William Fisher Truthout 2/23/10

A little-known program run by the Department of Homeland Security is using inaccurate databases and functioning “as little more than a dragnet to funnel even more people into the already overburdened” detention and deportation system of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, according to three civil rights organizations that have filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

ICE claims that the program, called “Secure Communities,” targets “dangerous criminal aliens.”

The “Secure Communities” initiative furthers the ever-worsening trend of involving local and state law enforcement agencies in federal immigration enforcement. The three groups say that since the inception of the program, there has been a marked increase in racial profiling, excessive costs to state and local government and due-process violations.

The groups are the National Day Laborer Organization Network (NDLON), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. They filed their FOIA request in January.

Sunita Patel, a CCR staff attorney, told Truthout, “Our principal concern is that this is a very secretive program about which there is little public information. It is being implemented in communities, but the lack of transparency makes it impossible for community groups to determine whether abuses are being committed. We hope our FOIA suit will shed some light on the issue.

“This program is designed to fail because it relies on information from infamously inaccurate databases. We’ve already seen an increase in racial profiling, pre-textual arrests and mistaken identity of US citizens,” she said, adding, “Combined with the lack of regulation and publicly available information on Secure Communities, ICE will be essentially immune to accountability or transparency. With a budget reaching the billions, taxpayers should be very concerned.”

The Secure Communities program has been implemented in at least 95 jurisdictions with plans to expand nationwide by 2013. The opposition groups says it includes a biometrics component that requires an individual’s fingerprints to be run through multiple databases upon arrest for any reason, even if no charges are brought.

Advocates and attorneys say that in addition to concerns presented by relying on potentially inaccurate and erroneous information in those databases, the program functions as little more than a dragnet to funnel even more people into the already overburdened ICE detention and removal system.

The FOIA request covers materials necessary to provide the public with comprehensive information on the Secure Communities Program, including policies, procedures and objectives; fiscal impact; data and statistical information; individual records, communications and assessment records.

ICE, part of the huge Department of Homeland Security, has come under continuous attack, mostly from the left of the Democratic Party base, including immigration, labor and human rights advocates. Formed by the merger of several agencies when DHS was created following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, ICE has been seen as unnecessarily rough on suspected illegal immigrants, many of whom are detained in prison-like conditions without proper medical care or access to family members or attorneys.

Nina Bernstein of The New York Times recently exposed ICE’s efforts to cover up the unreported deaths of several people who were held in its detention facilities.

Immigration and labor advocates have lost no time in pushing back at what they consider to be serious shortcomings in the Secure Communities program.

Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told Truthout, “The Secure Communities program is 287(g) with lipstick. These programs increase racial profiling and civil rights abuses, erode community policing, and lack oversight and accountability. They are failed programs. The way to solve the nation’s immigration problems is not by criminalizing and deporting hard-working families. We expect real solutions from the Obama administration, not a civil rights and human rights crisis in the making.”

Section 287(g) of the national immigration law allows DHS to deputize local law enforcement officers to become “immigration police.” The program, while still expanding, has been severely criticized by many, including law enforcement officials. The principal objections are that local police and sheriffs do not understand immigration law and that enforcing immigration laws draws officers’ attention away from local law enforcement issues.

Some of the most vocal criticism of 287(g) has been triggered by the activities of “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County (Phoenix) Arizona. Currently under investigation by the Justice Department for civil rights violations, Arpaio has outraged civil rights and immigration leaders by conducting unlawful raids on homes, offices and factories, practicing racial and ethnic profiling in making arrests, and operating a jail with substandard conditions.

As the New Yorker magazine reported, “Prisoners have filed thousands of legal claims of abuse against Arpaio and his deputies – and by families of those who’ve died under his watch. A federal investigation found Arpaio’s deputies used “stun guns” on inmates strapped into restraint chairs; some have died in those chairs. One lawsuit brought by a dead prisoner’s family ended in an $8 million settlement after a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking and suffocating prisoners, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.”

But DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano staunchly defends both the 287(g) program and the Secure Communities initiative.

Secure Communities, she says, “was designed to facilitate access to timely and accurate information about state and local arrests to better identify criminal aliens and to prioritize those who are the most dangerous for removal from the United States. As Starr County and 94 other jurisdictions across the country have learned firsthand, it does its job.”

Bridget Kessler, Clinical Teaching Fellow at Cardozo law school in New York City, told Truthout that because of widespread known inaccuracies in the DHS immigration database and the FBI’s criminal database, “there is a huge risk that innocent people will be misidentified.”

She added, “Few people in that position have the resources to contest their inclusion in these databases. And once you’re in one of these databases, it’s virtually impossible to get out.

“By 2013, the plan is to install the Secure Communities program in every single jail in the country,” she said. “Given that scope and reach, the complexity of the program, and its ability to seriously impact communities all over the country, it’s inconceivable that DHS would not want to release more information than is currently available.”

But the DHS is equally vehement in its defense of the program. It does not think it is being secretive. It says, “Secure Communities was designed to facilitate access to timely and accurate information about state and local arrests to better identify criminal aliens and to prioritize those who are the most dangerous for removal from the United States.”

Secure Communities, says DHS, “does its job.”

DHS Secretary Napolitano says that “Secure Communities provides our local partners with an effective tool to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety.”

She says the program has significantly enhanced ICE’s ability to identify criminal aliens. In one year, the initiative enabled ICE to identify more than 111,000 criminal aliens when they were arrested and booked by state or local law enforcement.

The DHS Web site states: “Secure Communities, both the concept and the initiative, is made possible through partnerships among DHS components, the Department of Justice, and state and local law enforcement. Over the last year, these partnerships have enabled Secure Communities to enhance biometric information-sharing technology supporting the criminal booking processes across 11 states. This technology enables biometrics – fingerprints – collected during the booking process to be checked against FBI criminal history records and DHS immigration records. When ICE officials receive notification of an immigration record match, they can promptly determine if enforcement action is required and take appropriate action.”

In a related development, The New York Times has revealed that immigration authorities allegedly colluded with Signal International, L.L.C., a Mississippi marine oil rig company, to punish and deport legal immigrant workers who chose to exercise their labor rights.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, presenting evidence obtained as part of a lawsuit against the agency, revealed that ICE “advised and instructed the company on how to undermine labor laws, skirt DHS regulations related to proper termination of worker visas, ‘privately’ deport legal workers and craft a communications and public relations strategy for Signal as media outlets began to report on the situation.”

The organizations said the exposure of misconduct by ICE agents towards the workers in this case is “yet another chapter in a larger saga of questionable behavior by ICE employees.”

“The Signal case is a clear example of how workplace abuses are flourishing in the absence of a working immigration system. While these immigrant workers were vital to the reconstruction of New Orleans, they were helpless to assert their rights,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

He told Truthout, “This is another reason why Congress needs to act now to fix our broken immigration system through comprehensive immigration reform. When we protect the rights of immigrant workers, we strengthen and safeguard the rights of all workers in America.”

The Times reported that immigration authorities worked closely with Signal International in Mississippi to discourage protests by temporary guest workers from India over their job conditions, including advising managers to send some workers back to India, according to new testimony in a federal lawsuit against the company.

It said cooperation between the company and federal immigration agents was recounted in sworn depositions by Signal managers who were involved when tensions in its shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, erupted into a public clash in March 2007.

“Since then, hundreds of the Indian workers have brought a civil rights lawsuit against the company, claiming they were victims of human trafficking and labor abuse. Signal International is fighting the suit and has sued American and Indian recruiters who contracted with the workers in India. The company claims the recruiters misled it – and the workers – about the terms of the work visas that brought them to this country,” The Times reported.

Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, which represents some workers in the lawsuit, said the managers’ testimony showed that immigration enforcement agents had “advised the corporation on how to retaliate against workers who were organizing,” The Times reported.

The controversy over Secure Communities comes at a time of record immigration prosecutions of nonviolent border crossers.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, and the Warren Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, recently released reports highlighting the dramatic increase in federal immigration prosecutions and the link to Operation Streamline, a DHS program that mandates federal criminal prosecution of all persons caught crossing the border unlawfully.

The Warren Institute report highlights the impact of Operation Streamline on immigration enforcement. The TRAC report shows that federal immigration prosecutions rose to record levels during fiscal year 2009 and how a shift in priorities has created the largest number of federal immigration prosecutions of nonviolent border crossers ever.

Immigration advocates say the trade-off is that while the federal government spends billions of dollars prosecuting nonviolent immigration violators, more serious criminals involved in drugs, weapons and organized crime face a lower probability of prosecution.

President Obama has said comprehensive immigration reform is high on his agenda of priority issues. But with both House and Senate deeply polarized by partisan loyalties, it is unclear how the president and lawmakers will steer this highly controversial subject through the legislative process.

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