The program is based on partnerships and shared information among law enforcement agencies at all levels.
In Washington, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement manages the initiative, under the Department of Homeland Security. Federal officials rely on cooperation from state and municipal governments who historically have not participated in active immigration enforcement.
The program drew criticism from across the political spectrum virtually from its inception. The loudest and most compelling complaints came from immigrant advocates who claimed Secure Communities wasn’t focusing on violent criminals or dangerous terrorists but rather hard-working landscapers and nannies who were no threat to anybody.
Many local government and law enforcement agencies across the country echoed that complaint and worried about strains on their already strapped budgets. They said that the program was hurting communities by destroying working relationships between ethnic groups and local officials, especially in municipalities with Hispanic populations.
Police complained they were dragged into civil immigration cases that should be handled by federal agents. Local cops complained that Secure Communities drained resources that were needed elsewhere.
Some state governors and city mayors have declined to participate. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, however, that local governments couldn’t exclude themselves from cooperating with federal officials when they asked for help: “The whole idea of opting in, or opting out, is a misunderstanding we’re trying to correct.”
Still, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts tried to opt out of the program and so did dozens of local jurisdictions across the country. By the summer of 2011, the program was active in more than 1,500 jurisdictions in 44 states. Napolitano says the goal is still to be active all states and jurisdictions by 2013.
Some members of Congress have complained that they should have oversight of the program and that DHS shouldn’t run it without clearly defined rules of operation. Skeptics also questioned ICE’s reports about who the government deported and how many true criminals actually were sent packing. The agency says that in the first three years of the program, agents arrested 140,396 criminal illegal immigrants that resulted in 72,445 deportations.
In August 2011, the Obama administration announced changes in Secure Communities. According to Secretary Napolitano, the government would review 300,000 deportation cases and concentrate on those immigrants who had committed “flagrant violations.”
Napolitano said the government would use prosecutorial discretion in the review and some of the immigrants without criminal records might be eligible to remain in the country legally. The idea was to give a second chance to workers and students who had gotten caught in the ICE net. Hispanic groups applauded the change. Republicans were cynical, claiming President Obama had begun his re-election campaign and was courting the Latino vote.
Secure Communities relies on a national database with biometric technology, run by DHS and the FBI, to track illegal immigrants and keep local law enforcement agencies informed. Local jails are responsible for checking fingerprint records against the federal databases.
The nation’s law enforcement officers arrest an estimated 1 million non-citizens on criminal charges each year.