US hardens stance on nationwide immigrant policy

Obama administration requires all local jurisdictions to join Secure Communities program

After months of internal wrangling and confusion over an ambitious nationwide program allowing state and local police agencies to identify immigrants with criminal records, Obama administration immigration officials have decided to take a hard line against communities that try to delay or cancel their participation in the program, according to documents made public late Wednesday.

The program, Secure Communities, was initiated in late 2008 and is a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s strategy for enforcing immigration laws. The documents include e-mails and other materials showing deliberations among officials of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs the program.

The documents show that well into the second year of the program, as officials were moving forcefully to extend it to hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country, the officials remained deeply confused over whether state and local governments could decline to join it. The internal discussions intensified as cities and states — including Arlington County, Va.; San Francisco; Santa Clara County, Calif.; Washington; and the states of Colorado, New York, Oregon and Washington — were considering whether to opt out.

But late last year, the documents show, officials from ICE, as the federal agency is known, reaffirmed its policy that every local jurisdiction in the country would be required to join the program by 2013. The officials developed a plan to isolate and pressure communities that did not want to participate.

One document, dated Jan. 2, 2011, suggests a “tactical approach to sensitive jurisdictions” for local immigration officers working to expand the program. It recommends they bring nearby communities into the program, to create a “ring” around the “resistant site.”

The Secure Communities program connects the state and local police to Department of Homeland Security databases, allowing them to use fingerprints to check the immigration history, as well as the criminal record, of anyone booked after arrest. If a fingerprint match shows that the suspect is subject to deportation, both the immigration agency and the police are notified. As of this week, the program had been activated in 1,049 local law enforcement agencies in 39 states.

Agency officials said the program has led to the deportation of about 58,300 immigrants with criminal convictions since it was started in 2008.

Immigrant advocacy groups strongly oppose the program, saying it has led to deportations of thousands of illegal immigrants who had no criminal records, separating established families. Immigrants’ groups have held protests to dissuade local governments from signing on.

About 15,000 pages of agency documents were released through a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the Center for Constitutional Rights and immigration lawyers at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. The Associated Press obtained the documents separately and reported on them Wednesday.

Several dozen documents were culled for release by the groups, which oppose the Secure Communities program.

Sarahi Uribe of the laborers’ group accused the agency of misleading communities by sending mixed signals about whether they could opt out of the program. “The amount of dishonesty revealed in this process would make anyone question whether ICE recognizes it’s operating in a democracy,” Uribe said.

Immigration officials said they could not respond directly because a court case over the release of the documents remained open. But Brian Hale, an agency spokesman, said in a statement that “deliberative, internal correspondence should not be confused for final policy.”

He said while communities could not opt out of the program, the police could choose not to receive the results of immigration checks performed when suspects are booked.