21 11 / 2011

“Secure Communities” not making us safer

{Part of this post was originally published on Beside the Golden Door last year.}

Ana* cried quietly as she told me about the time her husband tried to choke her over the kitchen sink. He told her he was going to kill her, and his shouts were so loud that the neighbors called 911. But when the police came they saw the scratch marks she left on him from her efforts to fight him off, but no signs of abuse on her. To make matters worse, Ana doesn’t speak English and her husband does. So the officers arrested Ana instead of her husband.  

Initially Ana wanted to take her case to trial to prove her innocence. But when her kids visited her in jail she could tell that her husband was mistreating them. Desperate to get out of jail, she pled to a lesser charge instead of trying to prove her innocence.  She spent three weeks in county jail altogether.

But instead of being released after serving her time, she was picked up by immigration officials and spent another three weeks in immigration detention before she was finally able to post a bond and get back to her kids.

Now this mother of two young children and domestic violence survivor is fighting the government’s efforts to deport her in immigration court.

It’s not just Ana. Under the federal “Secure Communities“ program, local police departments collect fingerprints from everyone they arrest and send them to the FBI, which automatically shares the prints with ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement). ICE responds by placing a “hold” on anyone whose immigration status it finds problematic, basically asking the local jail to hang on to the person in question so ICE can detain and deport them. 

Once someone is in immigration custody, they’re usually on a fast-track out of the country. Unlike the criminal justice system, there’s no guarantee of legal representation, and immigrants are often pressured into signing documents in a language they don’t understand, waiving what few rights they do have. Furthermore, immigrant detainees can be sent to remote jails in far-flung states at a moment’s notice, hundreds of miles away from their families, communities, and lawyers (if they have them).

In this country we have a basic legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” But ICE requires local jurisdictions to share information about everyone they arrest  - before arrestees are even accused of a crime, let alone convicted.  (Contrary to popular belief, living without immigration status in the United States is not, in and of itself, a crime.) 

President Obama’s administration insists that the Secure Communities program target the most dangerous criminals for deportation, but offenses as minor as a traffic violation – or a false accusation of domestic violence – will trigger communication with ICE. In fact, just 55% of the 400,000 people deported in 2010 had any kind of criminal background, and only 22% were serious criminals - meaning that Obama’s administration is deporting hundreds of thousands of people guilty of no crime at all.

Ana was lucky enough to bond out and fight her case outside of jail. And she may even win, because her extensive history of domestic violence could makes her eligible to apply for a U visa, a humanitarian visa meant to protect victims of violent crimes. But this ordeal has made her terrified of ever contacting the police again.  

As soon as local law enforcement gets mixed up with enforcing immigration law, it undermines police officers’ own efforts to build trust among immigrant communities, essentially keeping them from doing their jobs. That means fewer people reporting crimes, fewer people cooperating with police investigations, and more unscrupulous people preying on vulnerable communities, knowing they’re too scared to call the police.  

And that makes all of us more insecure. 

Jessica Jenkins