Lastweek, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced changes to itscontroversial Secure Communities program in response to condemnation fromgovernors, police chiefs, and immigration advocates.Criticshave derided the changes as merely cosmetic revisions to practices that targetracial minorities, waste taxpayer dollars, undermine police efforts to obtaincooperation from immigrant communities, and result in the deportation ofthousands of nonviolent immigrants.
The program has also been slammed for ensnaringmany noncriminals and preventing victims from reporting crimes out of fear ofthe police. Even some US citizens have been detained and questioned for theirimmigration status, fueling fears that Secure Communities contributes to racialprofiling. Despite public outcry, the Obama administration has signaled itscommitment to Secure Communities and has stated that it will enforce states’participation over governors’ protests.
Accordingto ICE director, John Morton, the changes to Secure Communities include providingguidance to immigration officers and lawyers to ensure that the program targetsdangerous criminals, not misdemeanor offenders or traffic violators. Among thefactors to be weighed, immigration officers and attorneys can consider whetheran individual “is likely to be granted temporary or permanent status or otherrelief from removal including as an asylum seeker or victim of domesticviolence, human trafficking, or other crime.”
Evenwith this discretion, however, asylum seekers are still at risk of being caughtup in the pursuit of undocumented criminals and are particularly vulnerable toimmigration enforcement programs like Secure Communities. Asylum seekers cometo the US to flee persecution and torture, but their status upon arrival may beundocumented until their cases are filed and approved. Many arrive in the UStraumatized from the abuses they have endured, and many are suffering from physicaland psychological distress.
Dueto trauma or other impediments (economic, social, or medical), asylees may notbe prepared to file for “legal” status immediately upon arrival into the US.Many are not even aware that they are eligible to apply for asylum. As theynavigate life in a new country, traffic violations or other noncriminal, minorinfractions may result in deportation under Secure Communities.
Asof April 2011, 60% of those deported under Secure Communities were eitherconvicted of a Level 3 offense (i.e., a traffic violation) or for a noncriminalimmigration offense. Given theprogram’s history and its track record of sweeping up all undocumentedindividuals (not just serious criminals), it is likely that legitimate asylumseekers and other vulnerable immigrant groups will continue to be at risk fordeportation.
PHRurges the Obama administration to reconsider Secure Communities and its impacton the most vulnerable immigrant populations in the US – those seeking asylumfrom persecution and torture in their countries of origin.