(Photo courtesy of ICE.)

By Thomas Francis
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

In early 2009, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement expanded Secure Communities from its pilot program in Houston to cities nationwide, federal officials told local authorities they could opt out of the information-sharing program. But over the past two years, opting out has proven to be difficult, if not impossible, for local governments.

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In fact, in response to a question from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, ICE spokesperson Nicole Navas said local governments cannot opt out of Secure Communities.

The ICE program is controversial because of the perception among immigrant advocates that Secure Communities invites local police to engage in racial profiling and discourages immigrants from reporting crimes.

Although Secure Communities is marketed as a program targeting violent, convicted criminals living illegally in the United States, the program checks everyone arrested by local police. This, critics allege, may lead police to arrest a Hispanic person on the pretext of crime when the true intent is to learn the person’s residency status and begin the deportation process.

These concerns, as well as an unwillingness to stretch local law enforcement resources, led counties in California and Virginia to opt out of Secure Communities. According to ICE policy, however, a local jurisdiction needs approval from its state government to opt out. This presented an obstacle for Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, since California’s attorney general at the time, the recently elected Gov. Jerry Brown, was in favor of Secure Communities.

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat who was elected in November 2010, has not yet stated whether she will support the counties’ attempts to opt out of Secure Communities.

Arlington County, Va., officials opposed Secure Communities before the program was launched in Virginia in early 2010. Yet ICE enrolled Arlington County in the program, and the county’s local law enforcement agencies share information with ICE despite a unanimous vote by the county board in September 2010 to opt out.

During a November 2010 meeting, ICE officials reportedly told officials from Arlington County that if they opted out of Secure Communities, they would lose access to the FBI database that is crucial to identifying dangerous criminals and which is required by state law.

It’s not clear, however, whether ICE has the authority to force communities to join the program. Adding to the lack of clarity, ICE has not responded to records requests filed in February 2010 by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which is seeking to learn how communities can opt out of the program. When ICE still hadn’t provided the requested records in December 2010, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in New York said: “I think the government is dragging its feet.”

In Florida, the program went statewide in June 2010. So far, none of Florida’s local governments has requested to opt out.

As of mid-January, 37 states and 969 local police agencies have signed agreements with ICE to share information through Secure Communities. By 2013, ICE plans to mandate that all local law enforcement agencies enroll in Secure Communities. But there are likely to be legal challenges to that mandate.