Two weeks ago, Arizona passed the nation's strictest immigration law, SB 1070, which requires local police to demand proof of citizenship if they suspect a person is undocumented. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary John Morton condemned the measure, saying it would get in the way of federal programs designed to target, "identify, and remove criminal aliens."
One of these programs, Secure Communities, is already in place in seven Arizona counties and more than 150 other jurisdictions nationwide. It operates by enlisting states to run arrest data from local jails against a federal database of immigration records. ICE agents then use the system to deport people living in the country illegally and legal residents with criminal convictions.
The program has been expanding -- in just the past year, 20 states have signed on -- but on Tuesday it hit a roadblock in the nation's capital. D.C. City Council members voted unanimously to introduce a bill that would make the District the first jurisdiction in the country to ban Secure Communities.
"This is like something out of George Orwell. This is really 'insecure communities,'" argues District Council member Jim Graham, who represents an area that is home to many of the District's immigrants. Several Council members said the program could lead to more laws like the one passed in Arizona, which they described as "horrific."
Washington, D.C., has a long history of resisting collaboration with federal immigration officials. A 1984 memorandum from Mayor Marion Barry Jr. forbids city agencies, officers, and employees from asking about citizenship or residency. So when the District's police chief quietly signed on to the program last November without consulting the City Council, Graham was outraged. "This is the type of thing that there are so many questions about, so many suspicions about, that it's best that we just not do it," he said during a committee meeting in March.
One of the main objections to the program is that it targets undocumented immigrants charged with minor offenses -- such as disorderly conduct -- and longtime legal residents with criminal records who have become productive members of society. ICE claims the program focuses on dangerous felons, but its own data suggest otherwise. Fewer than 15 percent of the immigrants it identified last year were "level one" offenders. Most were arrested and deported for smaller crimes, like minor traffic violations.
By opening the door to police-ICE collaboration, the program has also affected how local communities interact with local law enforcement. Critics point out that in cities that have adopted the program, fewer immigrants report crimes or are willing to help with other investigations. The prospect of similar problems in D.C. is especially galling for Ron Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association. He spent 25 years on the District's police force and helped develop its community-policing strategy as a way to prevent crime. "One of the top foundations of community policing is developing trust," he says. "Now this program stands to reverse all of that."
Opponents of the program also point out that the program shares data of people charged with crimes even if they have not been convicted. In North Carolina, one of the first states to adopt the program, civil-liberties advocates say immigrants never get their day in court. "We have a drawer full of cases of people who were deported before their criminal case ever came up," says Marty Rosenbluth, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice based in Durham.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier insists she is listening to her critics and learning from problems that have surfaced in other states. She promised Council members she would not implement the program until she had a plan that addressed some of their concerns, such as the need to protect victims of domestic violence who fear arrest if they report abuse. Still, she stands by her push to eventually participate in the program. "If there's something I can do to reduce violent crime in the city, I certainly want to look into that," she told the Council.
The Council wants no part of it. The bill to "prohibit the District of Columbia to transmit arrest data" to ICE still has to work its way through the committee process and then back to the Council. Ultimately, it will be reviewed by Congress, and ICE has said there is no way to opt out of the program except to stop fingerprinting people, so it is unclear how successful a ban on it will be. But it had unanimous backing from the Council, and a diverse cross section of the city's immigrant, faith, and civil-liberties groups have embraced the measure.
Buoyed by backlash against the Arizona law, they say the bill signals the beginning of a national push against increased collaboration between police and immigration officials. "What we're doing in D.C. is setting a precedent," says Sarahi Uribe, a D.C.-based organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and coordinator of UncoverTheTruth.org, a national campaign against Secure Communities. The campaign's motto is "No More Arizonas."
Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh are supported in part by a Soros Justice Media Fellowship. Their previous collaboration is online at BusinessofDetention.com.