SAN DIEGO — President Barack Obama’s over-the-top approach to immigration enforcement – including an overreliance on the harmful program known as Secure Communities – has devastated immigrant communities in the United States.
And it has divided Democrats.
This became clear last year when three Democratic governors – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Pat Quinn of Illinois, and Andrew Cuomo of New York – announced they were pulling out of Secure Communities, only to be informed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that they couldn’t because – despite assurances that the program was optional – participation was mandatory.
The bureaucratic snake oil didn’t end there. In theory, Secure Communities – which acts as a force multiplier because it requires local police to submit to federal authorities the fingerprints of anyone they arrest who they suspect might be in the country illegally (i.e., anyone who looks Latino) – should focus only on serious and violent criminals. But, in practice, ICE wants the program to apply to anyone who is in police custody for any offense. It also wants local authorities to hold confirmed illegal immigrants until federal authorities can pick them up.
This means that any traffic stop of an undocumented nanny or housekeeper, or any case of domestic violence where the victim is taken to the station house and fingerprinted, or any arrest of a street vendor for selling ice cream without a permit could lead to full-blown deportation proceedings. Under Secure Communities, which was launched in 2008, the punishment need not fit the crime; all that matters is that it fits the political agenda of a White House eager to be seen as tough on illegal immigration.
Other Democrats opposed to Secure Communities include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California.
Now the division within the party has spread to California, where the top two statewide officials – both Democrats – are at odds over the program.
State Attorney General Kamala Harris recently told local and state law enforcement agencies that they are free not to comply with Secure Communities. The Los Angeles Police Department – the largest in the state – had already chosen to opt out; Police Chief Charlie Beck announced in October that he was pulling his officers out of the program.
Without using the word, Harris is essentially accusing the Obama administration of fraud. She told reporters that, despite the initial pitch that the program would focus on the most serious criminals, and a direct assurance from ICE officials last year that the program would be retooled to make such a result happen, a state review of data from March to June showed that as many as 28 percent of those targeted for deportation in California were not criminals.
“Secure Communities has not held up to what it aspired to be,” Harris said.
And so, she said, local and state police agencies are under no legal obligation to honor requests by ICE that they detain suspected illegal immigrants. Each agency can decide for itself.
On the other side of this issue is California Gov. Jerry Brown, who in early fall outraged immigration rights activists by vetoing a piece of legislation called the TRUST Act. Authored by Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the bill would have barred local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration agents unless the detainees in question were charged with serious or violent felonies.
Brown tried to justify his veto with the song and dance about how the bill was flawed, and how he wanted it to be better, and how he’d be happy to sign a new and improved version. The governor should have just admitted that he was doing a favor for the Obama administration by sparing it embarrassment during an election year.
Ammiano has introduced a modified version of the bill.
Besides, Brown’s double-talk might have been more believable if his last job hadn’t been the one that Harris has now. When he was state attorney general, Brown expressed support for Secure Communities as a legitimate tool of law enforcement. In 2009, he even signed the agreements with the federal government that helped get the program off the ground.
Secure Communities has wrought enough division and done enough damage. President Obama talks a good game about wanting to fix the immigration system. He can start by correcting past mistakes, and putting an end to a program gone wild.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at email@example.com.