(Photo courtesy of ICE.)

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

It took a public records lawsuit for the Warren Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law to get data about the immigration enforcement program Secure Communities from the Department of Homeland Security.

On Wednesday, three months after a federal judge sided with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and ruled that the DHS must share the information, the Warren Institute released what it found in the numbers. And it’s easy to understand why the federal government was reluctant to open up its books.

FCIR’s Coverage of Secure Communities

Security Breach

Brecha de seguridad

ICE: Secure Communities Not Optional

El ICE: Secure Communities no es opcional

FCIR Associate Director Discusses Secure Communities on Hola TV

Internal Documents Prove ICE Misled Public About Secure Communities

Ralph De La Cruz Talks About Rita Cote on Hola TV

Judge Require Greater Openness About Secure Communities

In “Secure Communities by the Numbers: An Analysis of Demographics and Due Process,” authors Aarti Kohli, Peter Markowitz and Lisa Chavez found that the program has expanded so fast that due process is being overlooked, legal access is non-existent for many, Latinos are being disproportionately detained and, perhaps most damning, thousands of U.S. citizens have been picked up.

The Warren Institute found that 1.6 percent of the cases they examined — the court ordered DHS to turn over a sampling of 1,650 cases — were filed against citizens. Extrapolated, that translated into 3,600 U.S. citizens being arrested through Secure Communities.

“We didn’t expect to find U.S. citizens in this sample,” Kohli said during the release of the report Wednesday.

They also found that almost 40 percent of those detained by the Immigration Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), which is part of DHS, have spouses or children who are citizens. That means Secure Communities detentions have affected 88,000 American families.

But perhaps most politically volatile, the research found that 93 percent of those detained under Secure Communities are Latinos, while overall 77 percent of illegal immigrants are Latinos. That difference, some argue, suggests people may be getting pulled over based on how they look or sound.

“It does support the assertion of racial profiling,” Kohli acknowledged. “And the majority (who were detained) were young, Latino males.”

The three authors advocate the suspension of the program until issues such as due process and racial profiling are properly investigated by the DHS

“Overall, the findings point to a system in which individuals are pushed through rapidly, without appropriate checks or opportunities to challenge their detention and/or deportation,” they write in the report. “This conclusion is particularly concerning given that the findings also reveal that people are being apprehended who should never have been placed in immigration custody, and that certain groups are overrepresented in our sample population.”

The Secure Communities program started in 14 counties in November 2008 under the administration of then-President George W. Bush. Its stated purpose was to find and deport violent criminals. Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Local officials send arrest information to ICE when they pick up someone. ICE should then investigate and decide whether that person is here illegally and whether additional action is required.

But that’s not what’s happening, according to the study’s authors.

“What we’re finding is that ICE is arresting and then investigating,” Kohli said.

And the people being arrested are usually not the violent criminals that the program was supposed to flush out. More than two-thirds — 67 percent — of those arrested were non-criminals or low-level offenders.

The Warren Institute’s findings mirror an investigation conducted by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and published in January.

That story, “Security Breach” by Thomas Francis, looked at ICE statistics in Florida and found that 42 percent of those detained under Secure Communities had no criminal convictions. Only 20 percent of Florida detainees had convictions for violent crimes. And the numbers were even worse in some urban areas, such as Orlando’s Orange County, where 63 percent of those deported under Secure Communities were not convicted of a crime.

Some Americans frustrated with immigration may read the figures in the FCIR story and the Warren Institute report and see them as positives: We should be deporting as many illegal immigrants as possible, however that happens, they may say.

But according to the authors, there’s one big problem with that: the process.

“Our Constitution requires that there be an investigation before an arrest is made,” Markowitz, one of the authors and a professor at the Cardozo School of Law, said Wednesday.

The Warren Institute report could become a political quagmire for President Barack Obama as he approaches his re-election year.  In 2008, almost 10 million Latinos voted, and Obama received 67 percent of their votes. With the unemployment rate stubbornly stuck around nine or 10 percent, he needs those votes.

But under Obama, the Secure Communities program — highly unpopular in Latino immigrant communities — has become pervasive, and a vehicle for the deportation of large numbers of undocumented Latinos.

Bush’s 14-county Secure Communities pilot program has grown into Obama’s 1,595-jurisdiction beast. About a million people have been deported since the start of the Obama administration.

And the Obama administration has used a heavy hand to get to those numbers. Secure Communities was originally intended to be a voluntary program. But after several cities, and states such as Illinois, New York and Massachusetts, tried to pull out of the program, DHS said in August that opting-out was not an option.

ICE predicts the program will be in place in almost all areas of the country by 2013.