Immigration Detention and the Secure Communities Program
by Bill Ong Hing
Professor of Law, University of San Francisco
Those of us familiar with the history of Angel Island as a detention center know that the impetus began with the Chinese exclusion laws. Chinese seeking to enter the country were subject to close scrutiny. An individual was not excludable if he or she had a valid claim to U.S. citizenship or if a migrant was entering as a student or merchant. From 1910 to 1940, some 175,000 Chinese were confined - often for months and years at a time - in Angel Island's bleak wooden barracks, where immigration inspectors conducted interrogations. Those Chinese who could not establish eligibility to enter were sent back to China, having come within what today is a short ferry ride to San Francisco. For some, the frustration and humiliation were so painful that they committed suicide.
Unfortunately, the detention of immigrants is alive and well, serving as an integral part of today’s immigration enforcement regime. In fact, the Obama administration is setting deportation and detention records. In 2011, about 400,000 people were deported, the largest in U.S. history. Coincidentally, almost 400,000 individuals are in immigration custody today in a jumble of about 350 facilities at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion. Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials claim that their priority is arresting and deporting serious criminals, two-thirds of deportees have no criminal charges or are low-level offenders. In fact, many victims and witnesses to crimes have been taken into custody if they are suspected of being undocumented.
By deporting more than a million individuals already, the Obama administration is on track to deport more in one term than the George W. Bush administration did in two terms. The key to Obama's record pace? The Secure Communities Program — a high-tech way of tracking immigration violators via fingerprint data.
Secure Communities relies on partnerships and biometric technology to build deportation capacity. For every person booked into jail, local authorities run fingerprints against federal immigration and criminal databases. If an individual's fingerprints match those of a non U.S. citizen (including legal resident), an automated process notifies of ICE. Officials then evaluate the case, based on immigration status and criminal history. The net effect is to create a virtual ICE presence at every local jail.
When there is a match, ICE may choose to place a "detainer" on the individual. This is a request for the jail to hold that person for up to 48 hours beyond the scheduled release date, so that ICE can take custody and initiate deportation proceedings. Legal immigrants convicted of certain crimes are subject to deportation. Undocumented immigrants can be deported even if they have committed no crime. ICE officials have admitted, however, because of flaws in the database system, about 5,880 people identified through Secure Communities in 2009 turned out to be United States citizens.
Some jurisdictions have tried to "opt out" from the program believing that participation was not mandatory. In 2011 the governors of Massachusetts, Illinois and New York announced their desire to pull out of the Secure Communities program, as did municipal officials in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston. These officials believe that the program, contrary to its stated goals, is negatively impacting public safety, and numerous immigrants have been deported after committing only minor traffic violations.
In spite of this strong dissent, ICE has become even more invested in Secure Communities. ICE Chief Morton responded by asserting the agency's intention to extend the program nationwide by 2013, regardless of local assent. Under a theory that it can access all fingerprints submitted to the FBI, ICE intends to continue checking for all deportable immigrants without any agreement from state or local authorities. In the process, families continue to be disrupted as a family member is abruptly arrested and detained for minor, non-violent offenses, or for being a witness or victim of a crime.
Bill Ong Hing is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, and Professor of Law Emeritus, at the University of California, Davis. Professor Hing is the founder and continues to volunteer as General Counsel for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. He is an Angel Island descendant.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.