John Moore/Getty Images
Illegal immigrants from Guatemala are body searched before boarding a deportation flight on June 24, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona. Each month the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sends thousands of undocumented immigrants back to Guatemala. Many have been caught by in the Secure Communities data-sharing program.
Illegal immigrants from Guatemala are body searched before boarding a deportation flight on June 24, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona. Each month the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sends thousands of undocumented immigrants back to Guatemala. Many have been caught by in the Secure Communities data-sharing program. John Moore/Getty Images
Three states and two major cities say they have pulled out of a federal program aimed at deporting criminals who are in the U.S. illegally. And now Boston's mayor has threatened to join them.
Secure Communities was created to help federal authorities deport illegal immigrants who are hardened criminals. But some state and local officials say it goes too far.
To understand the controversy, you have to understand how this program works.
The Department of Homeland Security says that the program is designed to identify and remove illegal immigrants with criminal convictions, especially those convicted of serious crimes.
But critics say that's the problem, that less than half of those deported under the program are indeed felons or repeat offenders.
"No one would disagree with the worst of the worst, the issue is they've gone well beyond that," says Bernard Parks, a city councilman in Los Angeles and a former police chief.
He helped lead the charge when L.A. voted to opt out of Secure Communities in June.
"The people that have been caught up in the net are families that have no crime, that have been victims, individuals that were cited for selling products without a city permit, individuals that were victims of domestic violence," he says.
In other words, not the bad guys.
The federal government says the program has led to the deportation of more than 115,000 illegal immigrants since it launched two-and-a-half years ago, many with criminal backgrounds. As of the end of May, 72 percent of those deported had criminal convictions; the other 28 percent had only immigration violations, including those who had been caught entering the country illegally in the past and visa violators.
Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints that local and state law enforcement agencies gather and send to the FBI as part of the customary booking process are now shared with DHS.
If Homeland Security confirms a suspect is in the country illegally, it can ask local authorities to detain that individual. That means that eventually that person may be deported.
But it's not easy. There are a bunch of hurdles: legal challenges can be made, asylum can be sought. It can take years to have someone removed from the U.S., and it costs taxpayers tons of money.
That's why supporters argue the criticisms being hurled at the program are unfair. They say the allegations that the program often kicks out people who've done little or nothing wrong are simply not true.
"On each one of those scores, those claims are grossly exaggerated," says David Martin, who served as deputy general counsel to the Department of Homeland Security for the first two years of the Obama administration.
He says if victims or witnesses of crimes are caught in the system, it's the fault of local and state authorities. After all, they're the ones making the arrests.
"Let me just emphasize something about Secure Communities," he says. "At its heart, it is a matter of sharing information about people who have been arrested for crimes. Most people would agree that these are folks who should be removed from the country."
100 Percent Participation
Not everyone agrees.
The states of Illinois, New York and Massachusetts have all said they're pulling out of the program.
Homeland Security officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but they've made clear that despite early miscommunications on the matter, the program is mandatory and that means no pulling out.
In fact, the federal government still expects 100 percent participation by 2013. Already 43 states are on board, and about half of all smaller, local jurisdictions in the U.S.
Still, this summer, Homeland Security announced changes to the program intended to ease concerns about it.
Those include redoubling efforts to target the most dangerous criminals first. Federal authorities will also keep an eye out for signs of racial profiling.
Despite the outcry, the program still has lots of support.
"Nobody in Texas is taking our cues about what to do on this issue from Illinois, Massachusetts or New York," says Tommy Williams, a Republican Texas state senator.
"We feel like it's important that if the federal government is not going to secure the border, that we need to make sure we're doing everything we can to keep our communities safe."
Williams wants to pass a law that makes sure every Texas city and county not yet on board starts participating right away.