Thursday, September 1, 2011

What's so wrong about "Secure Communities?"

By Robert Chao Romero

Since the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States government has continually criminalized undocumented immigrants as scapegoats for the "war on terror."  ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was created in 2003 through a merger of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and sections of the U.S. Customs Service, and it's stated mission is to "promote homeland security and public safety through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws governing border control, customs, trade, and immigration."  Even though none of the perpetrators of 9/11 were undocumented, ICE has systematically targeted undocumented immigrants and their families for deportation over the past decade.  In the past two years alone, nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants have been deported.  Latino, Asian, and other immigrant groups have become scapegoats in the war on terror. 


Such scape-goating of immigrants in times of war, or perceived threat of war, is a common biblical and historical pattern.   We are told in the book of Exodus, for example, that the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians because they were perceived to pose a potential war-time threat:  "Then a new king...came to power in Egypt. 'Look,' he said to his people, 'the Israelites have become much too numerous for us.  Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.'" Exodus 1: 8-10.   Another historical example of immigrant scape-goating in time of war involved the Japanese-American community during WWII.   In 1942, the U.S. government forced 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans to relocate to War Relocation Camps, without due process of law, because it made the one-sided determination that the Japanese-American community posed a war-time threat.  Despite this discriminatory treatment, thousands of Japanese-Americans fought bravely on behalf of the United States in segregated units of the Armed Forces.

The so-called "Secure Communities" program represents yet another unfortunate historical example of immigrant scape-goating during time of war-in this case the U.S. war on terror.  As part of this program, ICE seeks to promote "secure communities" by identifying and deporting "criminal aliens...who pose a threat to public safety."   To assist ICE in the identification of "criminal aliens," the FBI automatically sends ICE the fingerprints of individuals booked into state and local jails.  The FBI, in turn, receives these fingerprints from local law enforcement officials.   ICE checks the fingerprints it receives against immigration databases as a means of identifying individuals who are unlawfully present in the United States. 

Although the Secure Communities program might seem reasonable at first glance to some, upon deeper evaluation it becomes apparent that it is fatally flawed.   Secure Communities is problematic for three major reasons:  (1) it wrongly criminalizes the undocumented immigrant community in the mind of the general public; (2) contrary to the stated goal of targeting high level criminal offenders, the vast majority of those deported under Secure Communities have never been convicted of a crime or have been convicted of low-level crimes such as driving without a license; and, (3) it hurts law enforcement efforts by discouraging the reporting of crime.

By its name alone, the Secure Communities program perpetuates the false, yet common stereotype that undocumented immigrants are "criminals."  The statistics prove otherwise and show that immigrants in the United States are actually far less likely than the native-born to commit crime.  On a national level, U.S.-born men ages 18-39 are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their immigrant peers.  In California, the statistics are even more striking--those born in the U.S. are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than their immigrant counterparts.  The vast majority of immigrants-both documented and unauthorized-are hard working people who contribute billions of dollars to the national economy and who come to this country in order to provide for their families. 

The Secure Communities initiative has also failed in its efforts to target violent criminal offenders.   Nationally, at least 25% of those deported under Secure Communities have never been convicted of a crime.  In certain areas such as Boston, and parts of California, the number stands at more than 50%!  In fact, only 14% of ICE matches involve high-level offenses such as murder.   ICE head John Morton admitted this policy inconsistency in a public statement: "[Secure Communities] has also identified a large number of lesser offenders and that is because the single largest class of offenders are misdemeanors - that is the biggest pool that you would be identified by a fingerprint program," Morton said, "So we do very much prioritize our efforts but we also don't look away on other people that are referred to us."

Finally, Secure Communities is problematic because it hurts law enforcement efforts.  According to law enforcement officials such as Sheriff Mike Hennessey of San Francisco, Secure Communities discourages the reporting of crime because it creates a relationship of fear between local law enforcement and the undocumented immigrant community.  Put quite simply, immigrants fear that they will get deported if they report a crime.   Unfortunately, this fear is grounded in real-life experience.  In one recent Los Angeles task force hearing on Secure Communities, numerous stories were shared about undocumented immigrants being sent to ICE after reporting crimes to local law enforcement.   According to one account, a woman was sent to ICE after telling police that she had found a dead body.   In other cases, victims of domestic violence have been deported following the reporting of abuse by their husbands. 

In sum, Secure Communities promotes the criminalization and scapegoating of immigrants and has failed to meet its stated goals.  The end result has been the devastation of thousands of immigrant families through the deportation and forced separation of fathers, mothers, and their children.   May we, as followers of Jesus, do our part to stand in the gap and speak up against this unjust social policy. 

Robert Chao Romero is an Assistant Professor in the UCLA CÇsar E. Ch†vez Department of Chicana/o Studies and Department of Asian American Studies.  He received his J.D. from U.C. Berkeley and his Ph.D. in Latin American History from UCLA.  He is also the founder of Christian Students of Conscience, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to training and mobilizing students around issues of race and justice from a Jesus-centered perspective. 

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