The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 23, 2011

Immigration Enforcement: Is "Secure Communities" Effective and Enforceable?

May 23, 2011

President Obama’s latest public statement on immigration raises the possibility of immigration policy reform.  In the coming months, the White House will work with local organizations to promote roundtable discussions across the country aimed at fixing problems and promoting informed conversations.  Expect an earful on enforcement in these debates!

Local communities are especially concerned about the Secure Communities (SComm) program. This federal initiative screens inmates’ biometrics and checks them against federal databases to identify criminal immigrants. SComm contributed to record-breaking removals. And opposition is swelling, too.

Recently, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus complained that this untargeted enforcement program nets too many immigrants who commit minor offenses—or no crime at all. Data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) prove revealing. From October 2010 through March 2011, only 15 percent of immigrants identified through SComm were charged with homicide, robbery, or other serious offenses, while nearly one third of SComm removals stemmed from such non-criminal incidents as driving without a license. Results like these don’t reflect the program’s stated priority of identifying and removing serious criminals.

In today’s tight fiscal climate, does it make sense for local governments to devote scarce resources to process large pools of non-criminals, thus overburdening corrections and court systems?  Los Angeles and San Diego Counties rank among the top five jurisdictions for SComm fingerprint matches. Yet, both are in the throes of a fiscal crunch. The Los Angeles Police Department’s budget recently shrank by $120 million dollars, and the San Diego Police Department faces layoffs this summer. In a budget squeeze, doesn’t targeted enforcement, which would cost less and still uphold public safety, seem more prudent?

If so, what are the alternatives to today’s blanket approach?  Even while SComm rolls out nationally and jurisdictions figure out whether and how they can opt out of the program, police and other law enforcement officers should extend the humanitarian release guidelines developed for workplace raids to all arrests. Also, officers and prosecutors should be allowed discretion so they can concentrate on pressing public safety problems instead of assembly-style processing.  The changes would mean added stability, as described in research on children of incarcerated parents as well as a recent study of immigrant detainees. Only broader reform could address larger, system-wide issues but these basic measures would protect immigrants from undue hardship, relieve fiscal pressure on law enforcement agencies, and give targeted enforcement a foothold.  

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