Revamping Secure Communities

Long overdue.

A federal jail screening program known as Secure Communities epitomized for critics the worst failings of the nation’s immigration system, causing the deportations of tens of thousands of immigrants who had committed no crimes or only minor infractions.

The program matches fingerprints of any jail inmate charged with a crime against a federal immigration database. Since it was piloted in Harris County in 2008, more than 381,000 immigrants have been deported through the program nationally. The Houston region removed the fourth-most in the nation or more than 24,400 people.

Now after years of controversy, the program will be drastically overhauled as part of President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. It could potentially significantly reduce which immigrants can be detained by federal authorities after being booked into jail.

In its new form, dubbed the “Priority Enforcement Program,” local agencies will still send all fingerprints to the Department of Homeland Security. But according to a memo from DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson last month outlining changes to the program, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials should now seek to deport only immigrants who have been convicted of felonies, several misdemeanors or gang-related crimes, or those posing serious threats to national security.

ICE will also no longer ask local agencies to detain immigrants until they can take them into custody but will request to be notified of their release date. Until now, ICE could ask local authorities to hold any immigrant accused of any crime – even if it’s a minor traffic ticket or the charge is dropped – for up to 48 hours if their prints matched the immigration database. But in certain jurisdictions across the country, federal judges have found that violates the Fourth Amendment.


Facing widespread criticism, ICE has slowly shifted its focus to so-called higher-priority offenders. In a memo sent by then-ICE director John Morton in 2010, he instructed the agency to target immigrants convicted of violent or gang-related crimes. Anyone with an outstanding criminal warrant or previous deportation order was also considered a priority. That reduced the number of ICE detainers placed on Harris County jail inmates from 1,000 to 300 a month, according to the sheriff’s office.

Now Johnson’s memo would limit that focus further, requiring immigrants to be convicted of serious crimes or sentenced to at least three months in jail. He also directed ICE to prioritize only immigrants with previous deportation orders stemming from January 2014 and onwards. Under existing policy, immigrants with low-level crimes could be considered deportation priorities simply by having been ordered removed from the United States before.

“That was one of the big complaints about Secure Communities, that it was rounding up all these people on low-level crimes but simply having an old deportation order made you a priority,” said Lena Graber, an attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a San Francisco nonprofit focused on immigrant rights. “If that’s being de-emphasized that will help a lot of people.”

In Harris County, for instance, about 180 immigrants were deported through Secure Communities in the first nine months of this year, according to information provided by ICE to the sheriff’s office. Of those, more than 90 percent had previous deportation orders. But about 40 percent were charged with crimes typically considered misdemeanors and not serious enough for deportation, such as larceny, forgery or possession of marijuana. All of their deportation orders were older than 2014 so under the new policy ICE would likely not have taken them into custody.

I’d like to see what folks like Stace have to say about this before I commit to a position, but “cautiously optimistic” seems reasonable for now. Not deporting non-criminals, keeping families intact, putting common sense ahead of the interests of the for-profit detention center builders – if that’s what this change leads to, it’s all good. It’s not going to happen without oversight and vigilance, however. This looks like a good first step, but it’s far from the only one.

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