Confusion In Mass. Gov't Over Secure Communities Immigration Program

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There's a lot of confusion surrounding a new federal immigration initiative, and it's come to light in Massachusetts this week. Gov. Deval Patrick had previously indicated the state would join the program, called Secure Communities. Then on Tuesday, Patrick announced he would not sign on because he was told recently that it's not mandatory. But the federal authorities say it is.

WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness joined Morning Edition Wednesday to try and clear things up.

Bob Oakes: Can you explain what this program would do?

Bianca Vazquez Toness: For a long time in the U.S. there has been a separation between local police and immigration. This new federal program, called Secure Communities, would bring the two much closer.

For example, right now, local and state police share fingerprints with FBI, and they just stay with the FBI. This program would enable the FBI to pass that information onto Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, too.

Proponents like it because they say it streamlines law enforcement and it can catch serious criminals. Immigrant advocates don't like it because it also ends up deporting non-criminals, and they worry it ruins trust between immigrants and local police.

Is this program mandatory?

I couldn't get a straight answer from the Department of Homeland Security or ICE. they supplied a written statement that didn't answer that question. instead, the statement focused on how the logistics would work.

So there are two questions really: is it mandatory to sign up formally, and will it thing happen anyway?

Patrick says it's not mandatory to formally sign up for it, so he says why do it. Here's how he explained his decision not to sign on:

It's very apparent to me that there are lots of bugs to be worked out, and that it doesn't add anything, doesn't contribute anything, to us to join that program now. And in fact we lose, in terms of the level of anxiety in communities, the unwillingness of people to cooperate with law enforcement in regular old crime-solving.

But the feds, and even Patrick's staff, are saying this thing is going to happen to the state and the rest of the country by 2013, regardless of whether Patrick says OK.

If it's going to happen anyway, then why are federal authorities asking states to sign on?

That's a very good question, and it's not clear at all. And that seems to be what tripped up Patrick. The fact is, the federal government could just flip a switch right now and they could make this happen, they could make this sharing between the FBI and immigration authorities happen. They already have the electronic sharing capability, according to Curtis Wood, the undersecretary for Public Safety and the state's expert on this topic:

The only real way to opt out of this program is to not fingerprint people, and this state will not stop fingerprinting people. We fingerprint people as part of our normal day-to-day operations, to identify individuals and to determine their criminal history and their dangerousness, you know, if they're wanted.

Why is Patrick making this decision not to sign up so public?

For Patrick, I think this is a way to register his dissatisfaction with the program, particularly with the fact that this program has reached beyond it's stated target. It's billed as an effort to deport "serious criminals," but there have been many people who have never been convicted of a crime, who have gotten deported because of it.

Patrick is the third governor to reject the program. The other two were actually in the program already and have asked to get out. These are big immigrant heavy states, New York and Illinois, and the people I talked to — including a former Homeland Security official — hope that by these governors rejecting the program, this will force the administration to change the program.

Here's Patrick:

I think it's going to change, to tell you the truth, because even the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security at the federal level is questioning the efficacy of the program in terms of its own objectives.

As Patrick says, there's a big internal investigation of Secure Communities actually happening within ICE and Homeland Security. There are also other people looking into legal challenges to the policy.


This program aired on June 8, 2011.


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