S-Comm’s Unintended Side Effects

On February 6th, 2011, 20-year-old Isaura Garciacalled 911 from her apartment in Hollywood, California. She was being beatenagain by her boyfriend and thought that this time he might kill her. When thepolice arrived on the scene, Isaura tried to explain, with her limited English,what had happened, but the police didn’t believe her story and ended uparresting her for domestic violence. Shewas brought in for booking and, in accordance with the Secure Communities(S-Comm) program, her fingerprints were crosschecked with Immigration andCustoms Enforcement’s (ICE) central database. The system revealed that she wasan undocumented immigrant, and Isaura was immediately put in deportation proceedings.

Stories like Isaura’s highlightsome of the major problems with S-Comm. Even though the explicit goal of S-Commis to improve public safety by increasing deportations of undocumented criminals,in practice the program catches many non-criminals in its net and can actually decrease public safety by eroding trust between immigrants and local police.Mistrust between police and immigrant communities can lead to underreporting ofcrimes, leaving these communities vulnerable to violence and impairingofficers’ ability to investigate and solve crimes. In fact, Isaura admits that,if she had known about S-Comm, she would have avoided calling 911. As she putsit, “I never would have called had I known I could face deportation.”

Another consequence of S-Comm is its impact on the mentaland physical health of immigrants. It has increased fear of deportation in manycommunities, not only among undocumented immigrants, but also among their UScitizen children and networks of families and friends. This pervasive fearleads to social isolation and health care avoidance.Healthcare avoidance and social isolation can limit patients’ ability toprevent the onset of diseases; avoid costly, catastrophic health problems;manage chronic disease; and minimize the spread of contagious diseases thatpose public health threats (tuberculosis, flu, etc). Chronic stress and anxietyalso contribute to increased cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems,chronic pain, and decreased immune function. As Isaura puts it, “SecureCommunities turned my life upside down.” The stress and strain have negative effectson the health of the entire community, including the lives of her family andher 1-year-old daughter.

Started in 2008, S-Comm is currently in effect in over 1,000jurisdictions across the US and is poised to grow rapidly. The Department ofHomeland Security (DHS) has announced its intention to expand the programnationwide, and has denied the requests of a number of states and cities to optout of the program. In the face of this expansion, many communities andimmigrant rights groups have begun to debate the legitimacy of S-Comm, soundingthe call to terminate the program. Health professionals can play a critical rolein this debate by learning about the issue, paying attention to the ways S-Commaffects patients and communities, and by advocating for government action torespect human rights and promote immigrant health.

Sign the petition to put a moratorium on SecureCommunities.

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