The Department of Homeland Security has a bad case of mission creep. Created in the wake of Sept. 11 to better protect the country against attacks by foreign terrorists, DHS now also believes it is responsible for community security. DHS, through its immigration and border control agencies, has in the last eight years mounted an array of initiatives – including Operation Community Shield, the 287(g) program, National Fugitive Operations, and Secure Communities, which promise to increase public safety by joining with local police to target immigrants. The latest and most recent of these programs, Secure Communities: A Comprehensive Plan to Identify and Remove Criminal Aliens, is also the most ambitious and alarming. It plans to make the DHS database available to all local police by 2012 – already in 48 communities – and it will subject legal immigrants, as well as illegal ones, to detention and deportation if they enter the criminal justice system (even if not convicted). Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), describing Secure Communities, states: “Through improved technology, continual data analysis, and timely information sharing with a broad range of law enforcement agency partners, we are helping to protect communities across the country.” The program allows local law enforcement agencies to simultaneously check the immigration database of DHS for biometric and other matches with the FBI’s criminal database. Secure Communities represents another step toward closer collaboration between federal immigration enforcement and local law enforcement. In all its interior enforcement operations, ICE is making the case that by cooperating in immigration operations local communities will improve public safety. Through the Secure Communities program, ICE claims that it is "transforming community safety by transforming the way the federal government cooperates with state and local law enforcement agencies to identify, detain, and remove all criminal aliens held in custody."
In his April 2 presentation to the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, program executive director David Venturella described the program's joint national security/community security mission: "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." The public safety argument has persuaded many communities to join with ICE in identifying and detaining immigrants. But many critics, including local and state police, have opposed ICE’s goal for regular and systemic local/federal cooperation in immigration enforcement, charging that the merger actually threatens community safety by undermining community trust in local police. A new report from the Police Foundation concludes that “immigration enforcement by local police undermines their core public safety mission, diverts scarce resources, increases their exposure to liability and litigation, and exacerbates fear in communities already distrustful of police.” The report, The Role of Local Police: Striking a Balance Between Immigration Enforcement and Civil Liberties, is critical of the ICE’s failure to prioritize dangerous criminals and says that comprehensive immigration reform would “optimize community safety.” Numerous other recent reports, including ones by the nongovernmental Justice Strategies and the Government Accountability Office, have raised similar concerns. Nonetheless, DHS, buoyed by enthusiastic congressional support, is forging ahead with its “community security” mission. It’s all part of an “enforcement-first” response to the immigration crisis.