secure Communities purports to target “convicted serious criminals” here illegally for deportation but has ensnared many undocumented immigrants who were arrested but never charged with a crime or charged with minor offenses.

Meanwhile, a California bill is moving through the Legislature that would demand that the state modify its agreement and, if ICE refuses, withdraw altogether as Illinois did.  But questions remain over whether federal officials will allow either Illinois or California to end their participation.

After telling local and state governments repeatedly that the program was voluntary, Homeland Security officials now contend that participation is mandatory and that local and state buy-in is not required.

Under the Secure Communities program, fingerprint data collected at local jails and sent to the FBI for criminal background checks is forwarded to ICE for immigration scans. Federal officials said Thursday that they will continue to run immigration checks on Illinois’ data despite that state's efforts to withdraw.

But in a statement released Thursday, ICE Press Secretary Barbara Gonzalez said the agency “is conducting a top to bottom statistical analysis of Secure Communities data to identify any irregularities that could indicate misconduct in particular jurisdictions so that we can immediately initiate corrective actions.” Gonzalez said ICE is “also exploring ways to address concerns with the program so that it continues to focus on individuals who have broken criminal laws.”

ICE Director John Morton planned to travel to Springfield, Ill., Friday to meet with officials there, she said.

In seeking the freeze on the program -- and backing Illinois’ attempt to pull out -- members of the Hispanic Caucus on Thursday expressed support for Obama’s efforts to “strengthen national security and public safety,” but said, “neither of these goals are served or advanced by the [Secure Communities] policy in its current form.”

“Evidence reveals not only a striking dissonance between the program’s stated purpose of removing dangerous criminals and its actual effect; it also suggests that [Secure Communities] may endanger the public, particularly among communities of color,” the letter continued.

Illinois and California are among 41 states that have signed “memorandums of agreements” – complete with termination clauses – to launch the program in local jurisdictions. All California counties have been "activated."

Most local governments and states have endorsed the notion of prioritizing serious convicted criminals for deportation, but a number have expressed concerns with the program in recent months since ICE data revealed that more than half of those targeted for deportation were arrested but never charged with a crime, or charged with minor infractions.

As a result, some local law enforcement leaders say that the program is discouraging crime victims or witnesses in immigrant communities from cooperating with police investigations.

San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are among those that have sought unsuccessfully to opt out of Secure Communities. Washington state has also refused to sign up and Washington, D.C., terminated its contract -- a move that ICE later said it allowed only as a courtesy.

Backers of the identification program say it replaces ad hoc enforcement efforts and point out that it has led to the largest ever number of deportations of convicted serious criminals.

On Wednesday, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn notified ICE officials that his state "will play no role in Secure Communities, either actively or as a pass-through for information." In activating the agreement’s  termination clause, the letters from Quinn and Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau said, "No new counties in Illinois can be activated, and those counties that were previously activated for their information to pass through ISP to ICE, must be deactivated and removed from the Secure Communities program."

But the move is unlikely to settle the matter, casting more confusion over a program that has been plagued by miscommunication. U.S. Rep Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) last week demanded an investigation into what she called intentional efforts by ICE and Homeland Security officials to mislead local and state governments as well as members of Congress about whether Secure Communities was voluntary and who it would target.

The Department of Homeland Security now asserts that the states’ “memorandums of agreement” are merely educational and that the program will be implemented nationwide by 2013 regardless of opposition. No local or state buy-in is needed, they say, because Secure Communities is an "information sharing program between two federal agencies."

The outcome could impact California, where a pending bill would require modifications to its agreement with ICE to apply the program only to those individuals convicted of serious crimes. The bill also contains protections for juveniles and domestic violence victims and would make local participation optional. If ICE declines the modifications, the bill calls for termination of the agreement.

Like the backers of the California bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), Illinois officials believe their agreement – which contains similar termination and modification clauses - is a binding contract and that their withdrawal is legally valid.

“They cannot make law by fiat, and they can't rule by decree,” Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said of ICE. “Courts and Congress determine scope of their enforcement authority.”

Newman added that “contracts are contracts, not courtesies.”
 
-- Lee Romney

 
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