WASHINGTON – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton on Tuesday defended the agency’s controversial Secure Communities program, which opponents say is a form of racial profiling, and he called for more assistance from local jurisdictions in securing the border.
“It’s a very direct way to protect public safety in a lawful manner,” Morton told members of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security. “Remember, the only way you get identified by Secure Communities is to have been arrested in the first place for a crime.”
Congress created the Secure Communities program in 2008 as a pilot project to allow ICE agents to identify criminal aliens at the time of arrest. Texas launched the program the same year.
It allows ICE agents to use information such as fingerprints from a shared national criminal database to identify the status of suspects in local jails.
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., the subcommittee’s chairwoman, said that while many immigrants come to the U.S. in search of better lives, the country also faces serious risks from those who enter “with less pure motivation and often prey on the innocent.”
“The truth is, despite the efforts and billions of dollars we spent on personnel, infrastructure and technology, drug and human smugglers and others are inevitably trying to find a way through,” Miller said.
Morton said Secure Communities works because the program puts special emphasis on illegal immigrants who have been arrested for breaking criminal laws.
But critics argue that the initiative has snared many illegal immigrants who have committed minor crimes.
In fiscal year 2009, only 88 jurisdictions nationwide had adopted the program. By fiscal year 2011, 97 percent of the country, or 1,595 jurisdictions, were participating in Secure Communities. Under the program,141,000 convicted criminals who entered the country illegally were deported.
Border security advocates point to cases like the one last week in South Texas, in which a father and son shot and injured an ICE agent, as emblematic of the need for local support. The agent, Kelton Harrison, was conducting surveillance related to a narcotics deal near Hargill.
Miller and Morton said they worried that because ICE prioritizes apprehension of the most dangerous criminals, the “low-level criminal” may escape because of limited agency resources.
“Sending a message that we are not going to bother with you unless you commit a serious crime is dangerous,” Miller said.
Immigration officials said they need local law enforcement to cooperate.
But in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month rejecting key parts of a controversial Arizona immigration law, the Secure Communities program is also challenged.
In Illinois, Cook County, home to Chicago, adopted an ordinance that requires the county sheriff’s office to ignore ICE detaining orders and allow illegal immigrants to be bailed of jail.
Miller said Cook County’s approach to public safety is inconsistent with federal laws and would lead to more crime.
“It will become a magnet of all crimes,” Miller said.
The Medill News Service is a content partner of The Texas Tribune and is providing reports from Washington, D.C.