A nationwide program used to catch undocumented immigrants is being reevaluated, according to the country’s top official in charge of immigration policy.
Jeh Johnson, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told PBS Newshour on Thursday that he’s taking “a fresh look” at the immigration enforcement program Secure Communities, which allows state and local law enforcement agencies to help the federal government identify immigration law offenders.
“The program has become very controversial,” Johnson said during the interview. “And I told a group of sheriffs and chiefs that I met with a couple days ago that I thought we needed a fresh start.”
Johnson’s comments are one of the clearest hints yet of how what kinds of actions the Obama administration plans to take during broad re-examination of deportation policies. Johnson has been tasked with carrying out the review, and he has met with a range of groups concerned with immigration policy since taking over the role of DHS chief in December.
This is the strongest indication he’s given that Secure Communities could potentially be an area for change. Here’s why that matters:
Secure Communities allows the fingerprints of people booked in state and local jails to be cross-referenced with immigration databases maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The idea is simple. If a person has been booked for a crime — regardless of the seriousness — his or her information gets checked against a list of immigration offenders. When there’s a match, federal immigration officials can request that local authorities hold the person until he or she can be placed in immigration detention.
The requests to hold immigrants in local jails, known as detainers, are supposed to expire after 48 hours. So, if you haven’t been picked up by federal authorities after two days, local police should let you go. That doesn’t always happen, which has raised concerns about civil-rights violations. Law enforcement agencies have been sued by immigrant-rights groups for allegedly keeping people in jail cells without good reason.
Secure Communities casts a wide net, allowing the nation’s immigration cops to comb jails across the country for possible immigration law offenders.
There’s a big drawback, though. The program targets people who have been convicted of crimes, but those crimes are often small-scale offenses.
The most serious criminals — classified as “level one” offenders by immigration officials — only accounted for approximately a third of 166,000 removals through Secure Communities from when the undertaking began in March 2008 until August 31, 2012.
Federal immigration officials have increasingly prioritized their enforcement under Obama’s watch, focusing more on deporting convicted criminals and people who have only lived in the U.S. for a few years. Scaling back the reach of Secure Communities could, hypothetically, be in keeping with that strategy.
There’s another problem with Secure Communities. Some local and state police forces don’t want it.
In late 2012, California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) told law enforcement agencies in her state that they didn’t need to comply with the program, saying that it “has not held up to what it aspired to be.” California police, Harris said, weren’t obligated to hold individuals at the request of federal immigration officials.
The California Legislature went a step further in 2013, formally passing a law that limited the state’s participation in the program. Under the measure, called the TRUST Act, local law enforcement agencies are prohibited from holding immigrants convicted of low-level crimes solely at the request of federal immigration officials.
Police forces in other parts of the country have followed suit. One of the biggest complaints is that the program erodes trust between local police and immigrant communities, since people convicted of minor crimes, or no crime at all, are often caught up in the dragnet. That’s led forces in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Denver to defy requests from the feds to hold immigrants for extra time, just so they can be deported.
In his interview with PBS Newshour on Thursday, Johnson also spoke about a call for him to expand deportation relief offered to young undocumented immigrants who meet certain qualifications. Activists would like to see that program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, broadened to include more people who crossed into the country illegally or overstayed a visa.
Johnson didn’t commit to policy changes for any particular program — either Secure Communities or deportation relief — and he walked a verbal tightrope over how far the Obama administration could stretch to refine immigration enforcement.
“I would say that we have to be careful not to preempt Congress in certain areas,” he said. “They are the lawmakers. Whatever we do in the executive branch, we have to do within the confines of existing law. So we have a fair amount of discretion when it comes to how we prioritize our enforcement activities.”
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.