By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
LOS ANGELES — For the immigrant advocates who for years have been calling on President Barack Obama to curtail deportations, the Secure Communities program symbolized what was wrong with the nation’s immigration enforcement strategy.
Designed to identify potentially deportable immigrants who had committed crimes, the program provided immigration agents with fingerprint records collected at local jails. In many cases, agents would ask local law enforcement officials to hold inmates believed to be in the country illegally beyond the length of their jail terms so that they could be transferred to federal custody.
Activists complained that the program eroded immigrants’ trust in police and resulted in the deportations of people who had committed no crime or only minor infractions. At the same time, hundreds of local and state governments, including in California, enacted policies to limit law enforcement from cooperating with the program.
On Thursday those challenges appeared to pay off when Obama announced he is ending Secure Communities as part of his larger immigration strategy.
Saying federal agents should focus on deporting “felons, not families,” Obama announced a new initiative, the Priority Enforcement Program, which officials say will target only those who have been convicted of certain serious crimes or who pose a danger to national security.
Under the new program, federal agents will continue to examine local fingerprint records and, in some cases, continue asking jail officials to hold certain inmates beyond the length of their sentences. Unlike before, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will now have to specify that the inmate has a removal order against them or is likely deportable.
Those who favor stricter immigration laws said the changes have dangerous implications and accused Obama of caving to pressure from activists.
“This is not a good sign for public safety or national security,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who added that Secure Communities is one of the ways that deportable immigrants are identified.
In the fiscal year 2013, 82 percent of all individuals deported from the interior of the U.S. had been convicted of a crime, according to federal statistics. Many of them probably were identified through the program.
“When that stops, what immigration enforcement is there?” Krikorian said.
Immigration advocates said they are glad the program is ending but that it’s too soon to tell what the new policy will mean.
“I think there’s finally recognition that the Secure Communities experiment was a failure, and that the program became a Frankenstein,” said Chris Newman, an attorney for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network who said he wanted to see how the policy is implemented before making an assessment.
His group and others have challenged the program in court. In a case filed in Los Angeles, lawyers argued in favor of a woman who ended up in deportation proceedings after she called the police during a violent dispute with her husband. In another, a federal court found an Oregon county liable for damages after it held an inmate beyond her release date so she could be transferred in ICE custody.
After the Oregon decision earlier this year, hundreds of municipalities around the country, including the counties of Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino, elected to stopped complying with so-called ICE detainers. That followed the passage of a California law, the Trust Act, which barred counties from cooperating with ICE in most cases, except when the inmates in question had been convicted of serious crimes, including rape or murder.
In a memo explaining the new changes sent Thursday by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to the directors of ICE and two other federal agencies, Johnson said the program had been weakened by critics.
“The reality is the program has attracted a great deal of criticism, is widely misunderstood, and is embroiled in litigation,” Johnson wrote. “Its very name has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws.”
Photo: Friends, from left, Miriam Lopez, Faby Jacome, Dulce Saavedra and Hairo Cortes console each other as they are brought to tears while watching President Obama’s speech on executive action on immigration during a rally outside the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)