The McLean County sheriff's department is cooperating with federal immigration officials by holding non-citizens who are arrested in the local jail for up to two days. The Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency can then decide if that person could be deported. In the second of two reports, IPR's Sean Powers says it's an agreement that isn't unusual across the country:
Just about the entire country follows a similar policy called Secure Communities. It began as a pilot program in 2008, at the end of the George W. Bush Administration, and it has expanded during the Obama Administration. Under the program, once a person is arrested and brought to a local jail, their fingerprints are scanned and transmitted to the F-B-I, and forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, can then request a law enforcement agency to hold that person for up to 48 hours in a jail cell while ICE determines if they're eligible to be deported.
ICE Director John Morton says current and past criminal history, and other repeated immigration violations all factor into that decision. Here he is testifying recently before Congress.
Morton: "Well, who are these people that we are identifying, removing prior to conviction? In the overwhelming majority of cases, people that have already been removed from the country and come back again unlawfully, or they're people who have already been through the immigration system, have a final order, and ignored that final order."
ICE says Secure Communities has helped remove more than 151 thousand people, including more than 55 thousand convicted of major violent offenses such as murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children. Last December, a group called the CU-Immigration Forum held a public meeting in Champaign to discuss the county's implementation of Secure Communities, and problems it had with the program. More than 125 people showed up.
Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, a member of the CU-Immigration Forum, addressed the crowd.
Aaron: "In its one year implementation in Champaign County, it has been plagued by problems."
Based on an analysis of 45 non-citizen arrests held on ICE holds in Champaign County within a year, 95 percent identified as Hispanic, charges were dropped in about 25 percent of the cases, and looking at all of the cases, more than 1/5 were arrested for traffic violations. That includes people driving on a suspended license, and driving an uninsured vehicle. Johnson-Ortiz listed several concerns he and others shared about Secure Communities.
Johnson-Ortiz: "Champaign can stop a hold. This can happen tomorrow morning if Sheriff Walsh wants to. All that's required is political will. This is destroying our families. It's wasting dollars. It was implemented deceptively. We can stop this right now."
Three months after the forum, that's exactly what Champaign County did. Sheriff Dan Walsh told federal officials the county would no longer honor detainer requests by immigration officials to hold inmates under the 'Secure Communities' program. He said inmates would only be turned over by warrant or court order. Walsh declined to be interviewed for this story. Even though Champaign County is no longer cooperating with the detainer requests, it is one of 26 Illinois counties currently enrolled in the program. From 2009 through the start of this year, the Department of Homeland Security says about 3,000 people were arrested in these counties, and taken into ICE custody. 27 percent committed felonies or misdemeanors, and 26 percent crimes punishable by less than one year in prison. The remaining half broke immigration law by violating the terms of their visa, entering the United States without inspection, or refusing to leave the US after being ordered to do so. These people may have criminal convictions, but none confirmed by ICE.
Berrios: "I do not believe it makes communities any safer."
That's Democratic State Representative Toni Berrios of Chicago. She sponsored legislation to halt to Secure Communities in Illinois, pending further study. Berrios say too many people are being detained, and that's creating distrust between immigrant communities and the police.
Berrios: "How many murders did we have here in Chicago just this weekend? Those are the criminals that we need to be going after, not individuals who are here trying to make a better life for their family."
Originally, states could choose to join Secure Communities, but by the end of next year, ICE says it expects to roll out the program nationwide. Illinois and Alabama are the only states that haven't activated it statewide. After initially opting into it, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn last year said his state would no longer participate out of concerns over how the program was being operated.
With ICE's plans to activate Secure Communities nationwide by the end of next year, there are questions about the rights of states that choose not to enforce the policy. In addition to Illinois, the governors of New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut have stated their opposition to Secure Communities. Muzaffar Chishti ,of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute, says he doesn't believe challenging the legality of the program would hold up in court. But he says voices of opposition can still have some reach.
Chishti: "You know, these are all powerful governors. These are important Democratic states with important views that will be heard by the federal government is that they will use their power to make sure that the federal government establishes proprieties that only high yielding criminals should be the target of this program."
ICE director John Morton says his agency has made strides to improve Secure Communities by encouraging more discretion about traffic arrests, and setting up a 24-hour hotline for people who believe they were wrongfully detained or held too long. When asked if ICE plans to sue states that don't comply with Secure Communities by the end of next year, a spokeswoman says the agency has not sought to require compliance into the program through legal proceedings.
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