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Opting Out of Immigration Enforcement

Part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s much-touted strategy switch has been to focus on deporting illegal immigrants deemed dangerous rather than undocumented people quietly living in the U.S. But immigrants rights groups argue that some of the agency’s enforcement programs, most notably Secure Communities, too often sweep up non-criminal illegal immigrants — and that ICE has been too vague about the process for local jurisdictions to opt out of the program.

Secure Communities, a fingerprint-sharing program between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, is technically optional for local law enforcement. But according to advocacy groups and law enforcement authorities, ICE has not produced sufficient instructions for how local jurisdictions can opt out of the program. Difficulties with opting out wouldn’t be so worrisome if the program weren’t so massive, critics argue. As of Aug. 31, the program was implemented in 574 jurisdictions and 30 states, and ICE plans to eventually expand the program nationwide.

On a conference call today, advocacy groups criticized the opt-out process delineated in a Aug. 17 ICE document called “Setting the Record Straight.” The paragraph-long set of instructions for opting out should have been released sooner and more widely, critics of Secure Communities say.

“That is not enough,” says Sarahi Uribe of the Uncover The Truth Campaign and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “We demand a clear protocol for opting out to be included in every single Secure Communities arrangement.”

According to ICE’s report, jurisdictions can opt out of the program if they submit a formal request and are granted permission by state and federal officials:

If a jurisdiction does not wish to activate on its scheduled date in the Secure Communities deployment plan, it must formally notify its state identification bureau and ICE in writing (email, letter or facsimile). Upon receipt of that information, ICE will request a meeting with federal partners, the jurisdiction, and the state to discuss any issues and come to a resolution, which may include adjusting the jurisdiction’s activation date in or removing the jurisdiction from the deployment plan.

In areas such as San Francisco, where “sanctuary policies” for illegal immigrants are on the books, local law enforcement officials say previous requests to opt out were denied. San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey says he made another attempt yesterday to opt out of the program in light of the instructions released by ICE. (His letter to ICE is available here.) Hennessey says he did not hear back from ICE, but got a response through ICE’s statement to the San Francisco Examiner:

However, a spokeswoman for ICE, Virginia Kice, said because Brown has already told the federal government the state will participate, San Francisco must also participate.

“The state attorney general has made it clear that this is a statewide public safety issue,” Kice said.

But Richard Rocha, a spokesman from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, tells me in an email that ICE plans to review Hennessey’s request to opt out of the program and will discuss his concerns in a meeting with other agencies, including the California Department of Justice. “Based upon those discussions, ICE and its partners will examine the options and seek a feasible resolution, which may include changing the jurisdiction’s activation status,” he writes.

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