Controversial immigration enforcement program goes statewide in North Carolina

Immigrant rights advocates worry that the Obama administration's Secure Communities program creates distrust between the immigrant community and local police.

By Rebekah L. Cowell, special to Facing South

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced last week that all 100 counties in North Carolina have been connected to the Secure Communities program. That makes North Carolina the 10th state to implement the program statewide, along with the border states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, California and Florida. The Obama administration has said its goal is to have every state enrolled in the program within the next two years.

While supporters of the program say it's needed to identify and target criminal aliens, immigrant rights advocates raise concerns that it creates distrust between the immigrant community and local police.

Under Secure Communities, individuals arrested by local law enforcement officers are supposed to be fingerprinted and their prints are run through two separate databases -- the FBI's criminal database and ICE's IDENT database. Immigration status is confirmed by "hits" that indicate whether the individual has papers or is undocumented. ICE detains undocumented individuals and takes steps to deport them. ICE says the program "improves and modernizes the identification and removal of criminal aliens from the United States."

Early supporters of Secure Communities in Congress including Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) had hoped that the program would alleviate some of the racial profiling concerns connected to the controversial 287(g) program, which deputized local law enforcement officers as immigration officers and gave them authority to initiate immigration deportation proceedings. During his tenure as chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriation Committee in the past two congressional sessions, Price said he pressured ICE to adhere to the stated goals of Secure Communities.

"The expansion of Secure Communities is largely responsible for the fact that for the first time in the agency's history, ICE is now removing more criminals than non-criminals from this country," said Price. "Still, there is no question that ICE must continue to sharpen the program's focus on serious criminal offenders, and I will continue to push for that objective as I help oversee the budget for ICE."

Other proponents of the Secure Communities program include the North Carolina Sheriff's Association, whose executive vice president, Edmond Caldwell Jr., does not believe the program present challenges for local law enforcement officers. "The program is important in North Carolina and across America because it provides important information to law enforcement officers about persons who have violated the law and been arrested," Caldwell said.

Price and other supporters of Secure Communities argue that the program represents an improvement over 287(g) because the decision of whether to put someone into deportation proceedings rests with ICE and not local law enforcement.  But others wonder whether that distinction will be clear to immigrants.

"I am sure that those who advocate for Secure Communities are sincere when they say that it disengages local law enforcement from immigration enforcement, but all my clients know is that their wife or sister or son were deported after being arrested by a local cop for driving without a license," said Marty Rosenbluth executive director of the N.C. Immigrant Rights Project. "This links local police to ICE and creates fear of the police in the eyes of the community."

There are also questions about whether the program effectively targets criminal aliens, since statistics released by ICE show the majority of immigrants deported through the Secure Communities program were either never convicted of any offense or were convicted of low-level crimes. Consider the experience of Wake County, which became the first North Carolina county to enroll in the program in November 2008: Data released by ICE last month showed that 64 percent of all Secure Communities deportees from Wake County were non-criminal.

"The Secure Communities program was designed to catch convicted felons, but in actuality the program is making a broad sweep across the non-criminal immigrant population," said Rosenbluth.

Despite these concerns, Rep. Price believes that if the Secure Communities program is used as ICE intended then the program is "far more efficient, just, and better for our communities than the system of work-site raids emphasized during the Bush Administration, when we were deporting hundreds of thousands more non-criminals than criminals."

But immigrant rights advocates say this argument misses the point.

"The question that needs to be asked is whether immigrants are being arrested and fingerprinted for offenses where non-immigrants would only receive a citation," Rosenbluth said. "I doubt very much I would be handcuffed and fingerprinted if I left my wallet and license at home and were ticketed for driving without a license. "