ICE Caving on Secure Communities

By Jessica M. Vaughan on September 2, 2010

The San Francisco Chronicle reported today that ICE is going all wobbly in defending Secure Communities, its marquee program for identifying and removing criminal aliens.

Secure Communities ought to be one of the most uncontroversial enforcement programs ever launched. It provides for the fingerprints of all those booked into county jails to be screened against immigration databases as part of the same process by which they are screened against other criminal history databases. Launched officially in 2008, so far it has found nearly 300,000 criminal aliens, including 43,000 very serious offenders. It is in more than 500 counties nationwide. Because it is based on fingerprints, criminal aliens cannot escape detection by using aliases or by claiming U.S. citizenship. It eliminates the need for local officers to make separate, manual requests to check an inmate's immigration status, and provides for automatic notification to the local ICE office, so they can take custody of the criminal aliens and remove them at the appropriate time. There is no cost and no additional work for the local agencies. Everyone is screened, so there is no possibility of discrimination.

But the sheriff of San Francisco, Michael Hennessey, wants no part of it. He claims it will interfere with San Francisco's infamous sanctuary policy. And ICE appears ready to defer and let him make that call. (This is in ironic contrast to ICE's attitude toward the 287(g) jurisdictions, who despite the training and resources they have invested in trying to help ICE, are allowed no such discretion, and the administration’s insistence with respect to Arizona’s SB 1070, that all matters of immigration law enforcement are up to the feds.)

ICE has adopted this position even though under federal law and the system that has been created for the collection and dissemination of arrest and criminal histories, it is the sole responsibility of the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS), which falls under the FBI and Department of Justice, to decide how the information it collects and maintains for the benefit of all will be used and distributed. Once CJIS decides that immigration databases will become a part of criminal history screenings, a jurisdiction supposedly cannot opt out of that without risking disciplinary action or jeopardizing its ability to use CJIS [see 42 U.S.C. 14615].

Instead of insisting on its right (and need) to obtain this information, which is in obvious support of its stated primary mission to remove criminal aliens, ICE is choosing to let local agencies thumb their nose at them. And it's not just San Francisco. Cook County, Ill. (home of Chicago), and Washington, D.C., are also considering opting out. In that case, why should New York City, Baltimore, or Minneapolis be bothered?

By declining to assert its authority to receive criminal fingerprints and by allowing jurisdictions to just say no to handing over criminal aliens, ICE is undermining its own mission and the ultimate effectiveness of the Secure Communities program. This would be just another laughable example of this administration's avoidance of immigration law enforcement if criminal aliens weren't such a genuine problem for public safety.