Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement train with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Miami. (Photo courtesy of ICE.)

By Thomas Francis
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Officials with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deliberately misled the public and local law enforcement agencies about the immigration-enforcement program Secure Communities.

Internal e-mails obtained by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network show how ICE spokespersons rehearsed phrases that would frame Secure Communities as targeting the most violent illegal immigrants, even as evidence mounted that the majority of those deported through Secure Communities were arrested for a non-violent crime or detained despite having no criminal record.

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Launched in 2008, Secure Communities is an information-sharing program through which local law enforcement agencies provide federal immigration officials with access to biometric information such as fingerprints of arrestees. If cross-referencing reveals a suspect is in the United States illegally, immigration officials can issue a detainer and deport the undocumented immigrant.

The Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center allege Secure Communities encourages racial profiling and discourages immigrants from reporting crimes or otherwise cooperating voluntarily with law enforcement.

Among documents released is an undated internal memo titled “Guidance for Handling Sensitive Jurisdictions.” The memo coaches ICE staff to say Secure Communities “focuses ICE enforcement on the worst of the worst,” emphasizing that the program “does not focus on undocumented aliens who are victims of, or innocent witnesses, to crime.”

Both seem to act as weasel phrases, exploiting the ambiguity of the word “focus.” That word speaks to the agency’s intent, but it obscures the real-world effect of Secure Communities: namely, that it deports more of the “low-priority” non-criminal immigrants than it does violent criminals who rank as “high-priority” targets.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting published an investigation on Jan. 31 that showed how these trends are even more pronounced in Florida, where only 20 percent of those deported through the program had been convicted of a violent crime. Immigrants with no criminal history accounted for 42 percent of Florida deportations through Secure Communities.

But the most flagrantly misleading aspect of Secure Communities deals with the claim, first made during the program’s 2009 debut, that local jurisdiction could simply “opt out” if they weren’t comfortable sharing information with ICE.

An August 2009 e-mail shows how an ICE spokesperson, Randi Greenberg, acknowledged the opt-out provision might not be around to stay. “The SC initiative will remain voluntary at both the state and local level,” wrote Greenberg, referring to a conversation with Secure Communities Acting Director Marc Rapp. “Until such time as localities begin to push back on participation, we will continue with this current line of thinking.”

Eventually, a handful of local governments, including California’s Santa Clara County, did push back, and the e-mail records disclosed by ICE show how the agency inched away from its prior claims about the ability to opt out.

A January 2010 correspondence documents how two ICE officials recommend that Rapp do away with Secure Communities’ voluntary feature. “Because of course if we adopt the ‘it’s not an option’ point of view, that certainly simplifies life, no?” wrote an ICE official whose name is redacted.

In June 2010, Greenberg updated ICE’s frequently-asked-questions section, which included a revision of the phrasing related to the opt-out. Judging by the reaction of at least one ICE official, this was a common event.

“I’m totally confused now,” wrote an ICE staffer whose name is redacted. “I’ve got so many versions of the opt-out language I don’t know what’s current and what’s not. It seems like we have different language for different purposes and it’s confusing.”

Records show that in 2010 ICE watered down the opt-out policy until it was only possible for a local law enforcement agency to opt out of receiving messages about the immigration status of those arrested. It was no longer possible to refuse sharing information with ICE, though ICE still called this an “opt-out.”

It wasn’t until October 2010 that federal officials acknowledged that local jurisdictions could not opt out of Secure Communities. ICE, backed by anti-immigration groups, continued to defend the program on the basis that an illegal immigrant is, by definition, a criminal and that the federal government has an obligation to deport immigrants it learns are residing in the United States illegally.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement formalized its partnership with Secure Communities in June 2010, a period during which it was hard to discern whether local agencies could opt out or not.

In its role as the custodian of identification records for all the state’s law enforcement agencies, FDLE had ample reason to obtain a clear definition of whether those agencies could opt before partnering with Secure Communities.

Heather Smith, a spokesperson for FDLE, told FCIR that none of Florida’s local law enforcement agencies has requested to opt out of Secure Communities.

“Florida’s local law enforcement has actively shared arrest fingerprint information with the federal government for years,” Smith said. “There are no local law enforcement agencies in Florida who have expressed to FDLE that they would like to opt out of this program.”