How can an initiative called “Secure Communities” be the cause of so much fear and injustice?
A domestic violence survivor is taken to prison with her abuser so her story can be corroborated; her fingerprints are taken. A permanent resident is booked in his local county jail for an old criminal conviction for which he served his time a decade earlier. A woman, identified in a workplace raid in the ’90s but released to build a family, is raided at home by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fourteen years later; she leaves her physically compromised son at home for a detention center where she must choose to return alone to Mexico or bring her US-born son to a place of overly-expensive but ultimately insufficient medical care. All three migrants are placed in removal proceedings and scheduled for deportation.
Perhaps these cases seem far-fetched; perhaps not. They exemplify some of the difficulties posed by ICE’s “Secure Communities” program. Secure Communities began as a 2008 pilot program in Houston. In a 2009 DC press conference, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano explained, “Secure Communities provides our local partners with an effective tool to identify and remove dangerous criminal immigrants.” In short, local law enforcement provides data to ICE which runs fingerprints through its biometrics database in order to prevent security threats.
Regrettably, Secure Communities abuses its position of power. First, it inaptly identifies dangerous felons and it provides no trust in rehabilitation. Parole and probation records of past offenders are sent to ICE which attempts to deport even documented permanent residents who have served their time. They are unredeemable before ICE. Migrants can be deported even if they were not convicted of a crime. 60% of deportees in some Florida communities were not convicted according to a Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) analysis of ICE data. Nationwide “28 percent of the 75,461 immigrants deported since Secure Communities’ inception in 2008 have been ‘non-criminal’ immigrants, while just 23 percent of those detained and deported have convictions for violent crimes such as murder or rape.”
Secure Communities furthermore disregards human dignity. Turning at a red light should not be grounds for racial profiling and deportation. If domestic violence victims do not have the space to report such horrible offenses, what messages are we sending to abusers? To the abused? To the neighbor? Where is the accountability? Certainly not with our dominant culture.
Finally, Secure Communities does little to offer security. Numerous communities who voluntarily joined Secure Communities found it posed a threat to the community’s social trust. For fear of being targeted by ICE, witnesses and victims of crimes did not report crime to local authorities. When this trend was recognized and local authorities requested removal from the program, they were told opt-out was not an option.
Immigration politics so often circle back to fear by my reckoning. Intended to net chiefly criminals and persons with multiple misdemeanors, time and again, ICE has mostly detained and deported non-criminal convicts. There is no significant uproar in response.
Why? Doublespeak is a powerful tool for silencing. Un(der)-informed communities assume an initiative from the “Department of Homeland Security” and the “Department of Justice” called “Secure Communities” must surely be a foolproof protection. Particularly noteworthy for me is the head-banging discussion through my agency, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the Detention Watch Network. Countless brilliant heads coming together cannot find a clear and succinct way to say “Stop Secure Communities” without sounding ludicrous. Yet without proper messaging, awareness and protest cannot progress against insecurity.
The only “Secure Community” left in this story is prison. Disempowered and fearful communities are insecure. The countries of origin most deportation-slighted detainees fled are insecure and not improving. And you can probably guess my opinion of how safe detainees actually are in these highly-secured temporary communities.
So is anything secure? Well, yes—the coffers of private prisons. While the US government deported 197,000 immigrants with no criminal records last year, at a cost of $23,000 each, or $4.5 billion a year, “growing numbers of undocumented immigrants are being held in prisons run by private detention companies, which have become a powerful lobbying group for large-scale detention of undocumented immigrants” said the National Immigration Forum.
Perhaps there is a solution here. The only outspoken stakeholders are those fear-mongers who profit from the prison industry. I fail to accept that the responsibility to speak out lies solely with vulnerable migrant communities and their few advocate NGOs. Is it fair to assume that community members proclaiming their own understanding of security might reflect a more just policy?