Local opposition to ‘ineffective’ immigration program not enough

Iowans concerned about increased crime resulting from a decision by some law enforcement agencies not to honor federal immigration detention requests should take solace in new evidence that the local-federal partnership does little, if anything, to achieve its mission of lowered crime rates.

From 2010 to 2012, each of Iowa’s 99 counties joined Secure Communities, a federal immigration program aimed at fighting crime by deporting individuals suspected of committing offenses. A new study, however, shows the program to be ineffective.

Such findings may serve as the final blow against this particular embattled program, but are unlikely to stop newer federal initiatives that don’t rely on local cooperation and have fewer safeguards against racial profiling.

Secure Communities

“While [Secure Communities] was originally sold as a voluntary program, we all now know that’s not the case and actually probably never was,” said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) during a 2011 Congressional hearing on the program. “Despite signed agreements and promises ensuring input from state and local authorities, as an option for opting out of the program if it fails to work for a given community, DHS now intends to move forward in a mandatory fashion without any such input.

“The program is also failing to live up to the promise that it would focus on serious criminals. According to ICE’s own figures, over half of those identified and deported through [Secure Communities] either had no criminal convictions or were convicted of minor offenses, including driving without a license and other traffic offenses. It includes witnesses, bystanders, even victims, including even victims of domestic violence. And this is damaging community policing efforts.”

The Secure Communities program officially began under President George W. Bush and expanded to include every jurisdiction in the nation during the Obama administration. It requires local police to check the immigration status of everyone booked into local jails. When suspects are fingerprinted, the information is immediately and automatically sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be checked against immigration databases. If a match exists, ICE may request the person be detained by local law enforcement for possible federal deportation proceedings.

Although all of Iowa’s 99 counties once honored such federal detainer requests, at least 22 counties recently announced they will no longer do so.

New Evidence

An academic study slated to appear next month in The Journal of Law and Economics is clear in its assertion that ignoring these requests will not result in increased crime because the Secure Communities program has had “no observable effect on the overall crime rate.”

The researchers — Adam B. Cox of New York University’s School of Law and Thomas J. Miles of the University of Chicago’s School of Law — crunched Homeland Security data from 2008 through early 2013 and cross referenced it against local crime and poverty rates.

What they found was hard data to support Rep. Lofgren’s 2011 assertion that the majority of those swept up by the program had only minor offenses, if any at all. Only 29 percent of those deported during the period of time studied were considered serious criminals.

“The finding that Secure Communities does not reduce rates of violent crime or the overall rate of FBI index crime calls into question the long-standing assumption that deporting noncitizens who commit crimes is an effective crime control strategy,” they wrote in the study.

Federal Expansion

Shifts by local law enforcement agencies away from federal immigration detainers and this latest evidence that Secure Communities does not reduce crime rates have come at a time when federal authorities are implementing a more streamlined approach.

A U.S. flag blows in the wind in the backyard of a home facing the border fence at the United States-Mexico border outside of Brownsville, Texas, August 2014.
A U.S. flag blows in the wind in the backyard of a home facing the border fence at the United States-Mexico border outside of Brownsville, Texas, August 2014. (Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS)

In May 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began an effort to boost detentions and subsequent deportations. The agency, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times, added 25 percent more agents tasked with finding and removing immigrants with criminal records. The newly established agents were placed in fugitive operation teams and given a goal of 50 immigrant arrests per month.

While the expansion was not formally announced as a new initiative, last month ICE spokesman Bryan Cox told The Times-Picayune that the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, or CARI, is a national strategy that began in May 2012.

CARI provides for more informal collaboration between federal authorities and local law enforcement. Submission of fingerprints to the immigration database is no longer limited to people arrested locally and can be completed on portable devices. There is also no longer a need for local agencies to honor detention requests, since field agents are already on the scene.

As such, the initiative has circumvented Secure Communities discrimination safeguard of submitting the fingerprints of everyone brought into local jails. Under the new system, anyone, at any place and at any time can be fingerprinted for any reason.

In Louisiana, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice has been highly critical of CARI, saying it involves indiscriminate raids at places where people of certain ethnic backgrounds congregate — apartment complexes, grocery stores, religious study groups, parks — based purely on racial profiling. They’ve labeled it a “stop and frisk” measure against immigrant communities, charging that when a group of people are approached by the CARI teams, most are handcuffed before fingerprinting.

Troubling also, Center leaders say, is how they learned of the initiative.

After hearing about and, in a few cases, witnessing some of the enhanced immigration enforcement activities, Louisiana immigrant advocates requested information from federal authorities. No answers came except for the Obama administration’s continued promise that it was prioritizing detentions and immigration by focusing on criminal activity and risk.

But when a previously detained man was handed his release paperwork, an interesting internal ICE memo was included.

The memo stated: “On September 11, 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials with the New Orleans Criminal Alien Removal Initiative Team (CARI) working in conjunction with the deputies from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office encountered [the man] at his residence. ICE agents identified [the man] as a prior deport. [The man] was arrested by ICE and brought to the local ICE/ERO office for further processing.”

The memo makes clear that the questioning and subsequent arrest of the man was not the result of investigation or suspected criminal activity. The man was “encountered” at his home by a group of federal and local law enforcement officers, and later “identified” as a person previously deported. Why was this immigration task force assembled? Why was this particular person stopped and fingerprinted? The memo offers no insights.

But, for the first time, people outside of the federal government had a name for the program.

Similar detentions throughout Jefferson Parish have resulted in Congressional questions, but no public answers have come from the federal agency or the Obama administration.

Money & Politics

While most campaign ads discussing immigration focus on the public safety aspects of detention and deportation, I argue the issue is firmly planted in money and politics. And, to be clear, there is a lot of money, and a lot of jobs invested in the current ineffective “catch-and-release” federal policy.

Since 2009, and in an effort to force more detentions and deportations, Congress has mandated a quota of 34,000 immigration detainees each day be held by DHS. While the exact number fluctuates, members of Congress have not be shy about tongue-lashing low figures.

About 66 percent of the $2 billion DHS spends annually on detention goes directly to private prison contractors.

Although amendments and bills have been introduced that would allow DHS to use less costly measures, such as GPS-enabled ankle devices, House Republicans have rejected them.

Between 2005 and 2012, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the number of prison beds to hold immigrants has increased 84 percent.

It is important to praise the Iowa law enforcement agencies that have decided not to participate in the federal immigration game. By doing so they have protected taxpayers from potential lawsuits and, hopefully, have made inroads to the immigrant populations they are beholden to serve.

But it is equally important to understand technology and policy are quickly making local immigration partnerships unnecessary and diminishing the influence of individual taxpayers on an ineffective system.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Sept. 7, 2014. Photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters