The future of the Department of Homeland Security's controversial Secure Communities program may not be so secure, thanks to the findings of a scorching new department report.
Immigration watchers wonder whether the agency will dig deeply enough to address flaws identified in the program—which aims to prioritize deportation of serious criminals among illegal immigrants—whether any changes will merely be cosmetic, or whether the program's soiled reputation means it will have to be canceled outright.
A draft of the report, produced by a special department task force and released last week, marks a critical point for the program: It would be painfully obvious if the agency ignored its own task force, and that would only compound its public relations problem. "They are not in a position right now to defend this program with the same level of integrity that they really hoped to," says Marshall Fitz, immigration policy director at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Secure Communities, a fingerprint-sharing system that returns the immigration status of those arrested in local jurisdictions, has faced mounting criticism from those who say it undermines trust between police officers and immigrant communities and sweeps up people for low-level violations, like driving with a broken taillight. In response, the Department of Homeland Security convened a collection of law enforcement officials, academics, union leaders, lawyers, and other experts into a task force to weigh the merits of the mounting criticism.
Critics saw the task force as a bureaucratic effort to quiet opposition, rather than accomplish anything real. But if that's what the department intended, the effort backfired. The report turned out to be scathing, criticizing the lack of transparency and "missteps" in implementing the program, taking the agency to task for neglecting to win public trust, for not sticking to its stated goal of focusing on the "worst of the worst" criminals, and for being unclear about what the role of local law enforcement should be. The report also questions the agency's legal authority to make the program mandatory and calls for a number of major changes, including withholding enforcement action based on minor violations, exempting crime victims and witnesses, and creating a transparent complaint investigation process, particularly for civil rights abuses.
But whether or not the recommendations will inspire real change is "the $64,000 question," says Fitz, who is optimistic the department will take the report seriously. He says the stated goal of Secure Communities—to prioritize deportation—is common sense, but in reality, it hasn't worked out that way. What matters most now, Fitz says, is whether the agency implements the recommendations, and how aggressively.
Immigration watchers on both the right and the left have doubts about whether the department will take the report to heart. "The recommendations are good, but is the agency finally willing to do something about it?" asks Sarahi Uribe of National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which has been campaigning to end Secure Communities. Uribe believes the implementation of the program was so mismanaged and disastrous, "the only recommendation worth making at this point is to terminate this program." She hopes the Obama administration will step in and do just that, since Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security agency in charge of Secure Communities, hasn't been able to fix it, and hasn't been transparent in its efforts since the program's start. "Every time we expect them to police themselves, it hasn't worked."
James Carafano, an immigration analyst from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, also thinks the agency's response to the report will be "probably nothing, other than cosmetic things to pretend like they're actually doing something," he says. "If they address the criticisms of the program, they basically have to kill the program."
Former Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas Jr. says he hopes the report will be taken seriously, but he isn't holding his breath. Venegas was a member of the task force until he resigned last week, refusing to sign onto the report since he didn't think it went far enough. Four others resigned after him, one woman from the National Immigration Forum who agreed the recommendations fell short, and three union representatives who said the report didn't accurately reflect workers' perspectives.
One of the tipping points in Venegas's decision to back out was the task force's indecision on whether or not to recommend suspending the program pending reforms, or fixing it while it continues to expand. The report quotes one member as suggesting "DHS needs to fix this airplane while it is still flying." Venegas takes issue with this philosophy. "You ask a good pilot," he says, "and if they see that there's major problems with the plane, they bring it down at the closest airport possible."