Republican lawmakers in Texas, unfazed by state governments across the country opting out of a controversial immigration enforcement program, are instead seeking to expand it here.
Through the Secure Communities program, administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, local law enforcement compares the fingerprints of those arrested to a federal database to determine if the individual is eligible for deportation under current federal immigration laws. In a proclamation issued Tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry added expanding the program to the “call” for the special session that legislators began last week.
The federal program, launched in 2008, was initially touted as a means to target violent criminal immigrants living within the country’s borders. But four states — California, Massachusetts, Illinois and New York — have either opted out or are considering making the policy voluntary for their counties after growing concerns that the program leads to racial profiling and erodes trust for authorities in the targeted communities.
Secure Communities already is in place in every Texas county, but a bill by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would expand the initiative to include every detention facility in the state. Williams’ SB 9 would require that local and municipal jails also participate in the program, an effort Williams said is designed to close a “loophole” where those facilities bond out deportable immigrants without first running their fingerprints through the system.
The legislation was part of an omnibus homeland security package Williams filed during the regular session. It drew bipartisan support and sailed through the Senate on a 26-to-5 vote. But it died in the House after the leadership failed to place the bill on the calendar.
Williams’ SB 9 for the special session, however, also includes the controversial “sanctuary cities” measure, which seeks to prohibit entities from preventing local law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status. No Texas community currently fits the definition of a “sanctuary city,” although the degree to which local police pursue enforcement of federal immigration laws is unclear.
Democrats fiercely oppose the legislation, and the 18 Senate co-authors for Williams’ current bill are all Republican.
The argument some states are using to opt out of Secure Communities is the same one made by Texas opponents of the sanctuary cities bill. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Mylan L. Denerstein, counsel to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said the crux of New York’s concern was “the program, conceived of as a method of targeting those who pose the greatest threat to our communities, is in fact having the opposite effect and compromising public safety by deterring witnesses to crimes and others from working with law enforcement.”
In California, the legislature is scheduled to debate a measure that would allow counties to opt out of the program, according to a report Tuesday in California Watch.
The Huffington Post reported in May that California state Rep. Zoe Lofgren was pushing for an investigation in to whether the Department of Homeland Security intentionally misled the public and lawmakers there when it touted the program as a means to target dangerous criminals.
Opponents of state enforcement of federal immigration laws in Texas, including several police chiefs and sheriffs, argue that Texas could face similar issues — and they use ICE’s own data to make their point. They argue Secure Communities was intended to identify and remove the worst criminal immigrants, not to ferret out minor offenders.
“ICE, in pitching the program to cities and counties, lied,” said Rebecca Bernhardt, the policy director for the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization. “Many more individuals who have never been convicted of anything criminal or who have only minor misdemeanor convictions … are being deported,” she said.
Since the program was launched in Texas in 2008, there have been about 1,238,600-fingerprint submissions. They have resulted in about 6,725 removals of immigrants who have been convicted of Level 1 offenses (aggravated felonies or two or more felonies), 4,464 deportations of immigrants with Level 2 offenses (any felony or three or more misdemeanors), and 10,252 deportations of those with Level 3 offenses (offenses punishable by less than a year in detention). There have also been 5,726 removals of noncriminal immigration violators, which range from entering the country illegally to overstaying a visa. ICE officials, however, clarify that “noncriminal removals” also includes “pre-conviction arrestees.”
ICE officials argue the program works because it is targeting the right people: immigrants, both legal and illegal, who have somehow run afoul of American law.
“Because of the way Secure Communities works, all people identified through the program have had some prior contact with immigration officials, whether filing for a visa or naturalization or being turned away at the border,” said an ICE official who spoke on only on condition of background. “All people identified through Secure Communities have also, separately, been booked into criminal custody and charged with a state criminal offense. These individuals have all been arrested and booked on at least one criminal charge. Many of these individuals have also been arrested on prior occasions.”
Williams isn’t concerned about what New York or any other state is doing and said he plans to move forward with his legislation.
“It’s working here. I think we are going to stick with it,” he told the Tribune after filing his bill. “We [already] have all 254 counties that are doing it.”
He says Secure Communities does not promote racial profiling and instead treats every person arrested the same way: regardless of race, sex or age the detainee’s prints are run through a database. Bernhardt doesn’t dispute that assessment. She adds, however, that the method by which the detainees are brought to the jails is where the racial profiling occurs. Officers who want to be de facto immigration officers, she said, can abuse their power to detain a certain population.
“They can use their discretion to arrest people for otherwise ticketable offenses,” she said.
ICE officials told the Tribune the agency would conduct a thorough review of Secure Communities data to identify irregularities that “could indicate misconduct.”
Despite the controversy, the agency still touts its success in achieving what it set out to do, claiming that across the country more than 77,000 convicted criminal immigrants were removed after being identified through Secure Communities, including more than 28,000 accused of major crimes like rape, murder and the sexual abuse of children.
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.