Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fast-Tracking Secure Communities

"Secure Communities" is coming your way.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says that it plans to have the new “criminal alien” program working in most communities in the next four years. Unlike the controversial 287(g) Program, which cross-designates local police as immigration agents, Secure Communities is fostering “inter-operability” between ICE and all federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The program works by making checks by law enforcement offices of criminal (FBI) and immigration (ICE) databases automatic. Like the 287(g) Program, Secure Communities is “risk-based,” prioritizing the most dangerous criminal aliens – but also like the 287(g) agreements with local police there are no regulations to ensure that this prioritization based on risk is more than a paper promise. It’s another part of ICE’s expanding dragnet that will as likely result in the imprisonment and removal of immigration violator as of violent criminals. It’s hard keeping track of all the various programs, operations, and initiatives of ICE and its brother agency Customs and Border Protection (CBP), both agencies of the Department of Homeland Security. Since Sept. 11 and particularly since 2005 when Michael Chertoff became DHS chief, DHS has let loose with a flood of new programs as part of the immigrant crackdown. One of the more recent initiatives is “Secure Communities: A Comprehensive Plan to Identify and Remove Criminal Aliens.” Placed in more than fifty communities since October 2008, Secure Communities is ICE’s most ambitious attempt to insert immigration law enforcement into community law enforcement. It represents the new long hand of immigration law. ICE says the program “will change immigration enforcement by using technology to share information between law enforcement agencies and by applying risk-based methodologies to focus resources on assisting communities remove high-risk criminal aliens.” The new technology that DHS and the Justice Department is making available to all state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies will enable police to simultaneously check criminal and immigration digital databases for matches upon booking of all those arrested. Program director David Venturella explained the vast scope of this “comprehensive plan” in April 2 testimony to the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Venturella thanked subcommittee chairman David Price (D-NC) for the resources the committee has provided ICE for its “criminal alien” programs, telling Price that the committee’s generous support – higher than President Bush’s requested budget – in 2008 had permitted ICE to “improve and modernize efforts to identify aliens convicted of a crime, sentenced to imprisonment, and who may be deportable, and remove them from the United States once they are judged deportable.” He assured the committee that “we deploy this technology based on risk, including the amount of criminal activity.” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has made the Secure Communities program a “top priority,” according to Venturella, noting that in her Jan. 30 directive she asked ICE “to examine how it might accelerate” its deployment. Venturella tells the Homeland Security Subcommittee that Secure Communities is “a comprehensive effort to increase national security and community safety by identifying, processing, and removing deportable criminal aliens, beginning with those who pose the greatest known risk to public safety.” In all its programs, ICE lays out its priorities, beginning with the most violent criminal aliens and ending with immigration violators, but it has never established the internal regulations to ensure that these “risk-based” priorities are followed. Nor does it insist that its local partners abide by the stated risk levels when collaborating in immigration enforcement. Indeed, in his testimony, Officer Venturella promised that Secure Communities would “build upon the success that ICE has already seen in its other interactions with these law enforcement agencies such as ICE’s effort to identify incarcerated criminal aliens by its physical presence at federal, state, and local institutions, the Criminal Alien Program (CAP), and the 287(g) program, where ICE delegates the authority to enforce immigration law to trained state and local law enforcement.” There was no mention of the recent studies by the Government Accountability Office, Justice Strategies, and the Law School of the University of North Carolina that have found that ICE’s stated “risk-based” criteria in federal/local immigration enforcement programs are ignored in favor of a wide-net approach. Although Secure Communities states that the “inter-operability” will take force when someone is booked by local police, Venturella told the committee that police can use the crosschecking capabilities of the joint DOJ/DHS databases for subjects not in their direct custody. “We will also deploy biometric identification in other phases of the enforcement process and with other existing ICE programs to identify dangerous criminal aliens currently incarcerated or at large,” he said. Police, he said, can access “automatic database checks and can take action quickly even if the dangerous criminal alien is no longer in custody.” He noted, too, that the Secure Communities can and will be used to hunt down “those at-large in our communities.” In Florida, Secure Communities is launching a program with local police “where ICE will review the records of all individuals on parole or probation and run their fingerprints against the immigration biometric database.” Which means, for example, that a legal immigrant who is on parole for a drug possession charge would, under this program, come to the attention of ICE and may be placed in mandatory detention as a “criminal alien.” The broad definition of who constitutes a “criminal alien” was also evident in Venturella’s testimony. These include immigrants who have been deported but illegally return. Adopting the language of the criminal justice system, Secure Communities describes two or more illegal entries as “recidivism.” One of the program’s “strategic goals” is to “maximize cost effectiveness and long-term success through deterrence and reduced recidivism.” An offshoot program is Operation Repeat Offender, which is a joint DHS/Justice Department program “to ensure federal prosecution of aliens who return illegally after removal.” These repeat offenders are criminal aliens. “If convicted of these immigration charges, these criminal aliens serve their sentence in federal custody,” said Venturella.
Charging immigration violators with federal crimes has been a practice of ICE for the past several years, and it has been accepted by Congress as an acceptable part of the hunt for criminal aliens for which it authorized $1 billion in 2009. Neither Congress nor ICE finds this practice in violation of the stated commitment to employ a “risk-based” strategy in this new campaign to secure communities. In a plea for more funding, Venturella said, “While officers, beds, and transportation are the core resources of criminal alien enforcement, we recognize that technology and comprehensive system planning are crucial to using these core resources more effectively to remove dangerous criminal aliens in greater numbers.” Venturella’s testimony (and the strong support of the House committee) make clear that the future of immigration enforcement -- while relying on detention beds and ever-increasing numbers of Border Patrol and immigration agents -- is in widespread technological identification systems. These are being sold now as programs to rid America of dangerous criminal aliens. But ICE’s other criminal alien programs are already characterized by aggressive mission creep. Without controls, it’s likely that these identification programs will be routinely available not only to booking officers in local jails but also to patrol officers, and perhaps even to non-law enforcement civil servants.
This fast-tracking of the criminal alien program and widely available technological identification programs should stop. Certainly there are threats to community safety and national security – and these should be the clear focus of our Department of Homeland Security.

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