article

07.13.12

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Is Latest to Reject ‘Secure Communities’ Immigration Law

A federal law that claimed it was targeting “serious criminals” instead scoops up vast numbers of immigrants who’ve committed no crime. States should not have to be bound by the law, writes Robert Morgenthau.

Henry Ford used to say that his customers could order a Model T in any color, so long as it was black. Using similar logic, the federal immigrant-deportation program known as “Secure Communities,” which passed in 2008, gave states the unfettered choice of participating or not participating—unless a state chose not to participate. Then the program became mandatory. Today, we are seeing the terrible repercussions of this lopsided logic.

Secure Communities calls on local officials to provide information on arrestees who might be subject to federal immigration holds, called “detainers.” But on Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported an ordinance prohibiting local law enforcement from turning over to federal authorities immigrants who had no serious criminal records or outstanding warrants. In doing so he joined a growing list of state and local officials—including the governors of New York and Massachusetts—who are seeking to “opt out” of the program.

Why opt out? After all, on its face, Secure Communities, whose stated aim was to focus removal efforts on serious criminals, seemed like a program anyone could support.

Unfortunately, that mission statement had little to do with reality.

The reality was that the federal government collected information on enormous numbers of foreign-born U.S. residents, many of whom were here legally, and many of whom had not been, and never would be, convicted of a crime.

That’s not the program that the federal government promised. In fact, it’s not the program that Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton seemed to be describing as recently as Tuesday when he testified before a House subcommittee.

In his testimony, Morton offered the usual rhetoric about “targeting” convicted criminals, “those who pose a threat to public safety,” and “egregious” law violators.

Immigrants with no criminal record, who fall into no priority category for removal, should not become “targeted” for deportation simply because they made a right turn without signaling.

But dig down into the details and you find a program in which Homeland Security gets the fingerprints of virtually anyone arrested for anything, however trivial, which the department then screens for possible deportation.

Think I’m exaggerating? In his testimony on Tuesday, Morton discussed a major problem with Secure Communities—namely, that a program advertised as focusing on serious criminals was in fact deporting people who’d done nothing more serious than commit, say, a motor-vehicle offense. Or perhaps I should say “allegedly commit,” because their fingerprints were forwarded to Homeland Security before their motor-vehicle case could even be heard by a judge.

What was Morton’s solution to this problem? He announced a new policy in which, rather than making deportation mandatory for traffic offenses, “ICE will only consider issuing detainers for individuals arrested solely for minor traffic offenses who have not been previously convicted of other crimes and do not fall within any other ICE priority category.”

This policy turns reason on its head. It substitutes an exercise of discretion for what should be an exercise of sanity. Quite simply, immigrants with no criminal record, who fall into no priority category for removal, should not become “targeted” for deportation simply because they made a right turn without signaling.

Unfortunately, even the new and improved Secure Communities does not exempt minor traffic offenders from “targeting” by Homeland Security. That’s why whenever ICE tries to justify the program by citing statistics, the numbers are always inflated by aggregation. For instance, in his testimony on Tuesday, Morton boasted that 94 percent of those deported as a result of Secure Communities were convicted criminals, recent border crossers, or visa overstayers.

Visa overstayers? As in students who forget to get their visas renewed? 

When you strip down the aggregated statistics and look at the reality of who gets deported, you learn—as a think tank at Syracuse University recently reported—that only about 14 percent of those deported by ICE actually are charged with criminal conduct. You have to add a lot of minor traffic violators and visa overstayers to inflate that figure to 94 percent.  

No wonder that the mayor of Chicago and the governor of New York want out of the program. By casting its net so broadly in search of ever-bigger numbers, Secure Communities is the worst kind of public policy. A relatively small number of dangerous people get deported, while many other law-abiding immigrants live in fear of making that right-hand turn that will brand them, and their families, as high-priority “targets” of immigration authorities.

When I was district attorney, I saw another effect of such reckless immigration policies: too often, immigrants are reluctant to report crimes, or even come to court as witnesses, for fear that any contact with the criminal-justice system would bring them to the notice of immigration officials. The result is that criminals who prey on immigrants—truly evil offenders like human traffickers—know that fear of law enforcement is their great ally.

This is a terrible problem with a simple solution: the federal government should allow states and localities to opt out of Secure Communities. In his remarks on Tuesday, Rahm Emanuel delivered a message to law-abiding immigrants: “We want to welcome you to the city of Chicago.”

That message was a poignant one for me. My paternal grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., and his three younger brothers arrived in New York from Mannheim, Germany, on June 4, 1866, when he was 10 years old. A little more than five years later, he was admitted to the City College of New York. He worked in a law firm to help support his parents and 11 siblings. He attended and graduated from Columbia Law School while teaching immigrants at night in high school. At that time, the doors were wide open for immigrants to obtain an education—the kind of message a lot of our families received in coming to America. It should not today be silenced by the mandatory application of a vastly overzealous law.