The federal government’s focus on arresting and deporting “criminal aliens” has left immigrant advocates and other proponents of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) struggling for an adequate response. This new thrust in immigration enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is occurring in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies. The goal of hunting down “criminal aliens” has gained broad policymaker support, as seen in the large annual budget increases for ICE criminal alien programs authorized by Congress. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has declared that removing criminal aliens from America’s street will be a central priority. Who is against removing noncitizen criminals from our communities? Understandably few national CIR advocates are willing to take a stand on behalf of criminal aliens. Indeed, the major immigrant advocacy organizations support a CIR that would legalize immigrants only if they had a “crime-free” history. Irving’s Criminal Alien Problem The New York Times front-page story (April 5) on the criminal alien debate in Irving, Texas illustrates the conceptual and practical challenges of formulating an adequate response to ICE’s criminal alien offensive. NYT profiles the conundrum of the mayor of this large Dallas suburb. Rather than accede to resident demands in 2007 that Irving sign a 287(g) agreement with ICE, Mayor Herbert Gears opted for what he NYT described as a “middle way on immigration,” namely a pilot criminal alien program promoted by ICE. Generally, only the most avid anti-immigrant communities have signed these training agreements with ICE that effectively cross-designate local police and sheriff deputies as immigration agents. Other counties and cities have rejected 287(g) proposals because ICE pays only for the training and not for the additional costs of implementing the program. Others oppose the cross-designation program because of fears that it would lead to decreased trust in local law enforcement by immigrant and Latino communities. Recent studies by the Government Accountability Office, Justice Strategies, and the University of North Carolina Law School have demonstrated the validity of these concerns. Pressed by anti-immigrant forces and more widespread concerns about immigrant crime, the city of Irving, led by Mayor Gears, opted for what was thought to be a middle way. That was the 24/7 Criminal Alien Program promoted in 2006 by ICE as a pilot program that stressed “interoperability” rather than “cross-designation.” Irving police and jailors wouldn’t serve as immigration agents but would merely report to ICE when they came into custody of a “criminal alien.” This was made possible by joint DHS/Justice Department initiative that made DHS and DOJ databases “interoperable.” In other words, every time Irving police checked DOJ’s extensive criminal database they would also check DHS’ rapidly expanding database. From Pilot Program to Comprehensive Plan in One Year DHS deemed its pilot program successful, and late last year began signing new CAP agreements with local governments as part of its highly ambitious program called “Secure Communities: A Comprehensive Plan to Identify and Remove Criminal Aliens.” What Irving’s Mayor Gears and other in Irving who supported this middle-ground solution was that so many of the town residents were “criminal aliens.” Under the expanding definition of “criminal aliens,” all legal and illegal immigrants are vulnerable to detention and removal. Undocumented immigrants are most vulnerable because use of false documentation to get a job or to drive is increasingly being judged an “aggravated felony” subject to automatic arrest, detention, and removal. Being a legal permanent resident doesn’t exempt a noncitizen immigrant from the long reach of the law in Irving and any of the other 50 local communities that have signed Secure Communities agreements. If an immigrant’s name appears in the DOJ database as having ever been convicted for a deportable crime, including crimes of moral turpitude controlled substances, as well as the expansive category of aggravated felonies, then ICE can assume custody and begin deportation proceedings.
The Dallas Morning News reported that Irving police turned over 1600 residents to ICE in 2007. As a result, “Many Hispanics are afraid to leave their homes or send their children to schools in a suburb where one-third of the population is foreign-born. They feel racially profiled by police and unwanted by white neighbors.”
ICE’s Criminal Alien Program and its various initiatives have a clear list of priorities – Level One through Level Three targets. Level One are individuals convicted of “major drug offenses and violent offenses,” while Level Two priorities are “individuals who have been convicted of minor drug offenses and mainly property offenses.” Level Three priorities are “individuals who have been convicted of other offenses.” As the GAO and other recent reports on the implementation of the 287(g) program have found, one major problem is that ICE doesn’t insist that local law enforcement agencies abide by these priorities. Another problem is that those immigrants, legal and illegal, caught in ICE’s widening net for criminal aliens catches immigrants who haven’t even been convicted of crimes but simply arrested or even just stopped by local police officers. But the central problem is that ICE’s Criminal Alien Program is “comprehensive,” as ICE itself states. In its presentations to Congress, ICE pledges to rid U.S. communities of threats to national security and public safety, but little noticed is its commitment to wield a comprehensive dragnet, as in the Secure Communities program. This comprehensiveness includes all offenders of criminal and immigration law. In practice, its program is not netting the U.S. captains of the transnational drug and human smuggling organizations but largely immigrants who are being categorized as “criminal aliens” because of violations of immigration law or of minor, nonviolent offenses. When Irving enlisted for the 24/7 Criminal Alien Program, Mayor Gears said, “Protecting our community from sex offenders, burglars, drunk drivers and other law breakers is a local issue. The 24/7 CAP is helping to bridge that gap and accomplish an important goal.” In its first year, however, 60% of the immigrants caught in ICE’s dragnet for criminal aliens were level three violators, mostly driving violations. One solution is to insist that ICE not only prioritizes level-one criminal aliens but also tells cooperating law enforcement agencies that the “interoperability” agreement extends only to the most dangerous criminals. But working against such a real prioritization are laws and statutes that since the mid-1990s have increasingly expanded the category of crimes by immigrants that leads to mandatory detention. Immigrants in Irving and other communities are right to be alarmed by new ICE initiatives targeting criminal aliens. Experience has shown that these initiatives divide communities and increase distrust of local law enforcement agencies while doing little to make communities more secure. Interoperability needs more review before moving forward as a “comprehensive” plan. That review didn’t occur with the pilot 24/7 Criminal Alien Program. Instead ICE, apparently pleased with the high number of immigrant arrests, in Irving, moved quickly to launch the Secure Communities program.
Now, “in collaboration with DOJ and other DHS components,” ICE says that it “plans to expand this capability to all state and local law enforcement agencies throughout the nation.” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano needs to tamp down her enthusiasm for DHS criminal alien programs and halt the Secure Communities program before it extends to a national level the kind of damage it is doing to families and community cohesion and in Irving.
As DHS secretary, we expect her to protect the homeland and make our communities more secure not to divide the nation and terrorize communities with unfocused criminal alien programs.
AP Photo of Anti-Criminal Alien Protest in Irving