A Study in Light and Dark: How ICE Has Implemented the Secure Communities Program, in the Field and at Headquarters

By W.D. Reasoner on April 11, 2012

During the European Renaissance, Italian masters developed the term chiaroscuro to describe studies of strong contrasts — based on the juxtaposition of light and dark — in their drawings and paintings. The term is still used today and in fact its context has broadened to encompass other things, including the printed word, when the literature in question is reflective of such strong contrasts.

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Interestingly enough, I discovered a classic example of chiaroscuro in, of all things, two reports recently issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG). The reports, dealing with the Secure Communities program being implemented under the auspices of DHS's component bureau, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), were prepared by the OIG after conducting an audit of the program at the request of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

Readers of documents from the Center for Immigration Studies will be aware of the troubled history of Secure Communities, as several CIS authors have written and blogged on the program extensively. See, for instance, the Memoranda "Secure Communities by the Numbers, Revisited: Analyzing the Analysis", Part 1 and Part 2. (Part 3 will be released in the near future.)

Now, after many months, the OIG has documented the results of its audit, which focused on the operational implementation of the program by field offices in one report and the strategic planning, communications, and roll-out efforts by ICE headquarters leadership and staff in the other report. What strikes me is the singular viewpoint that's obtained when the two reports are considered in juxtaposition with one another. The contrast — the chiaroscuro — is absolutely stunning; truly a contrast of light and dark in every sense.

The report, "Operations of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Secure Communities", while documenting some shortcomings in data entry and workflow redundancies, lets us know that ICE field officers generally went about the business of conducting Secure Communities in a professional and responsible way. (My colleague Jessica Vaughan wrote about this report here.) According to the executive summary of this report, "Secure Communities was effective in identifying criminal aliens, and in most cases, ICE officers took enforcement actions according to agency enforcement policy. Under Secure Communities, the agency expanded its ability to identify criminal aliens in areas not covered by its other programs. In addition, it was able to identify criminal aliens earlier in the justice process, some of whom it would not have identified under other programs. Secure Communities was implemented at little or no additional cost to local law enforcement jurisdictions."

However, the other OIG report, "Communication Regarding Participation in Secure Communities", paints a different, much darker, picture. The narrative on p. 4 states, in part:

[O]ur review revealed that ICE failed to clearly communicate the intent and expectation of participation. As required by Congress, ICE's strategic plan included goals, but did not specify whether participation would be mandatory and did not communicate statutory or other legal support for nationwide implementation. ICE's outreach presentations to stakeholders included conflicting information, and memorandums of agreement (MOA) signed by participating states were also inconsistent and confusing. ICE's responses to stakeholders' inquiries regarding participation in Secure Communities were unclear. Finally, ICE senior leadership missed opportunities to clarify the expectation of stakeholder participation and did not provide support, direction, and guidance to ICE officials who were implementing Secure Communities.

According to the executive summary of the report:

We did not find evidence that ICE intentionally misled the public or states and local jurisdictions during implementation of Secure Communities. However, ICE did not clearly communicate to stakeholders the intent of Secure Communities and their expected participation. This lack of clarity was evident in its strategic plan, its outreach efforts, memorandums of agreement signed by states, and its responses to inquiries regarding participation. ICE senior leadership also missed opportunities to provide clear direction to its officials implementing Secure Communities. As a result, three years after implementation began, Secure Communities continues to face opposition, criticism, and resistance in some locations.

The difference between the two reports could not be more stark: Field offices undertook their role in the program seriously and performed it competently; headquarters leaders, on the other hand, either deliberately or through ineptitude, did an execrable job of strategic planning, communications, and roll-out. This pair of reports, more than anything I can think of, clearly shows the perils of politicizing a law enforcement agency in its upper hierarchical reaches — as ICE has been under this administration.

Reacting to the publication of the OIG reports, Rep. Lofgren issued a statement, saying, among other things:

The OIG also fell short in its review of whether agency personnel intentionally misled government officials and the public with respect to the ability of states and localities not to participate in the program. Although the OIG does find that DHS and ICE botched up communicating with program participants by making numerous conflicting and misleading statements and ultimately failed to address the resulting confusion, we already knew that. The OIG failed to specifically address internal ICE email exchanges indicating that some of those misleading statements may have been made intentionally. The OIG doesn't say whether DHS or ICE provided misinformation through incompetence or dishonesty. That leaves me concerned about the thoroughness of this review.

Whether or not ICE provided misinformation as a matter of deliberation is an important question and, of course, leads us to the corollary question of whether the OIG shaved the facts intolerably close in its report of ICE leadership failures. These questions deserve further exploration. But in another sense, perhaps, the answer matters little.

Ask yourself this: Do you feel any better in the knowledge that senior ICE leaders and staff were not deliberately deceptive — but are so inept as to be unable to implement a major nationwide program without stumbling around for months, inadvertently misleading the public and, in the process, antagonizing innumerable state and local governments and the law enforcement agencies they seek to partner with? Speaking as a citizen and taxpayer, I don't.