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Secure Communities' documents show immigration officials misled public, judge says

August 18, 2011 | 11:40 am

Protesters with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) hold signs as they march during a demonstration on Aug. 15 in Los Angeles

Hundreds of documents on a controversial immigration enforcement program that a federal court judge said should be made public despite their potential for “embarrassing” immigration officials were released this week.

“There is ample evidence that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] have gone out of their way to mislead the public about Secure Communities,” U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin wrote in an opinion on the release of the documents. “In particular, these agencies have failed to acknowledge a shift in policy when it is patently obvious -– from public documents and statements –- that there has been one.”

The documents show immigration officials struggling with whether the Secure Communities program is voluntary or mandatory for state and local agencies and changing its messaging to the public after some localities tried to opt out of the program. The U.S. Homeland Security fingerprint-sharing program uses prints collected by state and local police to help immigration authorities identify and deport tens of thousands of people each year.

The new revelations come as organized opposition to the program steps up with several protests around the country in the last few days. It also comes just weeks after U.S. Homeland Security told governors that the program did not need their approval to operate and that it was voiding agreements signed to authorize their states' participation.

The documents were released as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. 

One document, titled “Updated Messaging for Secure Communities” and dated Sept. 24, 2010, outlines how the agency changed the way the program was presented to the public two years after it started. The changes include “less emphasis on partnering and collaboration with local law enforcement.” The document also says “emphasis is now on ICE receiving fingerprint matches from federal information sharing, not from the fingerprints submitted by local law enforcement.”

Around that same time the agency seemed to be struggling with whether the program could be considered mandatory. 

In one July 2010 email, officials discuss how they will respond to Gov. Jerry Brown, who is asking whether localities can opt out of the program.

In the email, sent by an ICE employee to Peter Vincent, an agency legal advisor, the employee tells Vincent:

“I believe SC is a voluntary program … as the jurisdiction has to enter into an MOA [memorandum of agreement] with SC before the interoperability (ability to bounce criminals’ fingerprints off our databases) is turned on.” The official also says he doubts whether the state could mandate participation of jurisdictions within its boundaries.

In another email, dated Aug. 6, 2010, an upset Secure Communities employee addresses confusing public messaging about the program:

“We never address whether or not it is mandatory –- the answer is written to sound like it is but doesn’t state it,” the employee writes. “It’s very convoluted –- or is that the point? I’m all about shades of grey but this really is a black and white question…Is it mandatory? Yes or No. Ok, so not such an easy question to answer.”

In another exchange, dated October 2010, between Secure Communities Executive Director David Venturella and Margo Schlanger, U.S. Homeland Security’s officer for civil rights and civil liberties, shows Schlanger repeatedly asking for clarification from Venturella about whether or not states and localities can opt in our out of the program. 

That exchange, which was initially withheld by the agency on the basis that it was a deliberative conversation, was ordered released by the judge.

“There is nothing deliberative or predecisional about the exchange,” wrote Judge Scheindlin. “Instead the exchange reflects a request from one part of the agency for clarification as to what the policy is, met with clearly obfuscating answers from another part of the agency.”


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-- Paloma Esquivel

Photo: Protesters with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) hold signs during a demonstration on Friday in Los Angeles. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images