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ICE Changes Its Mind on Secure Communities Opt-Out

The first two communities decided Tuesday to opt out of Secure Communities, a supposedly voluntary fingerprint-sharing program with federal immigration enforcement. But not so fast: Opting out of the program is not — and never was — an option, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials told the Washington Post:

A senior ICE official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the involuntary nature of the program, said: “Secure Communities is not based on state or local cooperation in federal law enforcement. The program’s foundation is information sharing between FBI and ICE. State and local law enforcement agencies are going to continue to fingerprint people and those fingerprints are forwarded to FBI for criminal checks. ICE will take immigration action appropriately.”

It seemed likely the program would eventually be mandatory, considering the Obama administration has promised to expand it nationwide by 2013. But facing criticism from communities that did not want to participate in the program, ICE released a document in August claiming opting out was possible:

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.

The ICE official told the Washington Post local law enforcement could only opt out of learning why immigration officials wanted them to detain an individual — but detaining the individual is not optional. This means sharing fingerprints for those arrested is not optional either, which was the central criticism of the program. Although local law enforcement officers already share fingerprints with the state government to check for fugitives and criminal records, some communities argue sharing the information with federal law enforcement for immigration enforcement violates their policies.

Because illegal immigrants are members of the community, many localities have laws barring police from asking about immigration status except in extreme circumstances. They argue this is a matter of public safety because it makes illegal immigrant populations more likely to cooperate with police. The Secure Communities program usurps that policy, particularly because those arrested can be released without conviction, but still may face deportation from ICE. The Obama administration has said it will prioritize dangerous illegal immigrants so it can best use its limited resources, but about one-quarter of the 47,000 people who had been deported through the fingerprint-sharing program by August had no criminal records, according to ICE records.

If communities don’t want to be a part of it for that reason, apparently they have no choice.

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