Federal immigration agents quietly told Connecticut officials back in September to get ready to go statewide with a fiercely criticized enforcement program called “Secure Communities,” which is now operating only in Fairfield County.
Facing state and local objections, they rescinded the order and no one is exactly sure what happens next. Civil rights activists say the program, which is supposed to target serious criminals, has resulted in the deportation of thousands of essentially law-abiding undocumented immigrants across the nation.
Connecticut could follow the lead of places like Cook County, Illinois or Santa Clara County, California and refuse to hold undocumented immigrants identified under “S-Comm” unless they are accused of serious crimes.
“It hasn’t come to that yet,” says Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s top criminal justice advisor. But Lawlor isn’t ruling out anything: “Right now we’re reserving all those options.”
The reasons for all this controversy over the program are detailed in a new study that found Secure Communities has unfairly targeted Latinos for deportation more than any other ethnic group.
The analysis by experts at the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law found that, while Latinos make up only 77 percent of this nation’s undocumented immigrants, they account for 93 percent of everyone arrested under S-Comm.
“This is what immigration rights activists have been saying from the beginning,” says Hartford City Councilman Louis Cotto. “This program leads to overwhelming instances of racial profiling.”
Lawlor believes involving local police in immigration enforcement inevitably ends up targeting Latinos because cops — like the public in general — have a mental image of who illegal immigrants are and it’s a picture of a Latino or Mexican.
A federal grand jury is right now investigating allegations that East Haven cops routinely harassed and engaged in racial profiling of Hispanics and Latinos in that community. There were protests against the S-Comm program this summer in Los Angeles and other cities.
The California study also found that more than one-third of everyone arrested under the program had a U.S. citizen as a spouse or child, and that 3,600 U.S. citizens have been arrested under S-Comm.
“I don’t see any reason to think Connecticut would be an exception … or immune from the same problems,” says Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor and one of the heads of the Worker Rights and Immigrant Advocacy Clinic.
Almost as if in response to that study, federal Homeland Security chiefs ordered a review of every deportation case now pending in immigration courts, according to The New York Times. The review is intended to make sure that the courts focus on the speedy deportation of convicted criminals and stop deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants with no criminal records.
The trouble, civil rights and immigration activists in Connecticut say, is that the Obama Administration has been claiming since the start of S-Comm that only the “worst of the worst” are being targeted. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been deporting about 400,000 undocumented immigrants a year, but activists say the feds’ own statistics show comparatively few of those people have major crimes on their records.
“You can’t look at the statistics and not conclude this is a dragnet that brings in everybody,” says Sandy Staub, legal director for the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The latest figures available from ICE’s website show 133 people from Connecticut have been deported from Fairfield County communities since Secure Communities went into effect in October 2009.
Staub points out that only 16 of those undocumented immigrants are listed by ICE as having major criminal convictions. Another 76 had lesser offenses on their records, and 41 were categorized by federal agents as “ICE fugitives,” people who’d been previously deported and returned, or individuals whose visas or work permits had run out.
“The worst of the worst are not who are being removed from Connecticut,” says Staub.
Wishnie says top-level federal immigration officials have been sending out policy memos for years directing that S-Comm arrests target only the real nasties among the immigrant community. Those memos, he says, “have largely fallen on deaf ears in the trenches,” where agents “prosecute almost everybody they possibly can.”
One reason for that, Wishnie and other critics say, is that ICE basically has a deportation quota and there are simply not enough hardcore criminal immigrants to reach that 400,000-a-year mark.
When someone is brought in by local police for anything from murder to an accident, their fingerprints are automatically transmitted to the FBI’s central data base. Under Secure Communities, those records are also given to ICE, where an agent decides if the person is also an undocumented immigrant.
“If ICE officers determine that an individual identified through Secure Communities may be removable, a detainer may be issued for that individual,” according to the Sept. 22, 2011 federal memo sent to Connecticut officials. A “detainer” is a request for local or state officials to hold a person for up to 48 hours beyond the time they would normally be released, which gives ICE time to interview or take that person into federal custody.
Critics warn the fear of being arrested and deported under S-Comm has made Latinos and other undocumented immigrants afraid to go to the police for help or even be witnesses to accidents or crimes.
“They become reluctant to cooperate with police,” says Lawlor. “Our goal is not to undermine good law enforcement policy in Connecticut.”
ICE officials sent out a second email on Sept. 29 (two days after S-Comm was supposed to go statewide) cancelling that action. “ICE has decided to delay the activation of Secure Communities in Connecticut while the agency reviews the scheduling of upcoming activations,” was the only explanation given. “We will notify your agency as soon as a new date has been established.”
An ICE spokesman declined to provide any further explanation of the cancellation.
The only indication offered as to when the program would be installed in the rest of Connecticut was an e-mail that ICE “plans to reach complete nationwide activation by the end of 2013.”
“Because Secure Communities is fundamentally an information-sharing program between two federal partners [the FBI and ICE], the federal government makes the determination on when and where to activate it based on the availability of federal resources,” ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein said in his e-mail.
Lawlor says he’s also been unable to get a clear answer to the question of when S-Comm will be expanded in Connecticut or whether the state has the right to turn down ICE requests to hold someone for federal arrest and deportation.
“It seems a little murky right now,” Lawlor says. “It all comes back to how unworkable federal immigration laws really are.”